In our fourth GEN NXT interview, I had the opportunity to speak with Mason Hill of Hill Masonry, an award-winning masonry construction company. As always, it was a pleasure to speak with him and learn about his story and gain his insight on the industry. We also thank JagClamp for continuing to sponsor this important series.
Dan Kamys: Why don’t we start talking about how you got going within the industry? How did you get involved with masonry?
Mason Hill: Well I guess by having the name Mason. [laughs] I guess I could start out by saying I’m a third-generation mason. My grandfather started in the masonry business in November 1959, and my dad also started at an early age.
He went to work with my grandfather from almost day one. As soon as he was old enough to go to the bathroom without using a diaper, was on the jobsite. He was a journeyman bricklayer at age 18, which is unheard of. I did the same growing up. It’s hard to pinpoint, because it was from such an early age. I guess the first time I can recall is probably about five years old.
MH: It sounds scary, but being from Montana, back then we were doing a lot of residential work. So I’d help carry the hod. Eventually I got old enough, I’d say six or seven years old, and I was running the forklift.
I picked that up really quickly, and really enjoyed running a forklift. They all felt comfortable with me running, because of my ability. I’ve done every portion of the job, from being hod carrier, forklift, estimating, project management, everything.
DK: So you were six or seven running a forklift and that’s incredible.
MH: Limited quantity at that age, that is, sitting in it, raising stuff up, not necessarily driving around. I was full-time running forklifts when I was 15 years old on a large commercial job. You can get a driver’s license at 15 in Montana.
DK: Do you have any memories of being with your dad and your grandfather and the guys on the job site? I mean did they give you a hard time?
MH: No, not for me. None of the guys really ever given me a hard time, you always hear those stories about the boss’ kids getting harassed. Never. Nobody’s ever been that way to me. Maybe because I worked so hard from early on, I’ve done what ever it takes to do my job, and whatever’s been required. So, for me I’ve never really had that hurdle per se.
There have been times it was difficult, dealing with guys that are older than me. But for the most part respect has been shown because I respected them, and not because I assumed their respect was given.
DK: So you worked I would imagine, after school and on weekends, as you got older?
MH: Like I said, I started helping my dad earlier age. It was every day, kind of a lifestyle. Whether it was actually helping on the job, riding with them to deliver stuff, riding with my mom to deliver paychecks, or sitting in the truck listening to all the ugly conversations. I could recall more job site stuff than childhood play memories. The comments of “Hey you got to grow up and go to work.” That was never a thing. I’ve heard, “Hey don’t work so much, and be a kid.” I’ve heard that comment more than “You need to grow up.”
DK: So why don’t we jump ahead. How did you get where you are today? Because I see that you are the Vice President, is it still a family company?
MH: Yes. Diane, my mother owns the business. Scott, my dad, and I run day-to-day operations. We’ve got about 30 guys working with us. To get to where I’m at now, I guess I was 15 years old, I started running the forklift, that led to being an apprentice. I ran my first job right out of high school. It was a large commercial housing project with a million bricks in it. My dad needed me and I wanted to run it. At the same time, I was racing sprint cars professionally.
So, working and trying to be a professional racecar driver was a tough balance. But it ended up being.
DK: Let’s talk about the whole racing career. How did you get into that?
MH: In 1997, my dad and I were driving and saw the show for the Quarter Midgets of America. That is an association that has racing for 5-15 year olds or something like that, and they race on this one-twentieth of a mile pavement track.
We were interested in doing something together that wasn’t directly work related, one-on-one father-son time. A couple of weeks later we went to Denver and bought a car and we raced about three times that year at our local tracks. We ended up traveling to Phoenix and to Las Vegas that same year for winter racing. I believe they were called the Winter Nationals and I think it was the Turkey Race or something like that.
Having the experience of running the forklift and all that kind of stuff, I was a natural at racing. So we ran in 1998 and did very well, and won quite a bit in the Quarter Midgets. In 1999, I pretty much won or was in the top three for every race.
In 1999 and I won the Western Grand Nationals, and I believe I’m still the only kid from Montana to actually win.
In 2000 or 2001, I started racing what they call mini sprint cars. So, it’s a car that is powered by 1100cc motorcycle engine. So they’re 200 horsepower, hundred-something mile an hour. I was about 15 years old at the time. Ran that for a year or two.
I ran the sprint cars until 2007, won a couple of races that I felt that we did very well at a couple. Towards the end, we had a couple of professional race teams interested in having me race for them.
Circumstances didn’t work out where that actually happened. I decided that I couldn’t go forward and I was done. So we sold the racecars, and at the same time I was working full-time for my dad. You know, [we’ve] not only worked doing the masonry business, but we also chased the racing dream. So that was fun. That ended in 2007.
I just started running work in 2005 when I was 19. I had the ability to handle the issues on the job, because of my field experience with my dad. I was a bricklayer, running work, and then at the same time I was helping in the office when I can, with submittals and paperwork.
That’s around the same time of the modern paperwork age. My dad saw that I was very capable of running the paperwork end of it, so I was taken out of the field and started doing all the paperwork, submittals, material takeoffs, orders, closeout documents, all that. I then started estimating, I think I’ve been estimating most of the work for the past five years.
