Did you catch our episode with Mike Tyson? How about one of our first episodes with Jens Pulver? If you did, you know that there’s more connection to taking a punch and being a contractor than you might think. Jimmy Hiller, President and CEO of Hiller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & Electrical might be known for his prowess running his company and involvement with Jim Abrams and Terry Nicholson, but his path was anything but glamorous. From winning trophies for boxing at a young age to dealing with just about everything life can throw at you, we’re excited to have had Jimmy on the podcast to talk about his incredible journey.
By the age of 12, Jimmy had picked up a pair of boxing gloves. He grew up playing sports, and while he wasn’t the biggest kid for his age, he was a scrapper. Jimmy remembers being involved in many a dust-up during school, and wasn’t afraid to throw the first punch! His dad took him to the gym and got him into boxing, and he fell in love with it. At the time, Jimmy was living in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Before long, Jimmy started winning tournaments. He would be entered into the Junior Olympics, earning gold. After that, he advanced to the regionals, where he again earned the gold medal. Earning the bronze medal at nationals, he would later go on to win both the Mid State Golden Glove Championship and Southern Golden Glove Championship two times respectively.
Jimmy doesn’t feel that he was that naturally talented, but he knew how to punch. More importantly, he outworked his opponents. When the bell rang, he threw more punches than the person standing across from him in the ring. In the trades and in life, sometimes that’s all it takes. That hard work ethic and determination would carry Jimmy to greater heights later in life. However, by the time he was a Junior in high school, he started to drink. His boxing career and studies fell behind, and his life became more complicated.
In his senior year of high school, Jimmy’s first child was born. This was just 11 days after he turned 18. As he watched his brother and two younger sisters go off to college, Jimmy went straight to work as a gas station attendant. He simply had to make an income to raise a child and start a much more adult life before his friends and siblings. He continued with that job for a while, but Jimmy’s dad wanted to help him find a better career; a trade. Jimmy’s father had a good friend who was a plumbing inspector and helped get Jimmy his first plumbing job in December of 1984. Jimmy was doing plumbing work in apartments in Nashville, and after a few years earned his journeyman’s license. Needing to earn more money, he found work with another contractor that would pay him 10 dollars an hour instead of the 8 he was currently earning. However, as the new contractor wouldn’t let him work on the weekends, his net pay stayed roughly the same. Having a child and being young, Jimmy was up every day at 4:30, busting his ass to try and make ends meet the best he could.
Late one night after drinking, Jimmy made his way home and went off the road in his truck. He crashed into a tree and broke both of his legs. Waking up to this new reality in a hospital, Jimmy was given a choice between physical therapy and recovery in the hospital for several weeks or a rod put into his legs. As the rod meant he could leave in a few days, he took that option. He wanted to get back to work as soon as possible. While his boss gave him time off, when Jimmy did want to return, there wasn’t a job there for him anymore.
Jimmy found his third job roughing plumbing in apartments again. After getting a DUI and then working for another contractor, his wheels were more or less spinning. He had a real drinking problem, 3 kids by the age of 22, and his wife had seen enough. Now, Jimmy was going through a divorce by his 23rd birthday and having financial problems. Once again, his father stepped in to help. Jimmy’s dad took him to an attorney, who recommended Jimmy go to a treatment center. It would help him in court, and also be a good step for him to be able to see his kids. Jimmy’s dad made him promise he’d do whatever the woman who ran the treatment center said. As Jimmy didn’t think he had a problem, he agreed.
When Jimmy first went to the Cumberland Heights treatment center, the woman recommended an outpatient program and gave him a few things to do. A week later when he returned, he hadn’t followed through. The result was that he was now recommended to do inpatient treatment. Jimmy would turn 24 years old in that facility, but it would turn out to be the best 28 days Jimmy ever spent in his life. This treatment for his alcohol addiction started him not just on the road to recovery, but on the path to becoming one of the most respected and successful contractors in the country.
2 months after finishing treatment, Jimmy passed his Master Plumber’s test and started really thinking about the future. His boss noticed, and mentioned to Jimmy that he didn’t seem as invested in his work as usual. Jimmy admitted that he thinking about going into business for himself and that Friday afternoon, Jimmy walked out of the doors with no job, a pickup truck, and 500 dollars to his name.
He called up his dad to tell him he was going into business for himself. It was rough going at the start, and while his uncle helped with the bookkeeping, it was tough. After a while, Jimmy’s dad and uncle sat him down to point out that he wasn’t making any money. They wanted him to stop and find a new job working for someone else. Tears in his eyes, Jimmy told them if he gave up now, he’d never have anything in his life for himself.
In 1990, Jimmy started his business and woke up every single morning ready to work. He wasn’t making much, but it was his own. And he was determined to see it through.
