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World power

Marlton-based Hill International has learned to navigate the global landscape

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Hill International President and COO David Richter is doing business all around the world.
Hill International President and COO David Richter is doing business all around the world. - (AARON HOUSTON)

When Irvin Richter started his family's construction management business in 1976, he forced his two sons to bunk in one bedroom so he could create a home office.

And even though the company was in its infant stages, with little presence outside of their middle-class neighborhood in Willingboro, Irvin named his endeavor Hill International.

His son, David, now the company's president and COO, said the choice was particularly prophetic.

The Marlton-based business that once crammed him and his brother into one tiny bedroom now has 4,000 employees and 100 offices worldwide. And it's expected to bring in nearly $600 million this year.

“What's really driven that growth is that we went outside the U.S.,” David said. “We were Hill International on day one. You have to have big dreams, right?”

Nearly four decades after the company was founded, Hill International conducts 77 percent of its business outside the United States. Going global has carried its share of challenges, and there have been moments when the Richter family considered shutting it all down despite the opportunities at hand.

But instead, they persevered. And that has yielded tremendous success for the company, which has since moved out of the family home to a corporate headquarters in Marlton.

“There's construction everywhere on this planet, and we really had to be a global company to succeed,” David said. “Why wouldn't we want to tap the entire global market for opportunities?”

Back in 1976, Hill International started small, specializing in construction claims consulting.

That meant the company was coming in after some aspects of the construction process had already gone wrong. Eventually, they wised up, realizing they were coming into the game way too late, David said.

“Our clients used to tell us we were good Monday morning quarterbacks, meaning we were good at telling them why they lost the game but not helping them win it,” David explained.

So Hill International branched out into construction management consulting, helping projects on the front end so they wouldn't need claims service when the project came to a close, David said.

That proved particularly valuable in Abu Dhabi, where the company opened its first international office in 1987.

There, Hill International landed big contracts with the Abu Dhabi government, helping them with projects that were always delayed and always over budget.

That work led to more contracts, right about the time of the Dubai construction boom, David said. Even today, the Middle East accounts for more than 40 percent of Hill International's business.

The United States is the company's second biggest market, with about 23 percent of its business concentrated on our shores. That's followed closely by Europe, which accounts for about 15 percent of Hill's business; Latin America has about 10 percent; Asia and Australia have about 5 percent; and Africa comprises roughly 4 percent, David said.

“It is a big investment of time and money, and it does not come without risk, but the opportunities are well worth it if you succeed,” David said.

But success is not guaranteed. And there have been moments in the history of Hill International when failure was as much of an option.

In the mid-1990s, for instance, the company was still small, with only about 200 people, and the risks of doing business internationally were constantly looming. The company was always dealing in foreign languages and currencies and having to navigate complex local legal and tax requirements, David said.

“We had a very small operation and it was a money loser, and we constantly had to debate whether it was worth continuing because of the opportunities or if we needed to shut it down,” David recalled. “But the opportunities are so huge, certainly in our industry, that it was worth taking those risks.”

Take, for example, some of the recent projects Hill International has won:  

The company landed a $265 million contract to manage construction of part of the metro system in Saudi Arabia.

Hill International also scored a $52 million contract to supervise construction of one of the new metro lines being built in Doha, Qatar.

A Hill International subsidiary recently was awarded a $7.9 million contract to manage the construction of four new wind farms in Brazil.

The company won a one-year, $54 million contract to manage rehabilitation projects meant to help bring the battered Iraqi city of Basra back to life.

And about a year ago, Hill International was hired to manage the $1 billion renovation of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

Even with all that success, David said he thinks the company's best years still lie ahead.

“We saw over last 15 years or so, the more we grew the easier it was for us to win more work,” he said. “We're looking at how quickly we can get to a billion in revenue, and we see that as only a few years away.”

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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