Wednesday, September 20, 2017  

A Legacy in Concrete


Some family legacies are set in stone on plaques or monuments. The Cooke family legacy is poured in concrete, Essex Concrete—on bridges, at schools, office buildings, shopping centers, private homes and residential subdivisions across Richmond and nearly 30 surrounding localities.
This year the company celebrated 50 successful years of operations, every day striving to embody its mottos: “We dry harder” and “We try harder.” The business model of “honesty over profit” provides the guiding principle for Essex Concrete Corporation in all its professional transactions.
The company was the brainchild of William W. Billy Cooke, and John L. Zeke Finney two local entreprenueurs. Cooke the patriarch is a native of the Battery community of Essex County. He graduated from Tappahannock High School and began a course of study at Randolph Macon College in 1951. He was drafted into the army for two years and returned to college after 
his service to complete his studies in finance and economics. In 1957, he married Betty Anne Brizendine, a native of Howertons. Mrs. Cooke, also a Tappahannock High graduate, and a graduate of Virginia Intermont College, went on to work for a local law firm. The Cooke family expanded in June 1958, with the arrival of son Keith, and later on Valentine’s Day 1962, with the addition 
of a second son Kent.
To keep his young family afloat, Billy Cooke sold appliances, did bookkeeping and even had a paper route. In 1965, as a young assistant cashier at Southside Bank, he found the opportunity to buy an existing concrete company in Tappahannock. E.P. Rowe, of E.P. Rowe Concrete, was retiring and looking for a buyer. Cooke, ever the entrepreneur, decided to give it a go, along with a partner John L. “Zeke” Finney. The two remained partners until 1971, when Cooke bought the entire business and took over full-time management.
“Dad began a new education in concrete,” son Keith Cooke, said. “From step one throughout, it was a short learning curve.” Essex Concrete offers “ready-mix” concrete, which means the product is manufactured in a “batching” plant according to a set recipe. The product is then delivered to a work site by truck mounted in-transit mixers. This results in a precise mixture, allowing specialty concrete formulas to be developed and implemented on construction sites.
During its formative years, the business consisted of an early-1950s manual batch plant without a cement silo. All cement was delivered by tractor-trailer in bags, unloaded by hand and then loaded into the mixers, also by hand. Essex Concrete started with only two mixer trucks and five employees, one of which was Billy’s wife, Betty Anne. She managed accounts at night while working a part-time job at the law office. To complicate matters, the business had no independent telephone, so customers who couldn’t make the trip into the company office to order concrete called the Cookes at home to place their order.
Billy came from a family steeped in church teachings and continually applied lessons learned from the pulpit, namely the “Golden Rule” of treating people the way he would wish to be treated. Church was a very important aspect of family life for the Cookes and provided the foundation for dealing with customers and employees alike. “To do the right thing on every transaction” is business as usual for everyone at Essex Concrete.
Meanwhile, oldest son Keith, who had worked many summertime jobs with the company, graduated from Essex High School in 1976, went on to attend Ferrum College, and returned to resume a job with the family business. Youngest son Kent soon followed in his brother’s footsteps. After graduating from Christchurch School in Middlesex County and attending Rappahannock Community College, Kent also assumed a position with the company. Both young men served together in the Virginia Army National Guard in West Point, Virginia, as combat engineers, from 1982 to 1988.
Later, Keith, who currently serves as president of the corporation, earned his Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and management from Old Dominion University. “It was the top thing on my bucket list,” he said.
Solid growth began in 1976 when 
the Cookes bought a site in Aylett and built the company’s second concrete plant. In addition, Essex Concrete acquired a septic service business that year, allowing the company to install a variety of septic systems and perform septic pumping and repairs.
In 1978, the company bought land and built a sand and gravel plant across the Mattaponi River from Aylett. Operations at Aylett Sand and Gravel began in 1979. The Aylett concrete plant was moved there in 1982. Kent, now vice president of Essex Concrete, heads up the company’s sand and gravel division. The complex work of construction 
for the plants was accomplished by 
Curtis Harmon.