Even though my job title has changed, with 37 guys you tend to wear many hats. So, estimator, project manager, major crisis manager are kind of my job roles there. I’d say the past five years I’ve been estimating, and the past two years I’ve been a full-time estimator. My dad and I manage all the projects, we have a couple of Assistant Project Managers that assist, but for the most part we manage it for ourselves. That’s kind of our goal.
DK: Did your dad want you to go into the field or did he ever encourage you to try something else? Or was it just kind of assumed that you were going to follow into the business?
MH: I would say it was assumed, but my dad also encouraged me to the fullest extent to be part of the business. There was never really any talk other than being in the family business or a racecar driver.
I’ve spent a fair amount in the field laying brick and stone. I wouldn’t say that I’ve had as much experience doing that as my dad, but that’s because I’ve been involved in the office. My talents were doing the paperwork and estimating, and that’s really outside of the equipment.
DK: So what interests you about the industry?
MH: I mean, of course the equipment interests me, because of the trucks and stuff like that. Also, after you’re done building a project you hope that you have that ability to tell somebody, “Yeah I worked on that.”
That thing is going to stand there because of the field we’re in for a long time, and that’s the best part about masonry. That [project] is going to stand there and be a trophy for you basically.
DK: How is it to work with family?
MH: You know it has its ups and downs like everybody else would say, but we do very well together. It’s difficult, but it’s very good to work with your dad. I guess my comment would be: an easy, fun and rewarding [thing].
DK: Have you worked with any younger people at your company? Have you hired any younger people, what are kind of your observations if you had any that you’ve worked with?
MH: Well, my dad’s always been on the on the forefront of hiring and training young men and women to be bricklayers. He has always had apprentices start as soon as possible, just because he started at a young age. I have [several], I’d say thirty percent of our workforce is under the age of 30, and the other 30 percent of it is 30 to 40, and the rest of them are 50 older. I mean we’re fairly young.
It is difficult to find young men and women that are willing to do this kind of work, but as long as you understand the generation you’re fine. They’re up-and-coming and that they want to be constantly entertained, learn new activities, and why you should do things a certain way. It’s always positive to encourage them, basically being a cheerleader, getting them to work for you.
I got a kid that I met in high school and he’s been working with us ever since. [He’s] running the largest project we got going on right now at 31 years old.
DK: How do you guys recruit? I don’t really hear that many companies have as young of a workforce as you. So what do you do to kind of to get them in and keep them engaged?
MH: Being from Montana, everything is kind of a small community, we’re based out of Billings, Montana. It’s the largest city in the state and has a little over 100,000 people in the city limits. [We use] word of mouth, we get it out that we’ll hire you, give you a chance. Masonry is not for everybody, but the ones that learn masonry, they can basically take a bag full of tools and go anywhere in the world and get a job.
You just have to explain it to them [saying] ‘I’m going to pay you to learn this, you don’t need to go to college to be skilled in a trade.’ There’s an opportunity to move up in our company, we always say ‘We’re going to teach you how you treat us. If you’re a superstar in the company, you’re going to move up just as fast as you show the ability to.’
If you grasped what you’re doing behind the mud board fast, you’re going to move up to learning how to lay brick, and if you master that you’re going to be a journeyman bricklayer. If you become your foreman’s right hand man, and you show that you can understand how to run work. Then we’re going to give you the opportunity to run a small project. If they show their ability to do that then we kind of dangle the carrot in front of these guys, not saying that we need to show them there’s ways to move up into the company.
That’s the understanding of the [millennial] generation. As long as you understand what it takes to engage them it’s an asset. Millennials aren’t bad to hire, as long as they’re properly trained just like any person, they have a willingness, and want to do good and be great. You just have to know how to show them that and appreciate it.
DK: So let’s talk about the last thing I always ask is a little info on how you got involved with the MCAA and what you’ve done to become involved in the industry as a larger part, not just your company.
MH: As young kids we would always go to The World of Concrete and The World of Masonry. We got Masonry Magazine, and I always used to read that, and I always wanted to become a member and it just never really happened.
We were at Damian Lang’s customer appreciation dinner, and I’m standing there talking to Heath [Holdaway] and Alan Johnson of IMS. We’ve always respected IMS as the industry standard for what they’ve done in that area. Alan said, ‘Hey, you should donate to the PACs and get involved. You would do really well.’
Jeff [Buczkiewicz] came over and we started talking about becoming a member, one thing led to another, and we finally got signed up. It’s always been on our minds to become a member, [it was] just taking that first effort to do it.
DK: What benefits have you had from being a member? Do you find value in being a member?
MH: Yes. You can say you’re part of an organization that promotes and defends masonry. But you also have access to a huge database of information at your fingertips.
You have access to a bunch of training opportunities, you get a network of peer contractors to reach out to. That’s important in our business, whether you agree [with them] or not. This business, this trade needs any help that it can get, because we won’t get anything accomplished without working together. Masonry used to be a necessity, and it’s on its way to becoming a desire with some of the new legislation with wood.
But it’s very beneficial. I mean just becoming a member to have access to a silica program that’s worth its weight in gold.
DK: Do you have any advice for somebody younger who might be considering going into this industry?
MH: It is a very fulfilling trade. You can go as far as you want to, if you show enough initiative. The best part about this field is that if you learn to become a bricklayer, you can take a bag of tools and basically work wherever you want. There is a labor shortage, so basically where you go somebody will hire you and give you the chance to start. It’s a lot of work but it’s very rewarding.
DK: Mason I thank you so much. I know you’re a busy guy, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.