After years of looking at banking spreadsheets, John Hill came to a heartfelt decision: He didn’t want to be an accountant anymore.
Shortly before his conclusion Hill had saved enough money to get a house – but only if he built it himself. “Whenever I wasn’t working at the bank, I was building the house,” he now recalls. He ended up liking his avocation so much it soon became his vocation.
After that there were several stints working as an operator for contractors in the area, “but they never seemed to keep me busy enough,” Hill says. He soon decided to go out on his own, a choice literally shaken into reality by the January, 1994 Los Angeles earthquake.
Hill soon had an order book filled with homeowners wanting him to do underpinning and foundation work. “I did foundation work on one client’s house,” he says, “and the other homeowners in his neighborhood would see my work and then I had one customer after another.”
“That kept us going for at least a year,” says his wife Linda, who started keeping the company’s books after the birth of the first of their four children and has managed its office ever since.
The earthquake-related work also settled Hill on the type of construction in which to specialize: site development. It’s work he takes great pride in, especially since Southern
California’s mountainous terrain usually calls for more than a touch of ingenuity.
“John’s done some difficult and challenging grading on hills and mountainsides for us no one else could have done,” says Sam Whitaker, a construction consultant in Simi Valley, California. “I always recommend John for the grading work because he’s a great guy, he’s safe, he’s extremely competent and he always comes in ahead of schedule and under budget.”
On one job, company crews were required to dig out, move, twist into proper position and precisely place car-size boulders – all without scratching any surfaces left uncovered. “We slid the rocks from the side that would be eventually buried in the hillside, so the scratches were only on that side,” Hill says. “When we had to touch any exposed surface we put a pile of dirt in front of the rock and then pushed the dirt to move the boulder.” Before all this could happen Hill constructed a dirt berm to safely stop any rolling rocks.
On another project, the orders were to excavate a 2,500-square-foot, three-story house with a concrete dome roof buried in a hillside. Hill’s strategy was to excavate the house pad and pile the dirt on top of the slope until the house was completed. Then he would use 1,000 cubic yards of rock and soil to cover three sides of the house and the roof.
The geologist’s report said the site had Class A soil with large sandstone boulders. But Hill soon discovered it contained a solid rock half the size of the house. Getting behind the controls of a Caterpillar 330 excavator equipped with a breaker, Hill cut a path around the boulder, dug out a hole below the rock and gradually maneuvered the mammoth rock into the hole. By repeating this operation three times, he moved the 20-ton boulder off the building pad site. When the home builders finished the house, he then pushed the rock into position by the entrance drive, creating a landscape conversation piece.
He’s also operated 50,000-pound tractors underneath a house while the house was positioned on temporary caissons above him. “In addition,” he says, “we’ve had heavy equipment in a house, loading dirt out over a lady’s dining room table into a wheel barrow to be shuttled out.”
Then there are the jobs where Hill, while grateful for the money, ends up shaking his head at the extravagance exhibited. For instance, one client had him completely dig out his existing Olympic-size swimming pool and then replace it 1 foot from where it was – all because he didn’t like the reflection of the original pool.
Still, Hill seems to relish all his unusual jobs. “It’s probably one of the coolest parts of our company,” he says. “For most of my clients, time is more expensive than money.”
Linda, John’s wife, manages the company office in their Country Canyon home.
The importance of rental
Hill’s 15-machine fleet includes everything from skid steers to scrapers. Still, he reports, “We rent a lot. It’s important. While we have one or two of everything, including loaders, excavators and dozers, when we get short of equipment, we’ll always end up renting.
“It’s difficult to grow if you can’t rent, if you don’t have access to machines you don’t already own,” he continues. “You can’t go buy a $250,000 machine on a whim you might get work for it. If you don’t rent every once and awhile, you’re not growing. You’re not reaching any further than what’s in front of you.”
Hill says he’s almost constantly buying and selling machines, and if he keeps a machine busy for half a year in the year-round California climate, he’ll buy it. At an equipment shop that’s about five miles from his in-home office, he keeps two mechanics busy doing preventive maintenance.
With around 15 people on the payroll, Hill counts himself lucky with the people he has, especially since he runs a non-union operation. “Although the union has quality people, a lot of times they can’t keep them busy,” he says. That’s one reason why his foreman and second-in-command, Val Longoria, came back to Hill Engineering & Construction after a stint in the union. “This is the person my clients see the most besides myself so he needs to be on top of his game,” Hill says. “It was a great decision, and now I have someone who knows what they’re doing and how to do it the way I would.”
Hill shakes his head over how some operators have been trained. “Even though we ask for five years minimum experience with our incoming operators, you’d be surprised at how many people come out and can’t operate properly. No one has sat down with them and explained the physics of operating to them. Operating is part physics, part art.”
In his blood
Hill wants to grow, but slowly. He remembers times in the past when the company grew too quickly. “At one point, we went from doing $30,000 jobs to a $1 million project and it was a problem to both man and complete.” As it is, Hill reports the business remains so busy that “Linda and I have to struggle to get in a date night.”
Still, the company has been good to them, Hill says. “We’ve been really blessed,” he continues. Linda adds: “He really enjoys it and is constantly thinking of new ways to do a project. He reminds me of the guy in the movie ‘Twister,’ who was consumed with the way the wind was blowing. He just loves the dirt. It’s in his blood.”