“Dad’s niche was financing,” Keith said. “It got us through,” he added. “Sand and gravel is an integral part of making concrete, so instead of worrying about these costs going up, owning the plant allowed us to control our own costs. That was Dad’s inspiration.” In addition, mortar sand, concrete sand, and washed gravels are mined and sold from the Aylett plant to a number of other businesses across the state.
To further serve its diverse customer base, the company added a new business named Pumpcrete Concrete Pumping in 1998. Concrete Pumptrucks have an extendable boom capable of moving concrete over inaccessible ground or heights within a short amount of time. This gave Pumpcrete a niche and Essex Concrete is the only ready-mix concrete company in Central Virginia to offer this advanced technology.
In 1999, the Rockville plant was added to the Essex Concrete group, providing service in the Richmond area. In 2004, the company bought its Bottoms Bridge plant to serve areas from Prince George to Mechanicsville and Williamsburg to Chesterfield. The next year, the existing plant at Bottoms Bridge was replaced with a newer facility. Continuing its expansion in 2012, Essex Concrete bought a plant in Doswell, offering its products to areas from Ashland to Fredericksburg and Louisa to Hanover Courthouse. Also in 2012, a new hydro-clean gravel plant was erected in Aylett to pressure wash its gravel to provide a cleaner, higher-quality product. A Powhatan (Flat Rock) plant was added in February 2014 to serve areas from Cumberland to Richmond and Amelia to Short Pump. The newest plant, in Prince George (Petersburg), was added in May 2014 to serve areas from Richmond to Dinwiddie. Currently, a new sand plant is being erected in Aylett with the state of the art equipment to increase efficiency and production and will be fully operational in January 2016.
Over 50 years, Essex Concrete has expanded from one plant to seven, five employees to 100 and from four trucks to 80. Plant operations have evolved from manual operations to computerized batches. What once took 30 minutes to load now takes five minutes. “We strive for continuous improvement every day,” Keith said.
Challenging situations occur on almost every project. A pour in extremely hot weather speeds up hardening and cold weather slows things down. The Cooke brothers and their Essex team are constantly adjusting to changing conditions, dodging the heat and cold, pouring concrete late into the evening or in the wee hours of the morning. “Rain slows us down but the only things that stop us now are snow and ice, “Keith said.
With 100-plus deliveries to 30 localities within a 75-mile radius of Aylett, every day is a battle with time and resources. Keith praises his family and his Essex Concrete family of employees for filling the gaps—whether it’s driving the trucks, making deliveries, talking to customers, evaluating mixtures, ordering and maintaining equipment, or buying materials. “Everyone is ready to wear many hats,” he said. As it grows, Essex Concrete continues to be family owned and operated. Far from being retired, Billy Cooke, 82-years-young, still comes to the Essex Concrete office in Tappahannock every day. Betty Anne serves as Corporate Secretary/Treasurer and checks on operations a few times each week. Keith’s wife, Linda, and Kent’s wife, Kelly, actively organize company social functions; and grandchildren Logan, Clay, Meghan Henson and Elizabeth Bedell have all earned paychecks working at the company offices. Keith’s son-in-law, Russell Henson, is plant manager at Aylett.
As pleased as he is of the success of Essex Concrete, Billy also delights in his real estate portfolio. His real estate assets encompass many local properties both residential and commercial including the Rappahannock Office Building, DMV in Tappahannock, Probuild (formerly Moores), and Rappahannock Shopping Center. The crowning jewel of his holdings is Hobbs Hole Golf Course, established in 1996, which features 18 picturesque holes, driving range, putting green, pro shop and The Sandbar Restaurant. Son Kent keeps watch on real estate projects and handles multiple property issues every day.
In addition to all of Billy’s business ventures, he managed to serve on the Essex County Board of Supervisors for sixteen years, the Bank of Lancaster Advisory Board for three years and multiple other boards and committees 
in the community.
The employees of Essex Concrete are like family to the Cookes. “We all have the same ideals in mind,” Keith said, “to provide our customers with the best possible product and service.” It’s a family affair with bonds stronger than concrete.