Construction is one of those industries that looks simple on the outside, yet is anything but once you are on the inside. Hauling gravel, dirt, asphalt — you name it — in dump trucks only looks like easy money. It's when you start including wear and tear on equipment, driver turnover, plus the seasonality of the construction business that things get complicated in a hurry.
Unless, of course, you're Hilco Transport Inc. Celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, Hilco, which got its start as Long Brothers Construction, has a pretty simple formula for surviving and thriving in the rough-and-tumble construction business, starting, not surprisingly, with drivers.
William Henry “Doc” Long founded Long, which still remains as a division of Hilco, not long after coming home from World War II. He felt that good people formed the backbone of any successful business, a mind-set his son, Gurney Long, Hilco's president, maintains to this day.
“We want our drivers to retire with Hilco, and that's how we approach them,” Gurney explains. “Their experience and attitude is what keeps customers coming back to us.”
Many times, he notes, Hilco and Long receive requests from customers to send out specific drivers. “That's why we pride ourselves on our service,” Gurney stresses. “That means a lot to them and to us. That's why we spec extras in our trucks where we can; why we spend time and money on various safety awards for them; and why at the end of the day we try to treat them like family. That's why we've done so well over the years.”
It's also reflected in the lengths the company goes to provide its drivers and other personnel with top-notch training. Two years ago, for example, Gurney hired a veteran safety director from the airline industry to come in and create safety videos and training seminars for the company.
Gurney and his older brother Charles joined the family business full-time in 1983. By then, their father was already deep into the second piece of his growth strategy: diversification.
“He formed Hilco Transport to serve other areas of our customers' businesses, such as hauling liquid asphalt, petroleum products, and municipal waste,” Gurney says. “In 2005, we started hauling liquid propane to offset the slowdown in liquid asphalt business during the wintertime and … that's helped us weather the economic troubles in the U.S. these last few years.”
The two companies together operate a large chunk of equipment, namely 60 dump trucks and 108 tractors, with 95% Mack Truck models. “We maintain four specific tractor specifications for our various businesses, with two vocational dump truck specs for tri- and quad-axle models,” he notes. “Again, we look for every opportunity to upgrade them in terms of safety, longevity and driver retention.”
Doc Long transitioned the family business to the second and third generations, with Gurney and Charles sharing operating duties along with their sister, Patty Hill. Charles' daughter Wendi handled the construction side of the business with Long Brothers. But that changed in 2003 when Patty retired and Charles unexpectedly died. Now, Gurney runs Hilco while his son, Jonathon, learns the ropes.
The third and final piece of Doc Long's long-term strategy is to do-it-yourself whenever possible, a belief shared by Richard Walford, Hilco's vp-maintenance. “We like developing our own truck specs and doing all of our own maintenance, except warranty work,” Walford says, noting that most of his staff of ten technicians work out of a main shop at Hilco's headquarters in Greensboro, NC, with others scattered among three satellite shops located at three other Hilco terminals across the state.
“I'm a hands-on type of person, because hands on means we have a lot better control over our equipment downtime for maintenance and repair,” explains Walford, a 21-year Hilco veteran.
The true icing on the cake, though, is that Doc Long is still around to witness the success of both his business and his family.