Contractor of the Year finalist: James “Augie” and Nancy Henning

James “Augie” and Nancy Henning; McDaniels, Kentucky

This couple’s main advice after 34 years in construction: stick with it. Success in this industry takes years.

Henning Construction has grown in phases. At first, Augie, with Nancy at his side, began as August Henning Construction. He had one truck and the carpentry skills he’d learned while constructing buildings at a 500-acre Easter Seals camp for handicapped children. The two concentrated on constructing buildings, had three children, and quickly bought a backhoe so they could do their own earthwork.

With no daycare options in the rural Kentucky area, the couple’s children – Nathan, Christy and Aaron – literally grew up on jobsites, so it’s not surprising all three are now involved in their parent’s two companies (Henning Construction began in 2003.)

As Augie puts it, Nancy has always “managed the money,” a task that means much more than handling the office. She’s the company’s chief estimator and analyzes the profitability of jobs. When work prompted it, she even became a licensed master and journeyman plumber, electrician, HVAC installer and erosion control inspector. Augie counts when Nancy took over the company’s financial reins as a turning point.

Transition to earthmoving
As sons Nathan and Aaron gradually became more involved with the business, they favored a change in company direction, preferring earthmoving over building construction. Although the Hennings still have a crew that concentrates on buildings, their companies’ primary growth occurred when they took on site and road work for gas and oil exploration companies. Another key client is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And through the Small Business Administration, both companies became HUBZone certified, which provides federal contracting opportunities for small businesses located in distressed areas.

“All in all, they are probably the best contractor I’ve worked with,” says Patricia Hull, a contracting agent with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They do what’s right, and will go out of their way for you even if it’s going to cost them more.”

Henning Construction does a variety of earthwork, including water, sewer, drainage, road and site work for governmental, utility and residential customers. “Anytime we hire someone,” Nancy says, “we tell them to be prepared to do anything. They’re not going to be doing the same thing from one day to the next.” “We’re just so diversified, we take pretty much whatever comes through the door,” Augie adds.

Augie and Nancy have a well-established can-do attitude. “Years ago I’d go out with our younger son Aaron to look over a job,” Augie recalls. “I’d talk with the owner, get his ideas, then say, ‘yes, we can do this.’ On the way home, Aaron would say, ‘Dad, you’ve never done that before.’ And I’d say, ‘Then we’ll learn how to do it.'”

The hilly terrain of Breckinridge County, located about 70 miles southwest of Louisville, Kentucky, brings out the Hennings’ sense of humor. “We’d tell people that when we worked on flat ground we have to stand with a lean because we were so used to working on a steep slope,” Nancy says.

Their rural area fosters interdependence with their employees. They pay 100 percent of their health insurance, tell them their families come first and back it up with actions such as picking up a worker’s sick child. “Our employees have a life of their own and it’s just not all about us,” Nancy says. “We feel responsible for keeping them working.”

“Our policy has always been in the slack times we invest in the company,” Augie says. They just finished a remodeling and addition to its office and shop areas, work that kept people employed throughout the winter. The original office, built in 1985, got an additional 1,000 square feet, and Nancy and Christy and daughter-in-law Tonya got some elbow room. “We all used to be in a 10-by-16-foot room crammed with filing cabinets,” Nancy says. “We couldn’t move our chairs without running into each other.”

Another slow-time project involved building a 3,000-foot grass airstrip used by Augie and Nathan, both of whom have their pilot’s license and fly two 1960’s-vintage airplanes.

Managing the fleet
The Hennings buy primarily new equipment, unless the machine is a non-production machine for them, such as a roller. All operators are responsible for maintaining their machines, and in the winter, they migrate to the shop to do full-scale maintenance, including engine overhauls.

The company’s fleet includes five backhoes, seven dozers, four excavators and a collection of historical construction equipment displayed throughout their property. Relates Nancy: “Older operators have called us about our old pipelayer, telling us ‘if you want help with trying to get that thing running, just call me. I’d love to work those levers again.'”

“They’re excellent equipment managers,” Hull says. “They’ve never had a breakdown on our job, and their equipment always looks great.” Still, Augie misses the day when he was more hands on with equipment operation, “But we always have to be in here looking for the next job,” he says.

Never turn away
The high school sweethearts, who have easy laughs and finish each other’s sentences, agree “we don’t ever turn away from challenges,” as Nancy puts it. “That’s what makes the job,” adds Augie, “to see if you can do it.”

“You have to stick it out in the hard times,” Augie says. “And it doesn’t just happen in a year,” says Nancy. “It takes years.” But they’re not complaining. “We’ve always enjoyed what we’ve done,” Augie says, “and it’s hard to think of us ever retiring. I think more than anything we enjoy the challenge of completing something.”