The small town of Clute, Texas is an hour’s drive south of Houston, a stone’s throw from the Gulf Coast.
The most famous event in its 200-year history was the discovery of a 4,000-year-old mammoth buried in a sand pit in 2003 by a workman excavating the site with a digger. As he lifted a load of earth, he spotted what turned out to be a pair of tusks belonging to a species of Columbian mammoth, subsequently named Asiel.
The man worked for a company called Vernor Materials & Equipment, which was founded in the town 65 years ago by Kelso Vernor and is still based in Clute today. It’s also still very much in the family, run by Kelso’s son Kenny Vernor, the President and CEO, and his brother Randy Vernor, the Vice President, who took full control in 2001.
I knew I had to stand up for what I believed, even when it made things more strained.
But what is different is the sheer scale. It employs about 250 people, a far cry from the two originally taken on by Kelso.
Vernor Materials & Equipment is now involved in civil construction, road building, supplying aggregate materials, demolition, environmental repairs, recycling and almost every aspect of major building projects. It has a sizable fleet of modern dump trucks, bobtails, flatbeds, pneumatic bulk trailers and many other vehicles, and has even trained drivers for hauling hazardous waste.
Asiel isn’t the only mammoth-sized thing in Clute.
Changing of the guard
The generational change saw a significant shift in the work culture and the embrace of new technology.
"Dad was excellent at startups, cutting through red tape and just getting things done," Kenny Vernor tells The CEO Magazine. "But the company kind of outgrew him. He’s somewhat of a micromanager, and once you get over 100 employees, you just can’t do that anymore.
"He was very much old-school and thought anything could be solved by just working longer hours. He didn’t really understand overheads or trying to work efficiently. As long as he could see something being manufactured, he was happy."
When Vernor was working for his father, their contrasting viewpoints would sometimes lead to conflict.
"Changing the safety culture was one of the most difficult things I had with my father as he just wanted things done," he recalls. "He made me safety director, but I had no authority to do things in a better way. I even walked out of one meeting because Dad just dismissed all the ideas I had, so it got very adversarial at times."
That didn’t stop him from doing his job, Vernor says. "I knew I had to stand up for what I believed, even when it made things more strained. It took me three years in the end, but I managed to do it," he adds.
Another important decision was forming a board."I have a fabulous team of six, all extremely qualified in what they do. Since its formation after I took over, the revenue’s increased tenfold," he says.
By far Clute’s time of most hardship in recent years was the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, the 2017 incident that became the wettest tropical cyclone in United States history.
Vernor is proud of the part that his company played during the storm and in the immediate aftermath. Vernor spent days filling sandbags to protect vulnerable houses and offered his employees interest-free loans to help them get back on their feet.
Look, I’m a capitalist through and through, but that being said, of course, I’m bound by morality and ethics too.
"Look, I’m a capitalist through and through, but that being said, of course, I’m bound by morality and ethics too," he says. "It’s not about making money at all costs. When Harvey hit, we were first responders and we got CONEX boxes [cargo containers] full of stuff ready to charge as soon as it passed. Chainsaws, generators, meals, even guns."
He remembers that time vividly.
When Vernor could finally instigate the sweeping changes he knew were necessary after taking over the company, one safety-related initiative went down very well with the team.
"The thing I did that was a huge success was forming everyone into groups and then, if a certain group didn’t have a recordable occupational safety or health incident, they got a US$100 bonus for the quarter," he says.
"And man, they would claw for that US$100. We still do it to this day. It’s not a whole lot of money, but it’s a point of pride for them."
"When the floodwaters came, I was watching TV and a fellow was being interviewed out at Columbia Lakes where they’d built a six-foot levee around over 500 homes, which was overtopping," he remembers.
"We got busy sending trucks over there with sandbags for five days and managed to save that entire community. I was very blessed to be a part of that."