Member Spotlight: Debra Hilmerson – Hilmerson Safety

Debra Hilmerson has successfully left her fingerprints on the construction industry after years of experience, though the path that led Debra into this industry was not always typical. As the CEO of Hilmerson Safety®, a full-service safety product design, and manufacturing company, Debra is quick to mention two mentors who inspired her most in her career in the construction industry, though her description of her mother’s role is inspiring in itself. She describes how her mother taught her from an early age to follow her dreams and to not let any obstacle get in the way! Without her mom’s encouragement and support, Hilmerson’s experiences in athletics and successes in business might not look the same. As a parent, I love hearing stories of successful business executives crediting their parents or important parental figures, and it is clear Debra feels the same. She tells of her mom, “She always encouraged me to follow my dreams and to not let any barrier get in the way of my future, especially because I was pursuing a career in a non-traditional male-dominated field of business.”

In addition, I am always fascinated to hear from high-level athletes, and how they apply what they learned in their athletic careers to their current business. As a B-level athlete and an avid B-level coach, I can truly see how leadership development and perseverance can translate into all walks of life and the same was true for Debra. As a point guard and Captain for the University of Minnesota’s basketball team, she learned leadership skills, the importance of teamwork, and lessons in flexibility, and is applying those lessons in the construction industry today. 

Safety in construction has been an issue in need of understanding and execution, and Hilmerson Safety is doing all that it can to listen to industry problems and respond with innovative and cutting-edge solutions. Let’s face it, new technology, tools, or systems are not adopted easily, so without extensive field knowledge, expertise, and engagement, you are not likely to get a working response. However, with her experience, Debra knew this, and she used her passion and perseverance, as well as her learned leadership skills to find the most essential safety needs in the field, create viable solutions for them, and teach others how to implement them easily to make our industry safer! 

At US Construction Zone, we value our members that are giving back to the industry in innovative and tangible ways, as well as those that are training our contractors to use safer building methods and form better habits!  We have enjoyed “spotlighting” Debra today, and look forward to supporting her as she reaches her goals in the construction industry. Please read more of Debra’s important insights in our Q&A below.

➢   How did you get started in construction?

I was the Captain of the University of Minnesota Women’s Basketball Team (received a 5-year full-ride scholarship) and my “ball” girl, the girl who would retrieve and pass me the basketball during pre-game shootarounds, dad was the president of a local precast construction company.  My ball girl’s dad reached out to me in the summer months of my junior year in college and asked me if I would coach his daughter, as she loved basketball and wanted to further her skills as point guard which was the position I played.  He offered to pay me to coach her. I said, no, you don’t have to pay me.  I’ll coach her but you might owe me a favor in the future, haha.  Well, that future came after I graduated from college.  I called him and asked him for a job out in the field working on construction sites.  He said no, I don’t need a secretary.  I said I don’t want to be a secretary, I want to work in the field with the guys.  He said, “there’s no girls out in the construction field”.  After several calls and getting sick of my persistence, he gave in.  I got my first opportunity as a construction laborer setting and patching precast concrete.  Note, I had to tell him I didn’t want special treatment and if I didn’t cut the mustard, to fire me just like he would do to the guys.  I lasted 4+ years and then got an opportunity to work for a large, highly respected, General Contractor as a Safety Coordinator for several years until I started my safety and health consulting company, Hilmerson Safety® back in 2001.

From 2001-2015, the primary duties as the President/CEO of Hilmerson Safety™ was to support our clients with OSHA compliance training, inspections, and auditing, writing safety plans, etc. The number of employees varied from 2-8 depending on the level of workload.  In 2015, we pivoted to become a “product” company due to the needs of our customers.

➢  Please describe your current business

Hilmerson Safety® is a full-service safety product design and manufacturing company serving the construction industry.  Since 2001 Hilmerson Safety® has been working with construction industry leaders and contractors to develop safe, lean, construction-grade™ products and solutions that add to the company’s bottom line.

➢   As a previous Captain of the University of Minnesota Women’s Basketball Team, how have you drawn from that experience to become such a strong leader in construction?

Being a point guard and Captain, I learned the value of roles.  To have an effective team, everyone needs to know what role they play.  Coach was the boss.  I was the playmaker.  I took directions from Coach and executed the game plan. When the plan didn’t go as planned, I learned that I had to be willing to adjust along the way. This is the same approach I take to my business.

Specifically, with Hilmerson Safety®, I’ve learned to surround myself with people who are positive thinkers.  I’ve learned to surround myself with people who are more skilled than myself.  I’ve learned to listen to the needs of our customers.  I’ve learned to ask questions as to how I can make their jobs safer.  I’ve learned to take on challenges.  I’ve learned to promote people and companies who go the extra mile to create safe work environments all in hopes that others will follow. In doing so, I’ve created a comradery.  A team (construction industry) that supports what we are doing because it makes sense.  Saves lives, time, money and adds to the company’s bottom line.  Most importantly, I’ve learned to be the voice for those not willing to speak.

➢   Through your career, who in particular would you consider mentors, and what were the most important lessons you learned from them?

Donna Hilmerson – my mom for sure.  She always encouraged me to follow my dreams and to not let any barrier get in the way of my future, especially because I was pursuing a career in a non-traditional male-dominated field of business. Lessons:  Be respectful, be kind, be generous, be loyal, be giving, and don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo.

Tom Gunkel, former CEO of Mortenson.  Tom was a very young executive (back at the time I worked for Mortenson – 1992-98) who was extremely knowledgeable of the industry, had exceptional communication skills, and was extremely encouraging at all levels of the organization.  He was relatable, respectful, and always supportive of my career and I will be forever grateful for the opportunities afforded to me.

➢   I see that innovation is one of your most important attributes, where did that drive come from and how did it help you invent the Hilmerson Safety Rail System?

I drank the Kool-aid!  I’ve always enjoyed helping others and providing solutions to common problems in the industry. 

As a result of my construction safety consulting efforts, I often conducted independent 3rd party OSHA compliance audits and inspections on various job sites throughout the country.  On one of my projects, I ran across a common electrical safety problem on a job site.  There was no easy, simple, and cost-effective solution so I got frustrated.  Out of that frustration came an inert drive to find a solution.  The patented Current Cover™ was the first product I rolled out in the construction industry.  I got hooked!  I got excited! It is so great to offer affordable solutions, that solve a problem and that work in the industry.

As far as the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™, that came out of frustration as well.  Again, as a result of conducting independent 3rd party OSHA compliance audits and inspections on various job sites throughout the country, I notoriously ran across issues with 2×4 guardrails and wire rope cabling systems being used as leading-edge fall protection methods.  2×4’s were dangerous, error-prone and undependable.  They were often wobbly and non-OSHA compliant.  They were time-consuming to build and wasteful (throw way at the end of the project).  I knew there had to be a better way.  While there were steel powder-coated guardrails available in the marketplace, they were not construction grade, didn’t come in “kits” for easy transport, inventorying and storing AND they would rust causing a false sense of security to the workers and the leading-edge fall protection system.  So, the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™ was born.

The same is true about the Hilmerson Barrier Fence System™ and the Hilmerson Free-Standing Construction Fence System.  This fencing system is cool because it can be used with the standard fence base OR be used with our heavy weighted base that is used with our guardrail system.  All products are interchangeable, founded on lean principles, proudly made in America and are designed to last 15+ years.

The Hilmerson Barrier Fence System™ was born out of frustration from a long-time friend and 40 year veteran construction Superintendent.  As he was participating in a product demo of the Hilmerson Safety Rail System™, I asked him “what other issues are out there?” and he walked me over to a concrete barrier with a fence mounted on top of it.  The bolts that are used to mount the fence would typically bend and break off damaging the barrier.  In addition, due to the damage bolts the fence panel would be mounted with fewer bolts (require 4 bolts per plate x 2) which could jeopardize the strength of the fencing system.  So I decided to engineer, manufacture and patent the Hilmerson Safety® Side Saddle Bracket™. Protruding bolts, damaged barriers, no worries.  Just cut the bolts off and mount our side saddle bracket onto the barrier.


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