Attention to detail keeps quality high at J.E. Hill Precast
By Bob Whitmore
As one of the states at the epicenter of the Recession, Florida might not be the greatest place for a precast concrete business right now, but J.E. Hill Precast is surviving. With an entrepreneurial spirit that goes beyond the precast plant, a culture of quality production practices and strong relationships built through more than 50 years in the construction business, J.E. Hill Precast will be ready when the economy starts its rebound.
Located in the sprawling community of Leesburg, 45 minutes northwest of Orlando, J.E. Hill Precast has evolved from a heavy construction contractor with crews spread out across the state to a tightly focused precast concrete manufacturer with three strong product lines and a fourth likely to develop when the housing market comes back.
It was during the last Recession in 1990-91 that Joe Hill pulled back his far flung construction business and made the switch to full-time precasting. Joe and his son Wylie had started the precast side of the business about 10 years earlier when Wylie finished school and joined the company full-time. In the early ‘90s they watched the bottom fall out of their construction business, which drew heavily from the Department of Transportation. They did what smart companies do when the wind starts blowing a different way – they adapted.
“The Florida DOT was out of money. The state ran out of money and there just wasn’t any construction work for a year or two so we called it quits,” Joe said. “I was getting up into my 60s and figured it was time for me to slow down. But then our barrier wall business started picking up and I didn’t get to slow down just then.”
During the ‘80s, the company had found a niche in producing median barrier for the state, and it grew out of something Joe noticed when he visited the sites where his company was building bridges and installing box culverts along the highways. “The DOT back in those days was having prisoners build all their barrier wall,” Joe said, “and it was the most awful-looking stuff you ever saw in your life.”
In about 1980, Joe placed a call to Rodney Smith, then president of Smith-Midland Corp. in Midland, Va. Smith was developing a new innovative tongue-and-groove connection system for median barriers and was licensing his design in the United States.
Drop it in the Ocean
“I got with Rodney, and we went to see the DOT,” Joe said. The two precasters convinced the DOT that contractors could provide much better barrier than they were receiving from the prison system, “so we started the barrier wall business in Florida,” Joe said. “They wanted to know what to do with all the old barrier. I said, ‘Load it on a barge and drop it in the ocean.’ That’s what they did.”
Joe and Wylie also started manufacturing the Smith-Midland precast cattle guard system and began adding other products to their budding agricultural line. Ag products have turned out to be a proven winner for the company in a state that has a large dairy and cattle industry. Joe brought in Tom Jones, a marketing specialist, 28 years ago to develop agricultural products. He’s still with the company.
Early in his tenure at J.E. Hill, Jones joined the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and figured he’d start making some contacts, but he found the cattlemen a little standoffish at first. “I didn’t own a snap-button shirt or a pair of boots,” he said. “I’d come to a meeting in a pair of slacks and a polo shirt and they’d look at me like, ‘What kind of goofball are you?’ It didn’t take me long to figure out what I had to do.”
Jones made the appropriate wardrobe adjustments and the cattlemen started listening when he talked about a precast concrete cattleguard that would stop their herd from wandering and never have to be replaced.
“Joe and I talked about it and we figured that in somewhere between five and seven years we’d saturate the market,” Jones said, “but it just continues to grow.” In addition to the cattleguard, the company supplies other precast products to farmers, ranchers and dairies – products like J-Bunks, water troughs and in-line feeders. They’ve also sold the cattleguard structure as a rumble strip that can be placed at the entrance to construction sites to knock off mud and debris from trucks leaving the site. The rumble strip shakes loose the clumps and keeps them from dropping on the highway.
The agricultural products line has helped sustain the company during the Recession, while other business has tailed off. “We still deliver cattle guards two or three days a week,” Joe said. “And we got pretty big into feeders and waterers. For a long time the dairies were trying to clean up their act and they started using concrete instead of junk pieces out in their pastures, so it was good business for a while. We’re still doing quite a bit.”
