Made in the Berkshires | Unistress: Bridge-building expertise making firm grow

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PITTSFIELD — Arriving late to the party may be fashionable in the social sphere. In business, it can be fatal.

But it's not always a problem. Sometimes it can even be an advantage.

Pittsfield-based pre-stressed concrete producer Unistress Corp. is demonstrating how arriving late to a new process can still turn out to be profitable. Unistress is currently heading towards setting a company record for number of employees this year.

The reason for optimisim at Unistress is the company's decision to pivot in the direction of producing bridge-making materials. Formerly a small fraction of the company's total output, the making of bridge-making materials is now creeping to upwards of 40 percent.

Showing up relatively late to the bridge-making game, according to Unistress President Perri Petricca, provided the company with a clear advantage.

The late move allowed Unistress to be able to design the latest high performance concrete production methods for its new facility, which slated for an end-of-the-summer completion.

"We have the advantage of setting up everything for the future of where the bridge market is going," Petricca said. "Our competition has older technology, and their facilities go back to the 70s and 80s."

He added, "The trend in bridges is towards this high performance concrete. That's what state's are looking for. [The new facility] is going to allow us to have much tighter controls over quality. When we're done [building the facility], it's going to be a big strategic advantage over our competitors."

A subsidiary of Pittsfield-based Petricca Industries, Unistress is the state's only manufacturer of pre-stressed concrete and one of only four companies in New England that provides that product.

In 2014, Unistress landed the biggest contract in its 47-year history: A $70 million project to provide precast concrete deck panels for the new Tappan Zee Bridge in New York.

Less than a year later in January 2015, Unistress locked up two smaller bridge contracts, for work on the Goethals Bridge between Staten Island, N.Y., and New Jersey, and the Sara Mildred Long Bridge, which spans the Piscataqua River between New Hampshire and Maine.

Those projects were for $11 million and $15 million, respectively. Unistress has also secured a state contract for a job on a fourth bridge in Fall River.

Adding employees

Thanks largely to the expansion in bridge work, Unistress' workforce has swelled to just under 600, the largest number in company history. Unistress is producing 700 cubic yards of concrete per day.

The company's main focus, Petricca said, remains the Tappan Zee Bridge.

"We have another 18 months to go on that project," Petricca said. "We've made about 2,700 of the 6,000 pieces."

Berkshire residents have probably seen the huge concrete slabs on tractor trailers escorted by state police cruisers headed for the Tappan Zee on Route 20 via downtown Pittsfield.

The coming investment in the Unistress' new facility — which Petricca said will top $6 million — only stands to better position the company to gather future projects of the Tappan Zee Bridge variety.

Two major challenges Unistress faces amid its recent success come on the transportation and workforce areas.

Transportation regulations that require Unistress to contract with different police departments for various segments of the trip to the Tappan Zee worksite drive up costs and complicate planning. Petricca is working with local lawmakers to try to get some of those regulations changed. The condition of local roadways can also be a problem.

"The road systems here aren't really built to handle the overlong and overweight pieces we transport every day," Petricca said.

Regarding Unistress' expanding workforce needs, Petricca said, "with the ramp up we've seen in labor, it's become a challenge finding enough skilled workers for our force."

How Unistress chooses to address these challenges will no doubt factor into the larger story of the Berkshires' ability as a region to build a 21st century economy.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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