A Product on a Solid Footing

A product on a solid footing
Jim Bradac came up with Ceme-Tube® after trying to lay concrete in wet ground. Now, he’s
pouring his life into his new venture.

BY LESLIE BROOKS SUZUKAMO
Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated: 11/30/2007 07:31:42 PM CST

Three years ago, while laying concrete footings for his family cabin, Jim Bradac ran into a problem.

The ground was so wet that the cardboard forming tubes got soggy and useless before he could pour concrete into them.

Wasn’t there a plastic tube he could use instead, he asked his local hardware store? The answer was no.

So Bradac invented his own: the Ceme-Tube®, a lightweight but tough plastic tube with three designs for concrete footings, light-pole bases and protective bollards.

Now, the 44-year-old Hudson, Wis., businessman is pouring his life into his new venture. After spending three years getting Ceme-Tube® ready, he closed his other business of 17 years, the Hudson sheet-metal shop that supported him, his wife and six kids.

Bradac is confident – and a little nervous. He knows it takes time for a new product to seep into customers’ consciousness.

But he believes he’s got a winner given the initial reaction of customers and others in the construction trades. “People keep telling me that I’m going to be blown away,” he said recently, surrounded by stacks of his black and reflective yellow Ceme-Tube® parts in a Hudson warehouse. He didn’t begin selling tubes until late September because he wanted to have them in stock first, so he’s sold only $8,000 in tubes so far; but he’s projecting revenue in 2008, his first full year, of $500,000 to $1 million, and doubling the year after that.

The Ceme-Tube® looks pretty simple. It’s made of high-density plastic that is shoved into a hole in the ground. Construction workers can pour concrete into the tube to form a footing for anything from a backyard deck to a building.

The traditional forming tube is made of cardboard, which is cheap and easy to peel away afterwards. Most workers call them “Sonotubes,” after the biggest and best-known brand. But the cardboard product wicks moisture if the ground is wet or if it’s raining, Bradac said. In cold weather, ice crystals can adhere to the cardboard, causing “friction frost heaving” when the ground expands that can move the entire footing.

The Ceme-Tube® is waterproof, of course. The plastic is pliable to minus 30 degrees, and because it isn’t porous, ice doesn’t adhere to it, Bradac said.

To make them easier to use, Bradac has the tubes molded in 4-foot lengths with built-in collars to make them stackable to up to 20 feet.

Bradac said his research showed no other plastic forming tubes. There are waxed cardboard tubes that can be used when wet, but after three or four days, those soak through.

He’s patented his tubes and their features, like the built-in collar. He’s also built a couple of other products upon the basic Ceme-Tube®.

One is a light-pole base. The part below ground is a basic blackCeme-Tube®, but the part that pokes up above ground as the pole’s base is a reflective yellow.

Unlike the standard cardboard form, which is peeled away, the plastic yellow part is designed to remain and be an aesthetically pleasing design element.

The other is a Ceme-Tube® bollard, which also has a safety yellow plastic top and cap that poke up out of the ground. Bollards normally are steel tubes filled with concrete, used in parking lots or outside buildings as protective barriers. Bradac fills his tubes with rebar and concrete, and because they’re made of plastic, they are one-quarter the cost of steel tubes and don’t need to be repainted, he says.

Although plastic tubes cost more than cardboard, the ability to use them in wet ground or in the rain saves time and money, said Bob McElroy, outside sales manager for Brock White Co., a St. Paul-based construction materials distributor that is selling Ceme-Tube® through its Upper Midwest and Canada stores.

“It basically eliminates the weather element and speeds up construction time,” he said, adding there is not another plastic forming tube available for below-grade concrete work – meaning in the ground.

Farrell Equipment, Cemstone and Advanced Shoring also carry the products.

Bradac said he got a positive response when he took his product to the World of Concrete trade show in Las Vegas in January, setting up a booth and a demo – a conventional cardboard tube soaking in a clear bucket of water next to his Ceme-Tube® in another water bucket. “Paper or plastic?” his banner read. “The choice is clear.”

But his direct competition is enormous. Sonoco Products Co., maker of Sonotubes, reported revenue of $3.66 billion last year.

Bradac has spent a lot of money getting into three architectural catalogs, and his company already has seen a lift. In August, architects ordered Ceme-Tube® for five projects; in September, that number climbed to 31 and to another 32 projects in October, he said.

“We’re finally getting our break, and the word is getting out,” he said.

Leslie Brooks Suzukamo can be reached at lsuzukamo@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5475.

COMPANY SPECS

Name: Ceme-Tube® LLC

Business: Manufacturing plastic forming tubes for concrete footings, light-pole bases and concrete-filled bollards.

Location: Hudson, Wis.

Founded: May 2007

Employees: Three

2007 revenue: $8,000 to date

Competition: Sonoco Products Co., Caraustar Industries Inc. and the Newark Group.

Challenge ahead: Building awareness with construction project managers and architects.