Longtime burial-vault maker broadens scope
Spokane Wilbert Vault changes name, builds new Lewiston plant, eyes othersMarch 25th, 1999
Spokane Wilbert Vault always has been known as a burial-vault maker. Through the years, though, the company quietly has gained a regional reputation as a supplier of hundreds of different precast concrete products, ranging from water tanks to front-porch steps.
To promote its broader scope, the company recently changed its name to Wilbert Precast Inc., says company President Dan Houk.
Houk says the word precast reflects better the wide range of products the company makes now. The company dropped Spokane from its name because it serves customers in an about 200-mile radius from Spokane and for the past 15 years has operated plants in Yakima, Wash., and Clarkston, Wash., in addition to Spokane.
Meanwhile, the company has moved its Yakima plant to a larger, 10,000-square-foot building in Yakima and plans to break ground next month on a new, 10,000-square-foot plant in Lewiston, Idaho, to replace its small, aging facility in nearby Clarkston. Houk says the new facilities will allow both operations to produce more products.
I can see us adding other plants, as well, Houk says. He declines to elaborate on where Wilbert Precast will look to expand, or say how many plants the company might open, but explains they likely would be open within the next five years.
The company employs about 50 people, with roughly 35 of those working in Spokane, Houk says.
Once the Lewiston plant is completed in July, it will begin producing septic tanks, storm-water catch basins, and manholes, in addition to the burial vaults the company manufactures at Clarkston now. A burial vault is a concrete container thats placed in the ground at a cemetery and is used to hold a casket.
The Spokane plant began making manholes, which are round, concrete containers that are buried below streets, two years ago, and that product line has become among the companys fastest-growing, Houk says. He says that overall sales for the company have grown by about 30 percent in the last two years to $5 million.
The Lewiston plant will make manhole containers that are about four feet in diameter. The Spokane plant, which is located on about 8.5 acres at 1323 N. Cedar, also will produce that size, as well as larger manhole containers and other accessories. The company has a concrete mold here that can make manholes of up to eight feet in diameter.
To handle own construction
Wilbert Precast will handle the construction on its Lewiston plant, which will be built out of rigid steel supports and covered with concrete waffle-panel wall pieces made by the companys plant here, Houk says. He expects the Lewiston plant to hire one additional employee by the end of the year, which would give the plant four workers.
The Yakima plant, meanwhile, will begin making another relatively new product for the companyconcrete stairs and decks for manufactured homes. Houk says the Spokane plant has been making the stairs for a couple of years, but hired a salesman earlier this year to begin marketing that product and concrete deck panels to manufactured-home dealers. Houk says the stairs have been especially well received so far, and hes convinced the company has stumbled upon another hot item.
We take on opportunities as they arise and then we grow, Houk says. We havent been real good about advertising all the new products, but we really havent had to. The phones just keep ringing.
The Spokane burial-vault maker, which was founded here in 1906, originally was called Spokane Concrete Vault. It was founded by two brothers who had made their way to Washington state from Indiana. The founders were Houks great-grandfather, John Schopf, and great-great uncle, Henry Schopf.
The Schopfs sold the company to John Schopfs son-in-law, William S. Houk, in the early 40s. He operated the company until 1960 when he sold it to his son, William J. HoukDan Houks father.
In 1961, William J. Houk changed the companys name to Spokane Wilbert Vault, to focus on the Wilbert brand of burial vaults the company sold, Dan Houk says. The company sold nothing but burial vaults until 1977, when it also began dabbling in the production of concrete septic tanks.
The company began expanding its product lines then because it had saturated the burial vault market, Houk says. The company already was providing burial vaults to a majority of the funeral homes and cemeteries in Eastern Washington, North Idaho, and Western Montana, he contends.
We had nowhere to grow. We had gotten as much of the market share as we thought we could, Houk says. We had to add something else.
Houk took over the companys reins from his father in 1994, although he had been acting as general manager since 1984.
Today, the company continues to look for other products it can produceand even custom builds items for various customers. Wilbert Precasts storage yard, which takes up a couple of city blocks, is filled with the various concrete products the company produces.
The company operates out of a small office thats connected to a large manufacturing facility where workers mix as much as 50 cubic yards of concrete a day. That concrete is trucked a short distance to another area of the facility where its poured into various forms and molds, some of which are made by Wilbert Precast. Some of the products the company makes weigh as much as 20,000 pounds and take two ceiling cranes to lift from their molds, Houk says.
In a portion of a separate warehouse, racks rise from the floor to the ceiling and are stacked with burial vaults. Also in that building, the company operates its own mechanical shop where it maintains its fleet of about 20 trucks, and a metals shop where workers bend and twist rod iron into railings for the companys stair and deck products, as well as make concrete molds.
Only about 25 percent of Wilbert Precasts business is tied to burial vaults these days, while the remaining about 75 percent is connected with the other products the company makes.
In addition to the concrete products it makes here, the company also designs and builds mausoleums for cemeteries throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada.