CHAMPAIGN — Steve Hillard has had an unusual career path as an entrepreneur, meeting with success in both manufacturing and banking.
Today he's the president of HL Precision Manufacturing, a Champaign-based company that makes components for the scientific instruments, aerospace, industrial measurement and electronics industries, among others.
Over the years, he's taken calculated risks, some at a very young age, and invested in a variety of fields with a vision for what could be.
In two different companies, C.S. Johnson and HL's forerunner, Harlan & Lash Machining, Hillard saw opportunities where others didn't, said Greg Lykins, the chairman of First Busey Corp.
"Financial professionals often don't see value in manufacturing and other more fundamental industries," Lykins said. "They just see a rough environment where it's difficult to do the work and achieve a financial result.
"Steve had an aptitude for understanding manufacturing," Lykins said, adding that in C.S. Johnson, Hillard saw opportunity in building huge concrete batch plants and shipping them overseas for construction projects.
Hillard built up C.S. Johnson and sold it — and when that company fell on rough times, he bought it back and built it up again.
"That, in and of itself, conveys a characteristic of Steve that's unusual," Lykins said.
Hillard, 52, of Mahomet grew up in LeRoy, the son of a purchasing agent for the Eureka Company and an elementary school teacher. Though his family did not farm, Hillard had "a great fondness" for agriculture and earned a degree in agribusiness from Illinois State University.
He graduated in 1985, when agriculture was facing hard times and the Texas economy was booming. So he traveled to the Longhorn State with "resume in hand" and wangled an interview for a job in the agribusiness lending division of Republic Bank.
He landed the job and then married Christine Rediger, who had grown up in Heyworth. But a year and a half later, Republic dissolved its agribusiness division and Hillard headed back to Illinois planning to work in banking.
He ended up taking a job with Wildwood Industries in Bloomington, which did manufacturing, trucking and contract packaging. He became operations manager and, in his second year there, got "the entrepreneurial bug."
Hillard tried to buy the company from its owner, but the owner didn't want to sell. Then he heard the owners of C.S. Johnson, a manufacturing company in Champaign, were looking for a buyer.
He pursued a deal for eight months and, in August 1989, acquired the company, which had about 40 employees at the time.
One of the C.S. Johnson executives, Harold Buckler, "took a liking to me and agreed to finance much of the deal as seller," Hillard said.
Hillard admits he didn't bring much cash to the deal. His dad co-signed a note for $50,000, and Steve put in $20,000 — thanks to $5,000 cash advances on four credit cards.
But Hillard said he had good rapport with Buckler and was "not uncomfortable" with manufacturing aspects such as welding and fabrication.
Plus, he had a strong engineering staff to rely on.
"What the company really needed was an energizing of their marketing," Hillard said. "The perception was that they were behind the times."
Within a couple years, two manufacturer representatives showed an interest in C.S. Johnson and made an unsolicited offer for the company. That seemed attractive to Hillard, then in his late 20s, and he elected to sell.
Hillard joined the holding company for Central Illinois Bank in late 1991 and urged the company to open a bank in McLean County. When the company had a hard time finding a president for that bank, Hillard — who had banking experience — became the CEO, serving for two years.
He also invested with his brother, Mike, and father in Pinnacle Door Company, a Bloomington-based company that made Pinnacle-branded overhead doors and later installed and serviced them. Steve Hillard sold his interest in the company — which had locations in Champaign and Seneca — to his brother in 2007.
"For 15 years, I had a tremendous experience being in business with my brother and father," he said.
Hillard also invested in 250 acres on the east side of Mahomet. Some of that acreage was later developed as sites for Carle Clinic, Fisher National Bank, First School and Oak Ridge apartments, and he sold the remaining acreage to Conway Farms in 2004.
Hillard then got involved in a new venture. Ralph Monical had developed an "oven-quality" microwave pizza, and Hillard made arrangements for a production facility in Birmingham, Ala. The intent was to distribute the product to Sam's Club stores across the nation, under the "Pierre's Pizza" brand
But Hillard said the product ended up being "pushed off the shelf" by Little Charlie's, a Schwan's brand. Schwan's was willing to pay for in-store demonstrations, a move that Hillard's venture couldn't afford.
In retrospect, Hillard said greed is sometimes considered a big sin of business, but he feels "the bigger sin is arrogance."
In the case of Pierre's Pizza, Hillard believes he was "arrogant," thinking he could pull it off but not taking sufficient account of how competitors in the market might react.
Hillard said the Alabama assets were auctioned off, and he settled with bankers. But another opportunity arose immediately.
The buyers of C.S. Johnson had pursued new strategies that didn't work out, and the company went into bankruptcy. Hillard surveyed the situation and decided the former owners' mistakes were correctable.
He acquired the company again — even though it had been out of business six months — and rehired many of the employees.
Hillard said the bankruptcy had damaged C.S. Johnson's reputation in the industry, but the company quickly became profitable again. Within a few years, a publicly traded firm, CMI Corp., made an offer for C.S. Johnson and merged it within another business to form the Johnson Ross division. That division employed about 250 people at two locations, and Hillard stayed on to run the division.
But in 2001, Terex acquired CMI and decided to close the Champaign plant despite "a long, hard fight" from Hillard to keep it going.
HIllard said he even offered to buy the enterprise from Terex, but the company was not receptive. He left the business in the fall of 2001 and sold the C.S. Johnson property to apartment developer Erwin Goldfarb.
Shortly afterward, Paul Ruedi approached Hillard about joining Strategic Capital Bank, and Hillard became CEO of the bank's holding company. He remained in that role until 2004, when some Chicago area investors acquired a controlling interest.
Considering his next move, Hillard decided there was a future in technology-related manufacturing. Harlan & Lash Machining had been a vendor of C.S. Johnson, and through attorney Rusty Freeland, Hillard learned the founders were contemplating retirement.
He reasoned the company had a good customer base, and felt that with new technologies and an emphasis on quality, he could grow the company to meet the needs of varied industries.
Today, he said, about 70 percent of the company's business lies in four sectors: scientific instruments, industrial measurement, defense and electronic retailing. He sees medical and scientific technology as a growing area to serve in coming years.
When Hillard acquired the company, six of its eight largest customers were in Illinois. Today, the largest Illinois customer ranks only eighth or ninth among all HL Precision Manufacturing clients. The company, which has facilities in Champaign and Fisher, employs about 65, about three times as many as when he acquired the firm nine years ago.
Hillard and his wife, Christine — an interior decorator and substitute teacher — have three children:
— Corrinne, who works in human resources and marketing for HL Precision Manufacturing.
— Connor, a junior at Baylor University majoring in political science.
— Cassondra, a senior at Mahomet-Seymour High School who plans to major in psychology at Baylor.
Hillard said faith is a big element of his life, and he has been involved in Pinnacle Forum, a faith-based leadership group, for more than a decade. He joined the group's national board in 2012 and became its chair in 2013.
"The mission of Pinnacle Forum is to take high-capacity leaders and engage them to carry faith through their sphere of influence," Hillard said, adding that members try to use their influence to honor God.
Freeland, a longtime friend, said Hillard has exhibited "persistence, decisiveness and a willingness to take risks" throughout his business career.
"He truly is a serial entrepreneur and has been involved in a broad spectrum of businesses including manufacturing concrete batch plants, production and distribution of frozen pizzas, banking, real estate development, sales and installation of garage doors, and now precision manufacturing."
That, Freeland said, "demonstrates his exceptional versatility as an entrepreneur."
STEVE HILLARD: An Entrepreneur in Eight Acts
Prologue: Hillard grows up in LeRoy, earns degree in agribusiness at Illinois State University
Act I: Goes to Texas in 1985, lands job in ag business lending division at Republic Bank
Act II: Returns to Illinois intending to resume banking career, instead gets job at Wildwood Industries, Bloomington
Act III: Hillard convinces business owners to sell him C.S. Johnson, a Champaign-based maker of concrete batch mixers; he sells it two years later
Act IV: Returns to banking as CEO of Central Illinois Bank-McLean County; also joins brother and dad in acquiring Pinnacle Door in Bloomington
Act V: Acquires facility in Alabama to produce oven-quality microwave pizzas developed by Ralph Monical, but plans for distribution thwarted
Act VI: Reacquires C.S. Johnson from bankruptcy in 1997 and rebuilds it, eventually selling it to CMI. Stays on to run division until Terex buys company and closes local plant
Act VII: Serves as CEO of Strategic Capital Bancorp until company is acquired by Chicago investors
Act VIII: Acquires Harlan & Lash Machining in Champaign in 2006, transforms it to HL Precision Manufacturing, tripling workforce and diversifying client base
Cozad banquet in June
CHAMPAIGN — Steve Hillard will be honored as Parkland College Foundation's V. Dale Cozad Entrepreneur of the Year at a banquet June 10.
The banquet, which includes a 5 p.m. reception and 6 p.m. dinner and program, will be at the I Hotel and Conference Center, 1900 S. First St., C.
The program generally includes a video about the guest of honor, speeches from those who know him well and an acceptance speech from the guest of honor.
Suggested donation per ticket is $75, with proceeds benefiting the Cozad Enterpreneurship Program at Parkland College. Tickets can be reserved by calling Susan Goldenstein at the foundation, 351-2464.
Previous winners of the award included Clint Atkins, Rick Stephens, Dwight Miller, Rudy Frasca and Murray Wise.