When Caroline Hughes was in grade school, she spent an entire summer sorting teeth.
“The guys would bring me buckets of teeth to see if we could recycle any,” Hughes said. “It’s such an expensive item, with 156 in a 7-foot, 2-inch standard space drum, anything you can do to save money, you do.”
Over the course of a few weeks, she had gone through hundreds of teeth and selected ones that might be reusable. She repainted them so the crew could distinguish used ones from brand new ones to see how they were wearing, and lined them up in a long row for inspection.
“Apparently, I was a little too eager to recycle, because the boss came out and told me we couldn’t use a bunch of them,” she said with a laugh.
Even when Hughes attended the College of Charleston in South Carolina, milling was never far away.
“I’d see the mills from Germany coming in at the port, and I’d see them out working along the highway all the way home to Indiana,” she remembered. Having grown up in the industry—her father was a part owner in a highway construction company—it was no surprise that she’s stayed in the industry.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I love the people. I love the equipment.” She started her career with another milling company in Indiana, but when there was nowhere for her to move up, she decided it was time to move out. In August 2012, she started C.E. Hughes Milling Inc., in Jeffersonville.
“I grew up around a lot of entrepreneurs, so when the opportunity arose, I decided now was the time to take my own risk,” Hughes said. And it is a risk that has paid off.
After starting with one mill less than four years ago, her crew of 15 now runs six mills in-season and works on interstate and highway resurfacing jobs all over the state of Indiana and into Kentucky. She expects the 2016 season to be even busier.
“It’s a good time to be in this business,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of resurfacing work out there.” As Indiana continues to focus on preservation and maintenance of its current infrastructure, Hughes sees an even brighter future.
As one of only a handful of companies in Indiana that are exclusively milling companies, Hughes saw a window of opportunity to focus solely on milling.
“I wanted to pick one thing and be exceptionally good at it,” she said. “The biggest part of this industry is caring about the quality of work you put out. I want to be here in 15 years in business, so I’m going to do what I have to do.”
When Hughes had just started the company, all she did was work.
“The only thing I went home for was to sleep,” she said. “There was just a trail from my front door to the bed, because that’s all I did.” She remembers all of the stresses of getting started—financing, ensuring cash flow, finding great employees, all the paperwork.
“Financing was by far the biggest stressor,” Hughes said. “Getting banks to take a chance on me so I could finance the things I needed to get started wasn’t easy.”
To get those first few jobs, she relied on relationships that had been established in the industry, but also took a grassroots approach.
“I took a class for entrepreneurs put on by INDOT and there was a sign sitting right in front of my chair that said, ‘You have to ask for work!’” Hughes said. “I really took that to heart and my operations manager, Charles [Becht] and I hopped in the truck and drove around to contractors’ offices asking for work. I will never forget that and I am beyond grateful for everyone that gave us a chance—especially those who took a chance out the gate.”
Since then, she’s been able to hire other office staff to help.
“Even though I’m working less, it’s always with you as a business owner,” she said. “I care about the people I employ and I have to think of them. I have to know we have enough work to support their jobs so they can support their families.
“I know I’m at the forefront of my company, so anything that goes unfavorably, I’m the one who has to deal with it,” she said. “It’s my name on the side of the machines. I’m the one standing up for all 18 people that work with me.”
In addition to finding qualified workers, Hughes has also focused on finding people that have the same values as she does. “They have to want to see the company grow as much as I do and be willing to work hard to represent the company well. That’s what I try to convey every time I talk to the guys working for me, that the way they present themselves represents our entire company.”
For example, she said her operations manager, Charles Becht, goes above and beyond to represent the company positively. Hughes said that each and every one of her employees has the same “whatever it takes” mindset; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t fit in at C.E. Hughes. “As the newbie in the industry, we have to keep that in mind.”
She also tries to encourage personal accountability. As the company continues to grow, there will be plenty of opportunities to move up. For example, water truck drivers from the company’s first couple of years moved up to become operators and are now training to become supervisors.
“I try to provide as many resources, tools and training as I can,” Hughes said. “The rest is up to them.” That includes creating an environment that encourages questions. “I try to make our new people feel comfortable enough to ask our experienced people any question, no matter how stupid they may feel it is.
“I give everyone a certain amount of time to express that personal accountability, and if they don’t, I don’t keep them around. I believe in the whole, ‘Hire slow, fire fast,’ idea.” The key, Hughes said, is explaining expectations and giving people room to deliver, and reward them if they do. “To do that, you have to learn what people are motivated by. Some people want money, some people want affirmation,” she said.
One last key to the company’s growth is cross training. “On our crews, we usually have a 7-foot machine with two operators and a water truck and driver who can also run the machine, if he needs to.”
C.E. Hughes’ six milling machines are all Wirtgen machines: four 7-foot mills and two 4-foot mills. “Our people in the field are demanding this type of equipment,” Hughes said. “Having high-quality equipment will help you attract high-quality operators, too.”
See the Future
“I see a lot of promise in the next couple of years for us, with the highway bill,” Hughes said. “I feel a whole lot better than when I first started.”
Hughes is also doing her part to teach young people about the opportunities available in road construction. “Our industry is made up of a lot of people who will be reaching retirement soon, and we have to do our part,” she said. Hughes is an ambassador for the Indiana Construction Roundtable Foundation’s Build Your Future Indiana campaign, which sends people like her into high schools around the state to encourage young people to join the industry.
“There are so many benefits,” she said. “It’s such a stable job and a great industry to grow into.” Her own company is a perfect example.
“I love pulling into the office and not seeing any equipment because then you know it’s out there being put to work,” she said. “I love my equipment, but I don’t like to see it.”