When Randy Klassen showed up at a home to quote a simple garage-floor pour and found he was the sixth in line, with the homeowner looking for the cheapest guy, it struck him: "There has to be something better than this."
At that point, he rejected the idea of quantity over quality and started seriously experimenting with decorative techniques. It was 1990, the first year he attended the World of Concrete trade show.
Klassen made a simple cobblestone roller and did a few jobs at cost, and the pattern caught on. "It just exploded after that," he says.
He invested in rubber texture skins and even more patterns. Today, he is well known in his native Winnipeg for taking on jobs that are challenging, creative or just plain strange. "If you've got a weird job and you can't figure it out, inevitably we're the ones who get the phone call," he says.
Consider his latest project. An engineer bought a condo in a trendy upscale area and wanted Klassen to pour two sets of free-standing stairs, each with 16 treads and weighing 2,800 pounds. Each stair would be 3 inches thick and 4 feet wide. The heavy stairs are not in place yet, but Klassen looks forward to the challenge. "That's a really cool job," he says.
His attitude comes from his father, Ed. Randy Klassen grew up in the business, tagging along with his dad, who he says loved meeting new people and trying new things. When Klassen graduated with an education degree in 1986, there weren't any teaching jobs, but a housing boom gave him the opportunity to fall back on what came naturally working at his dad's concrete business. "It's a drug," he says. "You can never really kick it."
His dad suffered a ruptured appendix that summer, and Randy had to run the business during his recovery. Now the elder Klassen works for his son. "That guy is 75 and he shows up every single day to work and it's awesome," Randy says. "We have a great relationship, and he gets along fantastically with all of my guys."
A look at Klassen's Web site, Klassenconcrete.com, reveals that he doesn't take himself too seriously. The "About Us" section states, "We like loud music, bands with attitude and motocross." Cartoons, motocross photos and Klassen's new snowboarding helmet (labeled "Super Rando") share space with pictures of the company's pool decks, patios, countertops, sinks, massive planters, tables and interior floors. According to Klassen, the site appealed to at least one e-mailer, who commented that Klassen Concrete appeared to have a "hilarious work culture."
"I sort of said to myself when I got into it: If I can't have fun doing this and I can't have the kind of equipment I want to have, and I can't be with the people I want to be with, I'm not doing it," Klassen says.
Klassen works hard to keep the atmosphere loose and the ideas flowing, he says. A wall full of whiteboards is constantly covered in scribbled ideas. Not surprisingly, Klassen favors jobs that give his team lots of flexibility. He says the "most fun in the world" is to get a phone call from a client who has seen his work and will give him free rein to transform a backyard. The company can make a transformation complete because Klassen has incorporated landscaping into his decorative concrete business. He can not only put in a pool deck, which basically wrecks the backyard, but design and complete a landscaping plan that makes it whole again. Walkways, seating areas, patios, fire pits, walls and beautiful plantings are featured in the company's work.
Landscaping and decorative concrete are a natural fit. Most of the equipment used in concrete is also used in landscaping, Klassen explains, and he can lay sod and plant trees when rainy weather makes concrete work impossible. It extends the job and allows Klassen to control his costs more easily.
One of the company's most recognizable projects is the logo for the 1999 Pan American Games that Klassen embedded in a sidewalk near a Winnipeg arena. The project was memorable too, thanks to a one-week deadline combined with two huge rainstorms and lettering that had to be done by hand. "We were so ahead of schedule, and it came out great," Klassen says.
His company also created a concrete bathroom sink that weighs 150 pounds, yet appears to be suspended in mid-air. It was commissioned by a homeowner who wanted something unique, Klassen says.
His team of 12 to 15 craftspeople include woodworkers, mechanics, designers, welders, sign makers, four ice fishermen and three guys who study jiujitsu. "I'm only as good as my people," Klassen says. "If I didn't have these guys, it wouldn't be the same."
He researches new techniques, travels often to see new applications and experiments on his own. However, he warns new decorative concrete contractors against overdoing it. You don't have to use every single technique you ever learned on one floor, he says. It's OK to put the border tool aside every now and then, or to pass over the ashlar slate mat that's been used on almost every job. "There's nothing wrong with one color of acid and a simple grid pattern," Klassen says. Also, don't buy into trends, he says. "Less is definitely more."
The company has no advertising program, Klassen says, but word about his work has spread among high-end architects and builders in Manitoba, one of Canada's more conservative provinces. He says that home and business owners in his area prefer classic looks rather than something trendy, and they look for high quality. "There's got to be value for the people. Otherwise, you're done."
Klassen has learned to suggest colors and textures that work together harmoniously. Personally, he wouldn't want a new driveway to be the focal point of attention at his home. "I want people to tell me how great the home looks, not the driveway."
Klassen loves to try new things, but not just for the sake of newness alone. "The most important thing is to find out who your clients are, and what's important to them, and make a design that will stand the test of time. Long-lasting, classic designs are always a good thing."