Where the Heart Is
ABC Honors Missouri-Based Company With Its Esteemed 2016 Contractor of the Year Award
From the outside, the headquarters of hth companies, inc., Union, Mo., looks like a humble construction office—a two-story, tan-colored structure, set back a bit from a country road, with trucks parked outside, a side entrance for the warehouse, an awning bearing the company logo and a light dusting of snow on the front stoop.
But peek inside—where a warm welcome reveals the heart and soul of the company—and it’s evident why Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) selected this family-owned mechanical contracting firm as its 2016 Contractor of the Year. The award is about the employees and their sincere dedication to the betterment of the construction industry.
Founded in 1984, the company has grown to include 600 employees working in 13 states across America’s heartland, and it has expanded service offerings to include mechanical insulation, scaffold erection, industrial cleaning and maintenance, welding, pipefitting and confined space rescue.
Led by the executive team of Greg Hoberock, Mike Freese, Doug Hoberock, Susan Hellebusch, Erin Freese and Shelley Sutton, hth companies embodies the principles of the merit shop in all areas of the business.
First, hth companies prides itself on an attitude of “clients first”—going above and beyond expectations to provide the most economical and expeditious solutions, thinking ahead to anticipate challenges, and customizing every project strategy according to the client’s needs.
hth companies invests in the professional development of not only its own employees, but also the next generation of construction leaders through its recruitment and mentorship programs.
With an EMR of just .59, hth companies boasts a world-class safety culture that encourages employees to take personal responsibility for their safety and the safety of all their business partners—and it has earned several back-to-back ABC National Safety Excellence Awards and reached Diamond status in ABC’s Safety Training Evaluation Process (STEP) as a testament to its commitment.
Plus, hth companies embraces a spirit of volunteerism—dedicating time and resources to local community groups and serving on the boards of construction business associations nationwide.
CAN-DO FOR CLIENTS
“The first way to succeed in this industry is to be able to differentiate yourself from other contractors,” says President Mike Freese, who joined hth companies in 2013, bringing an accounting and finance background from the corporate and health care world to help create a fresh vision for the company. “Differentiation happens through the people you recruit, training them to the best of their abilities, having a stellar safety record, good branding and a good company name. And I think if you can put those things in place, the possibilities are pretty much endless.”
Freese mirrors the can-do attitude inspired by his father-in-law Greg Hoberock, who became fed up working within a restrictive and inefficient union contracting environment and started the company “as a 30th birthday gift to myself,” he laughs. The firm was first incorporated as Hoberock Insulation, and shortly thereafter transitioned to the “hth” moniker after he bought out his early business partners.
Growing a company into multiple states and new service areas—especially during the recession when other companies were shutting their doors—takes gumption and grit. A strong customer base doesn’t hurt either.
“Our company was started with one principal that we stand on today: We are willing to care about our clients. We are willing to take the risks to do new things. We expect our people to deliver. Other people said you can’t; we said yes we can,” Chairman and CEO Greg Hoberock says. “When an opportunity comes knocking, you should always answer the door.”
Greg’s daughter Erin Freese, vice president of outsourced services, pushes the team to innovate and pair up with the right partners. “During the recession, we slowed a bit, but we started evolving and growing, and picking up where others left off,” she says.
The company has never been one to need a salesperson. Rather, leaders have built the business on their willingness to take risks and use imagination.
“When you have good customers and great relationships, it gives you the ability to create the right teams for prospecting, as well as identify the right people, the right services and the right clients,” Mike Freese says.
The value placed on relationships—both those made by blood and by loyalty—shows in the way the leadership team interacts. They stand by each other’s sides, whether it’s making high-pressure business decisions or offering support outside work.
Doug Hoberock, vice president of operations, literally grew up at hth companies. As children, he and Erin rode their bicycles to the office through the woods, finished their homework at plan tables and worked summers in the shop.
Susan Hellebusch, vice president of accounting, began working for hth companies 23 years ago as an assistant controller, helping Greg Hoberock grow the business from only 150 employees and five states at the time.
Shelley Sutton, director of shared services, has worked for the company for 10 years, leading the company’s award-winning safety programs and helping it to achieve the many awards adorning the headquarters’ walls and bookshelves. “When I came here, it just felt like home,” she says.
REFERRAL-BASED BUSINESS GROWTH
In 1999, hth companies made a wise move to grow beyond the bread of butter of commercial mechanical insulation and scaffolding projects and into the high-stakes industrial market. Taking on top industrial and manufacturing clients such as Tate & Lyle, BASF and Proctor & Gamble, and exceeding their expectations, helped define the company’s safety leadership culture for the long term. Completing jobs for these big-name clients has only led to more jobs.
With a strong reputation, hth companies is often requested directly by the engineering team to be a project partner at industrial plants.
“It’s not just about your price; it’s about the underlying value you bring as a contractor. Cost is only one factor in the decision. We have grown primarily because an engineer leaves the site and says, ‘I want you to come with me,’” Doug Hoberock says.