Taking it Easi
Another product that has been a winner for J.E. Hill also originated with Smith-Midland, which created and licenses Easi-Set buildings. J.E. Hill manufacturers and sells about 30 Easi-Sets per year. In a hurricane-prone state like Florida, it is an ideal product that stands up to intense wind and rain.
“We engineer to two specs,” Wylie said, “130 miles per hour, which meets or exceeds the great majority of the state, and 150 miles per hour for the coastal regions.” When Hurricane Charley raked across the state in 2004, it put that wind specification to the test.
“We had two storage buildings on a community college campus down in Acadia,” Wylie said. “They had built a new multi-purpose community center on the campus – theater, auditorium, all those things. It had been upgraded to hurricane status but they had a wall blow down. We had two storage buildings on the same site that didn’t have a mark on them.”
Wylie said that when the company first started manufacturing the buildings, he figured there would be two main applications for Easi-Set: storage buildings and buildings that would serve as control rooms for pumps and electrical fixtures. But about half of the orders for Easi-Set buildings are coming from Parks and Recreation departments for concession stands and restrooms. J.E. Hill provides a value-added service by selling the buildings with electrical and plumbing fixtures already installed. That makes installation quick and simple, said John Schoeneck, who sells the product for J.E. Hill. “We’ll bring it in on a flatbed and get the crane over here and drop it in,” Schoeneck said as he pointed out the features of an 18-foot by 10-foot Easi-Set restroom in a Leesburg park. “This thing weighs about 48,000 pounds. It has a 3-inch wall with a 5-inch roof and floor.” If the site has been prepared, it takes about two hours to set a building and hook up the fixtures. “It’s a good design and our guys do a great job on the table pouring it,” Schoeneck said. “The quality of what we produce is outstanding.”
J.E. Hill has also diversified its income stream by renting median barrier and providing an installation crew to move and install it. The company produces three types of median barrier – the Smith-Midland JJ Hooks barrier, a Florida-specific K-rail type used mostly for bridges, and a low-profile barrier used in residential areas.
“When we expanded our barrier with the other two types of wall, we also started building up our rental fleet,” Wylie said. “We have maintained about 180,000 feet of rental barrier for quite some time now.” The company stockpiles barrier in Miami, Fort Pierce, Jacksonville and Tampa to quickly meet demand. They have a crew of three on the installation team, with two working in the field. With an installation technique they have perfected over the years, the two-person crew can perform a straight-line installation of up to 5,500 feet of barrier in a shift.
The installation is built into the rental cost, so it’s another value-added service that J.E. Hill provides to the DOT and to contractors. It also helps to keep their rental barrier in good shape because it isn’t getting knocked around by heavy-handed construction crews.
It’s part of the culture of quality and customer service that Joe and Wylie Hill have built. Joe is now mostly retired, while Wylie serves as president and runs the day-to-day operation of the company. Wylie grew up around the business and came to the company full-time in 1980.
“We’ve just always tried to set ourselves above and be better than our competitors or anybody else, whether it’s the precast side or our installation crews,” Wylie said. “We’ll get contractors calling to tell us how professional they were – and how amazed they are at the amount of wall they set in a shift. Barrier is pretty much of a commodity product, but we still want ours to look better than anybody else’s and perform better.”
On the production side, the company made a decision more than a decade ago that continues to pay dividends today. “Our turnover rate at the time was getting kind of high. We had a consultant in, and one of the things he suggested was increasing our pay to see if we could attract better employees,” Wylie said. “I was surprised at the difference it made. We set some standards that we expected and close to a third of our existing employees didn’t make it through the change. But we raised the bar and got a lot of new blood and turnover dropped drastically. We try to instill in them to take pride, and they do. A lot of it is natural.”
Jack Workman, vice president, manages production and oversees a plant that is clean and orderly. The two-person QC department of Terry Walker and Harley Northup run a spotless testing lab where records are kept in meticulous fashion. The culture of quality is also evident to the independent inspectors who review plants for the certification program at the National Precast Concrete Association.