Over the next few years, things did start to get going for Jimmy and his plumbing company. However, the new construction side of his business was difficult and financially, he still wasn’t in a great spot. Simply making payroll was about all he could focus on. He was a great plumber but didn’t know how to run a business. After getting a flier to go and see Terry Nicholson speak in Missouri, Jimmy was ready to give anything a shot. So, in 1999, Jimmy and one of his most trusted employees made the long drive out to meet Terry.
Jimmy ended up meeting both Terry Nicholson and Jim Abrams and was willing to do whatever it took to get his business to the next level. He wanted to learn whatever they had to teach him. It took a while, but he started putting the business principles in place that they taught. Jimmy was diligent about attending the classes, doing the work, and implementing what he learned.
In 2003, Jimmy brought in HVAC to his business. He was still growing, and the commercial/new construction side of things remained a big part of his business–as well as a source of frustration. In 2005, he was doing the biggest job he’d ever done, a new school in Franklin, TN. The work was through one a local contractor who had a great reputation, yet Jimmy wasn’t getting paid. He was owed $300,000 and confronted the project manager. All of the work was completed. The punch list was completed, and everything had passed inspection, but the money wasn’t there. The contractor wanted Jimmy to do more work and was holding the money over his head to get his attention.
At the time, Jimmy was doing about 4MM in commercial/new construction and 4MM in residential service. He was able to make payroll with the service side of things, but his suppliers were getting upset because he owed a lot for materials he had purchased. It got to the point where Jimmy was doing a commercial job for a car dealership, and every time he got paid, he had to put a lean on it. It was October 2005, and Jimmy had also purchased a new building. He finally decided to give up new construction. He was tired of fighting to get paid.
Jimmy was terrified but committed to his decision. He was about to give up half of his revenue. He called up Jim Abrams, who invited him to come out for two weeks to take a general manager class in Florida. Jimmy put in the work. He would work nights out of his hotel room to keep things moving at the office, and spent his days learning underneath Jim Abrams. By the end, Jimmy left with a 10-year business plan to go from 4MM to 50MM in residential service and replacement. He wound up hitting that goal 8 years later.
In 2013, the company introduced electrical, rounding out their residential offerings. No longer bogged down with new construction, they had hit 50MM and Jimmy was ready for the next step. He worked on the next plan, and the goal was to hit 100MM in the next 10 years. Once again, through the blueprint that Terry Nicholson and Jim Abrams provided, Jimmy hit his goal early in 2020. Now, going from 100MM to 200MM in 2025 is the goal. If you’ve noticed a pattern, this won’t come as a surprise: they’re well on track. Hiller ended 2021 at 127MM and is on pace to hit 145MM in 2022. With 16 locations across 4 states, Hiller’s today is unimaginable compared to what Jimmy started with in 1990. They are a debt-free company, and have grown completely organically with no outside investments. Jimmy wants Hiller’s to be the largest privately-held service company in the nation, and there’s no reason it isn’t well within the realms of possibility.
Jimmy is a story of perseverance. It’s the true American Dream. From being divorced and penniless with alcohol addiction to one of the most highly respected contractors in the entire country, it serves as a blueprint for many others. This blueprint is the same one that Jim and Terry provided for Jimmy, and it’s right there for anyone to follow. What Jimmy wants others in the industry to understand is that anything you want in this life, this industry will allow you to do just that.
Maybe you want to hit 1 or 2 million in revenue to be happy. Perhaps you dream of a 200MM powerhouse. Those are both perfectly fine goals, and your business is a vehicle to get whatever you want out of life. If you want it bad enough, you have to do a few things. The first is be ready to get up early every day and work hard. Second, find the mentors you need to get the advice necessary to grow. Lastly, get the knowledge you need to be competitive. The knowledge is ever-changing in this industry. It’s not as simple as buying an ad in the Yellow Pages anymore and continues to become increasingly complex. Look at where you are and where you want to go and fill the gaps with the right people and information. The only real competition you have is yourself. Put forth the plan, and know that how well you execute the plan will determine your success or failure, not the rest of the world.
Part of your responsibility in running a business is to make sure your organization can support the dreams of those that work inside of it. If you aren’t growing and giving them the opportunities they want, they won’t be happy. And you won’t either. Jimmy himself went into business for himself because working for other people, he couldn’t see himself being anywhere than stuck in his truck. If you’re living in America and in the trades, Jimmy’s accomplishments are attainable to you. He readily admits he isn’t the smartest person in the world, he’s not the best in the world, and he isn’t the pinnacle of success. But what Jimmy is, is still that boxer who is willing to get up early, outwork everyone else, and throw the most punches until that final bell rings.
If you’d like to learn more about Jimmy as well as Jim Abrams and Terry Nicholson, visit the PRAXIS S-10 website.