Tim Eckert was on a plane to Las Vegas with a goal in mind, and it wasn't about winning at the blackjack table. The business manager of Zionsville, Ind.-based Weber Concrete Construction planned to check out prefabricated window wells with built-in egress stairs that his firm could use to enhance the aesthetic of its housing projects.
Buoyed by more work and low oil prices, Eckert and tens of thousands of other contractors came to this year's World of Concrete in search of a new competitive edge. This year's show, held on Feb. 3-6 in Las Vegas, hosted 675,000 sq ft of exhibits for 55,779 attendees—a 16.2% rise from 2014 and the largest turnout the annual show has seen in more than five years, an indication of a recovering economy.
"There is broad-based and, in some cases, unbridled optimism," said Ed Sullivan, chief economist for the Skokie, Ill.-based Portland Cement Association, forecasting U.S. cement consumption to rise 8%, to 93 million metric tons, on 1.2 million new housing starts this year. While the sudden drop in crude oil-prices, which are expected to average $55 per barrel this year and $71 bbl next year, is prompting savings at the pump, construction activity will not immediately benefit from the reprieve, he noted.
"The positive impacts on construction activity [will] occur next year, by and large, and they will be relatively small," he said. Even so, the low costs at the pump are helping contractors pocket more profit. Weber is, at current prices, saving $1,000 a week since last summer. "We have about 100 trucks on the road every day, plus equipment," Eckert said.
Vendors reported spirited buying. "Best show we've ever had," said Don Ahern, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas-based Ahern Rentals. "We're actually taking orders at the show. Usually, we're just taking leads," added Ahern in his company's 7,000-sq-ft Xtreme exhibit, which included two XR7038 models, the world's largest telehandler with 70,000 lb of lift capacity and a boom length of 38 ft.
"A lot of our account base is booked through the next year," echoed Ryan Benson, sales manager for formwork supplier UFP Thornton LLC, Thornton, Calif. "We'll have another great year." The company exhibited inside the convention center's main hall; meanwhile, a competitor that usually was located nearby decided this year to spread out and make some noise in one of the outdoor lots.
"As an innovator, you have to be able to show your technology," explained Glen Teel, CEO of Baltimore-based Peri Formwork Systems Inc. Its outdoor space measured 2,400 sq ft, or double the size of its indoor exhibit last year. Peri workers demonstrated how to assemble its aluminum Gridflex slab system, originally developed in France, and touted it as a low-cost, lightweight option to timber.
Tool companies were another attraction, with innovative breakers, saws and drills that ran quieter and produced fewer emissions without sacrificing power. Dan Hull, Stihl's manager of dealer services, repeatedly sliced through masonry with the company's new TSA 230 Cutquik, which it claimed was the industry's first battery-powered cutoff saw. Offering less wear and tear than a gasoline saw, it accepts a 9-in. cutting wheel, runs for up to 15 minutes per charge and retails for $1,150.