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Staying on Top of the Hill

Diversity Is the Name of the Game for This 60-year-old Venture
Darrin Harris, left, and Jeff Noble

Darrin Harris, left, and Jeff Noble, third-generation owners of Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners Inc., say diversity is one of the keys to the company’s success.

With so many companies coming and going these days, longevity is a trait to celebrate. Thus, Hill-Engineers, Architects and Planners Inc. of Dalton has a lot to be proud of; this year, the company celebrates its 60-year anniversary.

While doing so, it will reflect on a number of changes — within the industry and at the company as well.

Founded in 1949 as Hill-Engineering, the company has its roots in the paper and pulp industry. Founder William (“Bill”) Hill was a mechanical engineer by trade who did work for the paper companies. He kept their machines in tip-top running condition through the ’50s and ’60s, during a time when the paper and pulp business in the Pioneer Valley was going strong.

When the paper industry went into decline, Hill was wise enough to diversify and expand his services to include other types of engineering, mainly structural and electrical. Sometime later, the company added architecture, and in the ’80s, it added civil engineering and land surveying. In 1987, the firm changed its name to reflect its new offerings.

Today, the 37-employee Hill-Engineers (note the ‘ing’ is dropped) still does work for paper companies — including Crane and Co. of Dalton, which, among other things, makes paper for U.S. currency — but paper is no longer its core business.

Darrin Harris, manager of the civil survey division of Hill-Engineers, one of the firm’s current owners, explained the company’s growth in simple terms. “We started doing work inside the building, then we did the building itself; then we moved to the outside of the building.”

The company’s three current main offerings include:

  • Engineering. This division of the company includes mechanical, electrical, and structural engineering. It focuses on designing HVAC, plumbing, and fire-protection systems. This is also the group that designs machines for paper mills.

  • Architecture. Hill-Engineers has three in-house architects who focus mainly on commercial and industrial work. “We’ve designed whole buildings, but we also do things like take existing buildings, redo the interior, and change partition walls,” said Harris.

  • Civil engineering and land surveying. This division of Hill-Engineers handles the outside of the building, everything from roads to the water-supply systems and other utilities that serve the building. This group also does surveying and handles the environmental permitting for land development.
  • Change of Hands

    Hill-Engineers’ ownership is now on its third generation. In 1980, founder Bill Hill figured he’d had enough of the business. He incorporated the company and sold the majority of stock to five employees (four men and one woman) who became the new owners. The remaining stock was divided among the employees in an employee stock-ownership program.

    Over the past decade, the company switched hands again as gradually, the second generation owners retired one by one, forfeiting their piece of the pie. Now the company is in the hands of two owners, Harris and Jeffrey Noble, who is the company president. A third owner, Bill Stevens, retired recently.

    Both Harris and Noble like to think of their company as a family. “We have people who have been here a long time,” said Noble. In fact, the two of them started working for Hill-Engineers during their college days, interning during the summer, and eventually taking full-time positions when they graduated.

    The majority of Hill-Engineers’ employees work out of the firm’s Dalton office. Recently, the company invested $35,000 in acquiring a three-person surveying office in Adams.

    “We opened that about five years ago, with Northern Berkshire County going through a growth spurt,” said Noble. “There was a surveying company in Adams [Neff Associates] that closed due to the death of its owner, and the son didn’t want to run the business anymore, so we bought it and kept it open.”

    High-profile Projects

    The types of projects that Hill handles have changed over the years as well. “We used to do mainly industrial types of projects, and now we’ve expanded to commercial and residential work,” said Harris. With the recent and profound downturn in the housing market, the company has picked up more municipal projects, he told BusinessWest.

    “We’re doing a lot of work for the Department of Housing and Community Development,” said Harris, adding that “we’re also working for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, so it seems like we are doing a lot of public types of work.”

    Several of those projects fall into the ‘green’-building realm, said Harris, who talked with BusinessWest about four high-profile projects the firm is currently involved in:

    • The Berkshire Wind Project. One day soon, 10 wind turbines on the top of Mount Brodie will provide green energy to the region’s power grid. Hill-Engineers is handling the site engineering and road design for the project. “We’re also doing all the permitting,” explained Harris. “We go to the public meetings for the Conservation Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals.” They are looking at finishing the site excavations by end of this summer, he said.

    • Hoosac Wind Power Project, another wind project, this one involving 20 wind turbines on Crum Hill in Monroe. Similarly, Hill-Engineers is handling the site plans as well as the permitting, which is the most complicated and frustrating aspect of the project. “There’s a lot of red tape and hoops,” explained Harris. The project was recently appealed to the state Supreme Judicial Court, and, according to Harris, there’s no telling when the project will be completed.
    • Housatonic River Cleanup. General Electric discharged PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, into the river until 1977. After five years of hard work, the river is nearly cleaned up, and Hill-Engineers is a big part of that effort. “We did some of the design on the erosion control and retaining wall,” said Harris. “And we oversaw a lot of the excavation to make sure the construction company was doing what it was supposed to.”
    • Road to Mt. Greylock Reservation. This project involves repaving a 10-mile road up to Mt. Greylock. Hill-Engineering has been the watchdog for the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), making sure that that the contractor was building the road and infrastructure according to plans. “We had three guys up there for two years during the construction season,” said Harris. The new road opens this summer.
    • Sixty years in business is a big achievement. Will Hill-Engineers be doing any celebrating? “I’m sure we will do something for our 60th, probably this summer,” said Harris.“And I’m sure it will involve champagne or some other beverage of choice. We do like to have fun here at Hill.”

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