EEDC: Willow Construction is probably one of the most recognizable signs/logos in Easton. It seems like everywhere you go on the Eastern Shore, there you are. Tell us a little bit about Willow’s history.
Mike Hiner (MH): We began in 1973. So, we’re quickly approaching our 50th year, and our construction work includes commercial, industrial, pre-engineered building, and multifamily. We work all over the shore, the Delmarva Peninsula, and employ around 40 people.
EEDC: And you are a co-owner, is that correct?
MH: Yes. There are four of us. Two sort-of senior owners: myself and Andy Cheezum, and as part of our succession plan, we have two Junior owners: Eric Milhollan and Justin Hiner.
EEDC: I wanted to mention some of your most notable Easton projects, including Easton’s Country School and Sts. Peter and Paul High School and Family Life Center, Temple B’Nai Israel, and Aphena Pharma. Am I missing any that come to mind?
MH: Those are our most notable local projects. We have others of similar magnitude on other locations on the shore. We’re all over. We do a lot of work in Berlin, Sussex County, Delaware. Kent County, Delaware. Another project that comes to mind is a rather sizeable multifamily development that we’re doing in Cecilton, and we’re renovating an apartment complex in Salisbury.
We have also done several projects for companies that produce marijuana. There’s one in Salisbury and one in Cambridge, both of which are continuing to expand. The cannabis industry has really taken off in Maryland, and we’re fortunate to have gotten involved with two of our most prominent local developers in the cannabis business.
EEDC: What’s your favorite type of project?
MH: Personally, my favorite is houses of worship because of how they provide comfort to the users of that facility. I feel that we’re helping people with their spiritual needs. Same with medical facilities. People are healed and cared for there, and that becomes important to the community. You can also add schools to that list. Building facilities for education, health, and spirituality–that gives us a sense of purpose—they’re not just bricks and mortar. I love that.
EEDC: How did Willow come to be headquartered in Easton?
MH: Bill Dittman, the founder of the company, was originally from Baltimore. And he was given an opportunity to come to the shore. But then the recession hit, and work kind of dried up from the Baltimore office, so the story is he borrowed some money from his brother and started this business. His name was William, and his wife was Lois, and they combined their name to form ‘Willow.’
EEDC: And you’ve kept the business going in Easton.
MH: I’m from here. I started as a draftsman with the company in 1981. Also, three of the owners live in Talbot County, and the other owner lives in Queens Ann County, although he’s originally from Talbot. We certainly have roots here.
EEDC: Willow recently moved?
MH: Yes, we just relocated for the first time in 45 years. Maryland Avenue to Commerce Drive.
EEDC: How did COVID affect your business? We’ve heard about delays in material delivery, lumber price increases, etc.
MH: Well, initially, like everyone else, we were unsure, and we battened down the hatches and got prepared. The Governor declared our industry as an essential business, and we were able to continue working. We established policies, as advised by CDC and the government, and were able to work safely.
So, when things started to lighten up a bit, we noticed that people were still willing to hire us to do their work and that the demand for construction was still pretty high, especially in the commercial end. Whatever we had put on hold during the pandemic, we were able to restart. Demand for construction, in fact, increased, which is ironic because all the things that were or could have been negatively impacted weren’t. The industry is still robust, including architects, engineers, and our peers. And that flows down to all the sub-contractors and trade contractors.
On the other hand, yes, we are experiencing delays in material delivery. In some cases, we’ve had to change specifications to work around delays in shipping, especially international orders. We’re also dealing with lumber prices. As everyone knows, they went sky high, but they’re starting to come back down.
EEDC: Willow has been recognized for their philanthropy. How does the company decide who to support?
MH: We try to tithe every year, and we sit down and bring to the table what’s important to us. Mainly the youth is very high on the list, and we find ways to back them in several ways, such as the YMCA and Talbot Mentors. We support For All Seasons because they provide wonderful service to community mental health. There are others that are even on a larger scale, like the McDonald’s House in Baltimore. We also do a certain amount for veterans, especially injured veterans.
EEDC: So, who is Mike Hiner?
MH: I live right outside of East Cordova. My wife and I have three children, one who works with me, and we just ‘reenlisted’ another child, a boy who is 12. I’ve also recently been called as a part-time Deacon at the Church of Cordova. I was consecrated (ordained) in April of 2019.
EEDC: Really? Was this something you’ve always aspired to do?
MH: Not at all. I expected to be playing golf with my friends and planning my retirement, but getting a young boy when he was three and being nudged to go into ministry all came around the same time, although it took many years to accomplish. I had to go to a seminary school for weeks at a time in Gettysburg, and I did online training. I then was able to be called by my home church, and now I preach at least once a month. I can only really believe that the Holy Spirit directed me in that way.
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