AN OCCASIONAL SERIES: ONE 2 ONE WITH SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING PEOPLE IN THE BUSINESS
Better Roads Staff
Congressman Richard Hanna (R-NY) talks to Editor-in-Chief John Latta
Richard Hanna was elected in November 2010 to represent the 24th District of (upstate) New York. At 20, he became the primary supporter of his mother and four sisters after his father died suddenly. For eight years, he supported the family and paid off its substantial debt. Hanna earned an honors degree in economics and political science. He founded Hanna Construction, which he ran for 27 years. Today, Hanna serves on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, where he is vice chair of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, and on the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. We talked in his Capitol Hill office.
You had a construction business before you became a Congressman.
We did earthworks, roads, water … all heavy construction, everything. All things infrastructure … lots of concrete work. I taught the business to myself. I started when I was 20. This wasn’t a family business, although my dad was a carpenter and I’d been around construction a little bit. He built houses. I got out of college, I was broke, I had an old backhoe and I started doing the basic home stuff, and then, not too far out, within a year or two, I was doing all sort of commercial work … did it for almost 30 years. I lived in a very difficult community to grow a big business, small, but gradually I learned that the more I could do, the easier it was to stay busy in a small place. In other words, I was really diverse.
You built it from the ground up?
Oh, from nothing. I sort of started small and built. As I knew more, I could do more. And as I had people who could do more, which also allowed me to branch out … you know you have guys who are good at this or that. So I wound up on average having maybe 13 jobs going every day. And we’d have a sewer crew, and a concrete crew, all the basics. I always had lots of bulldozers moving and that kind of stuff. But we were small; we were never a big company, we couldn’t grow too much.
How big did it get to be?
Well, I think on average we probably had 40 to 55 people working full time, and over the years we’ve employed about 450 people total. My business was equipment intensive, so we could do one hell of a lot of work with 20 or 30 or 40 people.
So all heavy construction; you didn’t really specialize?
No, no. There were things that I enjoyed more than others, but we certainly did our share of road work and we’ve done lots of deep sewer, lots of water, lots of gas lines. We’ve done Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Lowes, Home Depots. We did a lot of athletic fields, urethane tracks, water towers. I’ve probably built 20 water towers. When I got out, I had an auction and sold a lot, and my sister – who had worked for me for a number of years – and her son took over and they’re doing quite well. I have no part in it, other than if they need advice or something. I signed off. I help them where I can.
Do you feel some sort of responsibility to represent contractors in the House?
Absolutely. I know the business … but I’m still learning this end. And I’ve had a union shop, non-union shops. I’ve got 25 years myself as an operator; I have my union card in my wallet. I never carried this for 25 years, now I seem to open it up every few days. Operating Engineers Local 545 … great union. I mean, things like the Davis-Bacon Act that are so confusing for some people, for me it’s what I lived with for so many years.
You see things that drive contractors crazy. How can you change them?
We can try. We just wrote a bill – I’m the primary sponsor – on bonding. When I started, you had to have a 100-percent success rate or you could not get a bond. You had to be absolutely reliable. And credit-worthy. That’s how I lived with it. That was my lifeline. The insurance companies have allowed people in the business to get bonds that under normal situations, or under old rules, wouldn’t be bondable. So what it has done, it’s added a level of failure to bonding. And so these guys raise the rates for other guys. They really shouldn’t even be in the business unless they are worthy of a bond. Under the [old] rules, there was no chance for error. When you let marginal people in because they can sign off their house or something and that’s collateral – collateral isn’t the definition of a good company.
So good contractors are being hurt by an unfair business practice?
Yeah. If you allow failure, then, by definition, you are spreading the risk on to people that didn’t fail. I lived with a system where there was an assumption that you didn’t get a bond if there was any risk of you defaulting. Period. I used to pay .09 – $9 a thousand. Now you can pay like 3 percent and get a bond. That’s not right. They shouldn’t be able to charge you more because you are not as qualified. All it does is put more money in the bonding company, and incidentally a lot of them are just shells and some of them have gone out of business.
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