J.E. Hill has been certified for three years. For the last two years, the company has posted one of the top three scores from among 350 certified plants, earning it a Quality Award of Excellence for both 2007 and 2008. It also places the plant among the top 1 percent in the certification program, based on its scores. The company made the decision to seek certification as part of their continuous quest for improvement.
Why certify? “Just wanting to turn it up a notch,” Wylie said. “We were already DOT certified and we figured it wouldn’t be that much more work to keep a second set of records for our commercial products, and again, it differentiates us from our competitors. There’s no other competitor in the state of Florida in our product lines that is certified.”
The culture of quality is there. The management team is in place. Now all that’s needed at J.E. Hill is for the economy to rev up again so they can get back to normal production levels. When that happens, as it inevitably will, you can bet J.E. Hill will be ready.
PRECAST AND THE ECONOMY
There’s a lonely stack of Redi-Rock retaining wall blocks in the yard at the J.E. Hill Precast plant in Leesburg, Fla. At one time, it may have had a home, now it’s just sitting in the yard, a symbol of the collapse of the residential housing market in Florida and the stifling credit crunch that has stopped developers dead in their tracks and led to work shortages throughout the construction industry and the precast sector. It’s a story all too common today.
“We had a letter of intent to supply Redi-Rock for a development just south of here by one of the bigger builders around, and they cancelled the project,” Wylie Hill said. “They were going to build 1,000 homes and a commercial center – it was a big development.” J.E. Hill would have provided enough Redi-Rock to construct a retaining wall around the entire project. In addition to the obvious financial benefits, obtaining a high profile Redi-Rock project would have helped establish the new product line for J.E. Hill. “It was going to be over half a million dollars in Redi-Rock – just the blocks,” Wylie said. “That’s a lot of blocks.”
It’s a lot of blocks that didn’t get manufactured at J.E. Hill.
Joe Hill has been in the construction business in some form since 1955. “It’s the slowest I’ve ever seen,” he said. “We’re hoping the stimulus money is going to kick in.” So are the state officials in Florida, which is struggling with a $6 billion budget deficit, Joe said. “They took all the stimulus money they could get and they’re banking on the economy picking up during the next two years when that stimulus money plays out,” he said. “We’re counting on the stimulus money to keep us in business. If it doesn’t come, we could go out of business, because this is the worst we’ve ever seen. We had to lay off 45 people in one day. We’re down to about 40 to 45 employees now. Other people in our business are suffering,” Joe added. “Everybody’s suffering.”
The recession has created more competition among bidders, Wylie said. “What we’ve seen is increased bidding pressure for the prime contractors. A few years ago we’d see four or five bidders on the job. Now on those same type of jobs you’ll see 15 or 16 bidders, and most of them are companies we’ve never heard of. It’s mostly developers – site work contractors who are out of work and are going after DOT jobs. So the prices have just fallen through the floor.”
It All Started With a Mule
When Joe Hill mustered out of the Army in 1955, he had been overseas for 18 months. His father Ed met him at the airport and handed him a set of work clothes and boots. “He said, ‘You can change clothes here at the airport and we’ll go straight out to the job site. I said, ‘no, I’m taking off until Monday morning.’ This was on Thursday afternoon. My father believed in working,” Joe said.
Ed Hill started his company with some gunny sacks of grass seed and a team of mules sometime around 1931. It was the depth of the Great Depression and the same year Joe was born. “All he did back then was plant grass alongside of new roads to keep the erosion down,” Joe said. “He took mules and plowed furrows and then had men coming along behind with sacks of Bermuda sprigs – dropping them into the furrows. And then the next mule would come by and cover it up,” Joe said. “He had a whole fleet of mules – about 10. That’s what got us started.”
