MILLVILLE — John Ruga and his partner, Robert Shanaman, opened their precast concrete business on Reese Road in 2003, during a period of booming housing growth in southern New Jersey.
Northeast Precast once specialized in making walls for new residential homes. In a matter of years, the company grew to more than 100 employees.
But when the new-home market collapsed in the 2008 mortgage crisis, the company struggled to survive.
It slashed its payroll in half, from 100 to 50 employees, while it looked for ways to reinvent itself, Ruga said.
“We diversified. We were dabbling with other commercial products,” Ruga said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We put everything on the line.”
The company has sold more than 200,000 linear feet of precast barriers (to separate lanes) to the state Department of Transportation. Laid end to end, the wall would stretch 38 miles, the distance from Cape May to Absecon.
They expanded their inventory to include form-molded concrete signs, sound barriers and decorative fences.
All of the products are made at the company’s sprawling construction complex off Reese Road near Route 55 in Millville.
Northeast Precast quarries its own sand and gravel in Cumberland County for use in its concrete, which is mixed and poured indoors to ensure consistent temperatures and humidity, important factors for strength and durability, Ruga said.
Concrete is poured into molds to create custom walls built to suit the project, with steel supports for heavy-duty construction or hollow interiors filled with insulation for residential or commercial buildings.
The finished products are loaded onto flatbed trucks for delivery to job sites. Heavy cranes help assemble the finished products, including foundations.
The company is providing the colored wall panels to build a new 260,000-square-foot factory for Bimbo Bakeries USA in Allentown, Pa., maker of Sara Lee and Entenmann’s baked goods.
And their walls were used to erect a new four-story building at 42nd Street in Sea Isle City.
The Millville company also contributes to road and bridge projects, including the new Route 52 causeway in Ocean City. It also made Ocean City’s welcome sign on Ninth Street.
Today, the company has 140 employees and is growing.
Northeast Precast delivers its high-stress concrete products to Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Maryland. It still handles a lot of residential construction, said Shanaman, 53, of Vineland.
“We have a little bit of everything going on now,” he said.
It wasn’t an easy transition. The company had to meet different construction criteria and standards for the state agency. Its products had to be certified by trade groups such as the National Precast Concrete Association.
“We had a lot more inspections. We have two to four outside agencies here inspecting us every week,” Ruga said.
Ruga, 44, of Weymouth Township, has made his career in construction. While pouring a traditional home foundation one day, he noticed flatbed trucks taking a precast concrete foundation to a nearby home site.
That crew finished installing its foundation in a matter of hours. He still had a week of work ahead of him for his.
“That really got my attention,” he said.
He started his business by selling another manufacturer’s products out of Pennsylvania.
Now, the company wants to play a big role in helping New Jersey rebuild after Hurricane Sandy. The company met with officials from Gov. Chris Christie’s office in March to discuss the use of precast-concrete products in new construction.
Some state code proposals call for the use of break-away walls that would wash away with a flood instead of providing resistance that could collapse an entire building. This change would spell doom for the company’s new-construction business.
Ruga said precast concrete walls, which feature ample flood vents, are strong enough to withstand the pressures and strain of flooding without buckling. He said they hold up far better than traditional pile construction.
“After a flood, they just pressure wash the interior and move right back in,” Shanaman said. “There’s no insulation or sheetrock to remove or replace. We think it could be a long-term solution to flooding for the coast. Maybe not the only solution — but one solution.”
Ruga plans additional meetings with state officials to lobby for more precast concrete in coastal construction.
“We think the coastal area is our biggest market going forward,” he said.
Contact Michael Miller: