PROFILE: Hillenburg Building Group Inc.: All in the family Firm diversified business to build new client base

July 23, 2007

Hillenburg Building Group Inc. All in the family Firm diversified business to build new client base

When Willard Hillenburg started his home-building company in 1950, he knew sons Gary, Jerry and Larry would have the chance to learn the business at his side. Five decades later, the business is still a family affair.

Now named Hillenburg Building Group to reflect its expansion from residential building to commercial and home remodeling, the Martinsville company is owned by Larry and his wife, Judy; their daughter, Amber Rather; and her husband, Jim.

Larry's brothers, Gary and Jerry, have moved on to start their own businesses, but they've been replaced by extended family members with diverse backgrounds.

Nephew Chris Hillenburg, 33, joined the company about a year ago as its project manager. He grew up learning his father's custom cabinetry business. Jim Rather worked in sales and marketing at Seattle's Boeing Corp. for 10 years.

Diversification, they all agree, is important to the company's success.

"If one area of residential building suffers, the commercial end helps offset that," Chris said.

It also is a key to surviving in a soft housing market. While the framing business has slowed because of sluggish residential construction, its commercial and home remodeling work is steady.

"When it's a buyer's market and people aren't selling their homes, typically you'll see people updating their homes to sell them or they may decide to stay there and make their home nicer for the long term," Jim said.

That's not to say Hillenburg has moved away from custom home building. Before the 1978 housing slump, the company built an average of 50 homes a year in the Greenwood, Center Grove and Martinsville areas. Today, it frames about 10 homes for other custom builders and builds a couple of its own high-end homes each year. In 2006, the company earned $500,000. Its 30 to 40 remodel jobs represent the bulk of its business.

Is it hard being family when disagreements arise? Larry said each has his or her own talents.

"Jim deals with contractors and he and Amber deal with the money," he said. "Chris takes care of the field in the remodeling area, and I take care of residential home building and framing for other builders."

Their weekly "board meeting" is held around the dinner table on Sundays, when the whole family gathers to discuss the past week and any upcoming projects.

They agree that the success of the business goes back to the foundation built by Willard Hillenburg-and the family's reputation for quality work and superior customer service.

"We may not be the cheapest company in town, but when we promise something, we will deliver," Chris said.

Referrals have been key to Hillenburg's growth. When Jeannie and Ron Tedrow wanted to build a boat dock and deck on their Martinsville lakefront property, they found Hillenburg through their landscaper. Jeannie said the Hillenburg family's reputation sold her on hiring them.

"They combine great design and experience. That's a good combination," she said.

Christi McGill of New Palestine also was referred to Hillenburg when she wanted to build a deck and pergola.

"They fleshed out our ideas and we gave them full rein," she said. "They literally started on the day we left for vacation promising that it would be done when we returned and it was."

Larry sees potential for growth in remodeling by capitalizing on the reputation they have built working with other custom-home builders. He said the business has survived when many others haven't because the Hillenburgs have "never left a job where the people weren't happy."

In an ever-changing industry like construction, Larry's wife, Judy, keeps the family focused on the "big picture."

"You can get bogged down on daily problems, but if you look at the big picture, they seem trivial," Larry said.

Jim agreed.

"Never give up, even when things get difficult," he said. "Overcoming those is the difference between an also-ran and a successful company."
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