Safety is the No. 1 reason hth companies has a long history of being sought out for work. “If you are not head and shoulders above the industry on safety, you don’t even get to walk in the plant,” Greg Hoberock says. The team has even gone as far as having to fire a client for lacking the same philosophy on the importance of safety. That’s right—the contractor fired the owner, not the other way around.
“Fundamentally we believe in two things. One is safety. We have told clients, we don’t run our business this way; you will need to find somebody else,” Greg Hoberock says. “Second, we believe in making our customer happy. If you make your customer happy, your customer will see that you make money. Maybe not on that specific job, but in the long term, they will.”
Sometimes that even means carrying the weight for another contractor that is behind schedule because if the project fails, everyone whose name is tied to the project is negatively impacted. hth teams have stepped up to perform everything from cutting grass onsite to completing hazmat and industrial cleanup beyond the original scope of work—all in the interest of achieving the best possible end result for the project owner.
“It’s pretty simple: If you listen to what the client is asking you to do, you’re going to be successful. It’s about making the client happy from Point A to Point Z,” Mike Freese says.
SAFETY AND TECH, HAND-IN-HAND
hth companies sets the tone for safety from the top—and that extends to innovation and creativity. It consistently reinvents its safety programs and marketing to keep them fresh, and individualizes the message to reach every person on the jobsite.
“We know the names of the children people are going home to,” Erin Freese says. “It’s not just you, the employee, who I’m worried about; it’s you and your entire world. I want your whole family to be involved. At some sites, we encourage employees to bring in photos of their families to help reinforce the message.”
ABC’s STEP program defines the parameters for hth companies’ consistent achievements in behavior-based hiring, training and promotion.
“We continue to win STEP awards because we continue to look at what opportunities the program has to offer and what we might implement next,” Sutton says. “It leads us to consider what we can do to be better. Even if we receive top honors, that’s not good enough.”
In addition to requiring employees to join a weekly safety call, hth companies provides each employee with a stop-task card, giving all field workers the right to stop the work immediately if they see something unsafe occurring onsite. In addition, the company hosts a quarterly safety challenge to keep up a spirit of competition and engagement. Individual branch offices maintain training computers onsite so employees can take their OSHA 10-hour tests on the spot.
As a technology leader, hth companies recently tied safety into its mobile skills training app, which tracks employees’ progression through benchmarks in each of its core functions: mechanical insulation, scaffolding and industrial cleaning. Having this tool positions the employer as a tech-savvy organization—one that is seeking brains over brawn.
“For training and retention, it sets us apart from other companies by far,” Mike Freese says. “It’s something that employees are excited about. They can hold it; they can see it. It’s different. It means they are investing time in the organization, which is a key component for buy in. And customers find it very appealing as well.”
GIVING BACK THROUGH INDUSTRY RECRUITMENT, VOLUNTEERISM
hth companies makes recruitment a habit. The company is always encouraging standout employees to consider training opportunities that would move them up the ranks (recruiting internally) and promoting the value of construction jobs to young high school and college-aged prospects who are considering careers in other industries (recruiting externally).
Mentoring the younger generation comes in many forms, including hosting young persons at the hth office or sitting in on local government meetings to express concerns with lawmakers about local craft training and apprenticeship rules.
Recently, Sutton helped initiate a new work-to-hire program that gives disadvantaged young persons living in St. Louis County the opportunity to learn to perform hydro-blasting at project sites in the greater region. If they show progress and commitment, arrive for work on time each day and adhere to the company’s safety rules, the new recruits are invited to stay onboard for more extensive training. Two of the young men from the program have continued to work for hth companies, recognizing their potential future in the construction industry.
The key, Greg Hoberock says, is positioning construction as a highly desirable and respectable job, not just a place for “ditch diggers” who couldn’t find a job elsewhere. “Nowadays a ‘ditch digger’ is operating a $750,000 piece of equipment and making up to $100,000 a year. The industry is run using computers, remote hand held operations and automated equipment programmed by mechanical engineers. We have to tell the world this message,” he insists.
“The younger generation wants to know there is more to it than swinging a hammer or putting up insulation,” Mike Freese says. “They want to know how they will progress and transition into leadership opportunities within an organization; for example, how they can become an estimator or a safety manager. They are looking at the long-term plan. And they want to understand how people are going to communicate, asking, ‘Will people listen to me, and will I be treated as an equal?’”
The core qualities hth companies seeks in a job candidate are a strong moral compass and a dedication to lifelong learning, not merely having the right construction skillset. It’s these same core qualities—and a magnanimous attitude toward supporting the industry and the community large—that earned the company its Contractor of the Year status.
“A lot of contractors will stop recruiting once they have a full team. We don’t. We are always trying to bring employees up to the next level, and that means that I’m always ‘recruiting’ my own people. We continue to recruit our guys over and over to keep them part of the team,” Doug Hoberock says. Employees are encouraged to take the next steps for their own career development, even if it means having to spread their wings and leave the company.
“If one of our employees gets recruited away, it’s flattering. It means we’re doing something right. It means we’re doing a good job encouraging the team,” Mike Freese says.
Lauren Pinch was editor-in-chief of Construction Executive and serves as an editorial consultant to the construction industry.