Strength to strength
By D.Ann Shiffler02 August 2017
During the early 1940s, Bernard Hill travelled to Saudia Arabia looking for work. He found a job running a crane and it was a skill set that came natural to him. In 1947 he moved to Big Bear, CA, where he and his wife Dollene started a business with two pieces of equipment, a 5-ton crane and a back hoe. This year Hill Crane Service is celebrating its 70th anniversary with the third generation of the Hill family running the company.
“They moved the company to Long Beach and started growing their crane fleet,” said Ron Hill, vice president of the company his grandparents started. “In 1955 my grandfather was killed in a car accident leaving my grandmother with four kids and the company.”
Rather than divest the company and move on, Dollene “took the bull by the horns,” Hill said. She ran the company until the mid-1980s when her son Richard took over the leadership. After she passed away Richard Hill took the company to a new level, adding cranes and expanding services. He taught his sons the business and both Ron and his brother Chris are now involved in the day-to-day management of the company with Chris handling the internal management and Ron handling sales and project management.
“So now we have the third generation running the company day-to-day,” said Hill. “And both my brother and I have children at home, so the fourth generation is there.”
But there’s another management team member, a woman, who is also a force to be reckoned with. Richard’s wife and Chris’ and Ron’s mother loves the business as much as the rest of the family. She serves as CEO.
“It’s neat to realize that my father took over a woman-owned company and then now it’s a woman-owned company again, 34 years later,” said Hill.
With cranes ranging from 23 to 500 tons, Hill Crane Service is a well-known entity in Southern California. The Hill brothers added a heavy haul transport division to the business and there’s also a traffic control subsidiary.
Like many family businesses, the Hill brothers started working for the company when they were in high school.
Earlier this year Hill let me know that the company was celebrating this milestone anniversary, and we had the opportunity to talk about what it takes for a company to succeed for 70 years.
What is the scope of services offered by Hill Crane Service?
We perform a lot of routine crane work throughout Southern California. We do infrastructure projects, refinery work, steel erection, HVAC replacement and general construction work. We do some work on wind farms, and we have a lot of customers who have been with us for many years. We also perform lots of electrical infrastructure work for local utilities such as Southern California Edison, and its contractors.
What distinguishes your company in Southern California?
I think that a lot of it has to do with our service, owner participation with our major clients and customers, as well as the type of equipment in our fleet and the skill set of our operations. I’m sure 85 to 90 percent of our crews have been with us for 10 years or longer and many much longer than that. This gives us an advantage, our level of service and our skill set in crane operations.
What is it that you like about the crane and transport industry?
What keeps me engaged is the equipment, the projects and the people. I really like the cranes. I like the challenge of planning a job out and see it to completion. I like the satisfaction of knowing we are involved in a big project or turnaround, that we had something to do with making it happen.
It is getting harder as the years go by. There are more regulations, and it’s getting tougher to keep a competitive edge. Equipment is more sophisticated and expensive and the competition is increasing.
But for me, I like it. I like the equipment and the camaraderie with the crews and our employees.
What are the biggest challenges of keeping a company running for 70 years?
I think the biggest challenge is maintaining a competitive advantage. You need to maintain a core customer base and maintain the service level that long-term customers have become accustomed to getting.
Growing up in the business as I have, you see the change. You have customers for years and years and then the people you knew retired and bring in a newer generation, and they don’t necessarily have the experience that the people you used to deal with had. The relationship you had for all those years has to be rebuilt with the new people. You have to maintain and grow your business with the new players in the mix.
Sometimes, the new players don’t care about the past or the relationships. They don’t know the history. But that’s part of the challenge. If you’ve done your job, the work will speak for itself. The relationships are so important.
What is the key to your company’s success?
I think the key to the success of this company is our service level and the owner participation. We are all here at 5 a.m. every day. We talk to our customers and they know us and we know them. It’s the very definition of a family business. Everyone leans on each other and we help each other out when needed.
What do you see as Hill Crane Service’s biggest accomplishments?
In general, I’d say keeping the spirit and keeping the mindset that our grandparents had when they started and built this business. It’s all about providing a service and building relationships with your customers and your crew members.
As far as projects, we’ve had a lot of projects that we can count as great accomplishments. It’s hard to pick one out. We did a bunch of work on the Highway 91 freeway expansion in Corona, CA. It was a three-year job and we were very pleased to be associated with it and the end result. One of our major clients is the Tesoro refinery. We do turnaround work at the Tesoro refinery and that’s very good, solid work for us. Our largest and most long-term customer is Southern California Edison, which we have performed work for over 30 years. This particular account has passed through generations of management at Hill Crane Service.
What does the future hold for Hill Crane Service?
For now, our future plan is to keep things rolling – buying new equipment, expanding our fleet and increasing our footprint in Southern California. That will mean more qualified personnel and sales people. We will also expand our trucking company, HCS Transportation, and grow the traffic control company, California Traffic Control, which in the last few years and expanded to over 100 employees. The future will involve building on the success we’ve had.
Do you envision your kids one day being involed inthe crane business?
You know, my children are 10, eight and six, and my brother’s children are younger than that. They all still have some growing up to do, and if they want to get involved, I wouldn’t stop them.