Ed’s business evolved. “He got into concrete bridges and building concrete culverts and that kind of thing,” Joe said. That was back in Georgia, around Atlanta.” As I-75 construction moved closer to Florida, so did the Hill family. “We were working on I-75 from Valdosta down to the Florida line,” Joe said. “We built all the culverts there. And then one day my father said, ‘I’m going down to Tallahassee to this road letting before we go back. They’re letting the next job over on the other side of the state line. I want to see if we can get those culverts.’ We got those culverts and we never turned around,” Joe said. “We went back a few times to wind up our business in Georgia, but that was it. I’ve had a job going somewhere in I-75 – from the Tennessee line to Miami – since 1959 or 1960. Today, we still always have something going on I-75, so it’s a continuous thing.”
As Florida’s population surged and it grew into the fourth largest state, the company prospered, building many of the bridges and culverts as the DOT expanded the highway system. With 200 employees and work spread out across the state, Joe found himself increasingly on the road. And with four young children at home, that meant too much time away from his family. So he bought his first airplane, and for 25 years he kept tabs on his construction crews by flying around the state from job site to job site.
“I had seven planes over 25 years, and I used to go to all my jobs every day,” Joe said. “I’d have one out in Pensacola and one over here in Brevard County, so I would just go to the airport every morning and get in my airplane and take off, just like going to work. I had a pickup truck, a briefcase and an airplane. And if I could, I would land right on the job. Taxi up to my worksite, talk to my people and see if they had any problems, turn around and go to the next one. I had three or four crews out so it kept me busy,” Joe said. “I’d get home about 5 or 6 o’clock every night. Before (buying) the airplane I was leaving home on Monday and getting back on Friday night, and I had all these kids growing up and they never saw me. So the airplane solved that problem. I loved to fly, just absolutely loved it.”
When not puddle jumping across Florida, Joe stayed active in politics, especially through involvement on the water management districts that regulate all the water in Florida. He served on two different Boards, rising to the chairmanship of one. In a state where water resources are critical, it’s a high profile position, which helps explain the photos on his office wall of Joe with governors and other local leaders. They are interspersed with various service awards from environmental groups and a golden shovel from a bygone groundbreaking event. He had four governors on his wall, but got mad at two of them and took those photos down.
Joe’s son Wylie came into the business in the early 1980s, when the company had about 200 employees, an assortment of heavy construction equipment and an emerging precasting operation. The company got increasingly into precast during the 1980s, then became a precast manufacturer full-time in 1991 when Joe sold the heavy construction side of the business to a partner.
But there’s more to Joe Hill than just construction, according to Tom Jones, who’s worked for Joe’s companies for the last 28 years. “Joe is an entrepreneur,” Jones said. He’s always got a new venture going, creating companies to sell suspenders, T-shirts, and even watches.
“Remember the Swatch Watch?” Jones said. “Joe came in one day and he said, ‘I just saw a black and red Swatch Watch and it looked just like the University of Georgia.’ So he got the idea of doing college logo Swatch Watches, and called the company TeamMates Inc. He’s always got something going on.”
While most of those side ventures have come and gone, Joe and Wylie have a half interest in each of two other companies not related to precast but that go back to their roots in the road building industry. GeoTech recycles old tires by grinding them up into fine power, while FlexPhalt is a company that blends the fine powder with liquid asphalt.
“Florida uses rubber in a lot of their highways,” Joe said. “We recently developed a new blend out in Louisiana of all places. We got hooked up with a scientist out there and he came up with this idea and the Louisiana State University people helped him and now we’re out their blending rubber for some of their jobs.
“We’ve got these portable blenders that you take right to the asphalt plant, and we send this fine rubber powder out there,” Joe added. “They blend it with the asphalt, and it’s working better than some of their polymers, so contractors are starting to substitute it for polymer. It improves the asphalt.”
Although he still sounds pretty engaged in the various businesses, at age 78, Joe says he’s mostly retired. Wylie runs the day-to-day operations and serves as president of J.E. Hill Precast. “Wylie does about 90 percent of it now,” Joe said. “I just come into the office a few hours a day to aggravate them and see what’s going on.”