David Smale, General Manager of Astec Australia, remembers well being confronted with a question so powerful that, over a decade later, he is still challenged with its meaning: “Do you think the job that you’re doing is going to change the world?”
As an industry leader, Mr. Smale, the head of one of Australia’s leading equipment suppliers to the roads and mining industries, concedes that customer focus and bottom lines would seem to take precedent over the notion of “changing the world”. But the man who posed him that question worked in the very same field, and has left behind a legacy of having done precisely this challenge. Don Brock, Founder and CEO of Astec Industries, has indeed had a permanent impact on our planet. Thanks to his genius, millions of people around the world – including many Australians – enjoy smoother, more cost-efficient roads thanks to his life’s work.
Mr. Brock passed away on 10 March this year after a long battle with cancer. He founded Astec in 1972, funding the start-up with money he earned from inventing a revolutionary carpet dryer while studying mechanical engineering. David says his brilliance was recognised worldwide, and that he had a beautiful mind for innovation and business, exceptional personal values which he founded his business on, and extraordinary courage. Under Mr. Brock’s leadership, Astec grew into a global company of 18 subsidiaries. Today it is a publicly-traded company with over $1 billion in annual sales, and more than 4000 employees worldwide.
This business success has been built on the back of technological innovations that have changed the nature of the asphalt industry. One of Mr. Brock’s major legacies is the Shuttle Buggy. First brought to Australia in 1995, the Shuttle Buggy was a revolutionary invention that managed segregation problems in pavement construction and eliminated the temperature differentiation which resulted from the conventional methods of transport and delivery of hot mix. Mr. Brock reportedly worked for many years to perfect the design.
“It’s not that simple of a design, and like many things, success only came after some failure. Don finalised it almost by accident,” explains Mr. Smale. “Apparently they didn’t have the available augers, so they had to use augers from another research project which had a ‘variable pitch’. This changed the way the asphalt was mixed… some may feel that he got a little lucky, but really he was just so very persistent that he would always achieve his goals.”
Mr. Brock’s efforts have translated into a remarkable improvement in the surface evenness of roads laid with the Shuttle Buggy. By decreasing the segregation and essentially smoothing out the mix, the resulting roads have fewer weak spots that deteriorate over time. Of the thousands of kilometres of Australian roads that have been paved using the Shuttle Buggy, drivers continue to enjoy a smoother ride today, and for years to come.
Mr. Brock was also the brains behind the Double-Barrel Mixer. The tool has proven essential to incorporating Reclaimed Asphalt Pavement (RAP) practices on Australian roads, reducing production costs and providing the industry with sustainability. By putting the dryer and mixer inside one another, the Double-Barrel Mixer is today recognised for its superior capability to recycle pavement, proving both cost-effective and highly productive. Mr. Brock further improved on the genius of the design by introducing equipment for warm mix, or “green” asphalt that can be mixed at just 140 degrees Celsius, versus what was the standard 175 degrees hot mix. By lowering the temperature, not only does the asphalt require less energy to produce with less smoke and smell, but compaction is easier to achieve in the field.
These developments were all personal inventions of Mr. Brock, and over his lifetime he led the development of 100 patents. However, Astec’s success has not been built alone on Mr. Brock’s inventive nature, rather his core values that have helped these innovations translate into business success.
Mr. Smale remembers well the first time he met Mr. Brock. His immediate impression was that Mr. Brock was a rather remarkable person. It was 2004, four years before Mr. Smale would take the reigns of Astec Australia as its first General Manager following Astec’s acquisition of Q-Pave.
Mr. Smale was travelling in the United States for an Asphalt conference, and made arrangements for his team to visit the Astec factory. From the moment he met Mr. Brock, he says the synergy of the company with his own values was so palpable that he saw his own future in a different light.
“I told myself then, if I were ever to change my job, it would be to work for Astec,” he says. “There was something about the company, its culture and its values. I knew that when you have a Managing Director [like Don Brock] with that philosophy, it makes it so much easier to work with your clients. It’s an environment that helps customers feel good about what you do.”
To form this strong impression from a single meeting was a rather spectacular occurrence for Mr. Smale, and he emphasises that he has rarely in his life met someone as remarkable as Mr. Brock.
“He was just a person like I had never met before,” Mr. Smale says. “Don was highly intelligent, but also so down to earth. The way he engaged with you was in a way that made you feel special. He was always thinking freely about how to get things done, more than anyone I have ever met.”
Mr. Brock’s sharp mind was obvious in the novel approaches he took to the business. Rather than thinking of himself as being ahead of trends, Mr. Brock would talk about being “200 mistakes ahead”, not being afraid to dive into a project and failing.
Mr. Smale says Astec’s success in Australia can be directly linked to Mr. Brock’s straightforward approach to running the business.
‘Don always said: ‘If your customer has a problem then fix it first and ask questions later. You know, it’s not hard to be nice to people,’” recalls Mr. Smale. “In fact, I am sure that Don quietly had zero tolerance for any employee who could not carry out his values.”
Having worked right up until his passing, Mr. Brock has set up a strong team who will continue to lead Astec, following his core values that have shaped the company (see sidebar). His son Ben Brock has taken the reigns as President and CEO, and the engineering teams at all of the Astec companies remain strong under the people who worked with Mr. Brock for decades.
Mr. Smale says he looks forward to continuing to work with this leadership team, sharing the values he’s gained from time spent with Mr. Brock.
“He really taught me to take a step back, and look at the bigger picture,” he says. “I try to avoid making short-term decisions, and understand that good people with good values are your best asset. Good personal values are good business values too, and Don’s values are as good as you get.”
Mr. Smale says that it is from Mr. Brock’s values that he and his team at Astec Australia will continue to grow Astec’s business down under, and always strive to meet and exceed the needs and expectations of its customers.