Published on March 1st, 2013 | by UC&D Magazine0
50 Years and Counting for Mountain States Fence
Looking out at Hogle Zoo’s newest high-profile exhibit, Rocky Shores, Rick Higgins displays a unique pride in knowing his company, Mountain States Fence (MSF) of Salt Lake City, had a key role in the project.
As Higgins, MSF company president/CEO, walks by the exhibit – an expansive multi-animal habitat featuring bears, sea lions, seals and otters – it’s easy to get a sense of his satisfaction.
“We don’t get to do many jobs like this, but this is the kind of project that gives us an opportunity to showcase what we can do,” said Higgins.
Rocky Shores features a custom-fabricated fence made by Salt Lake-based USA Industries which includes a special fabric and different sized mesh, along with large posts that curve at the top. Higgins said his crew put in more than 1,100 man hours, making it one of the most labor-intensive jobs MSF has done in recent years.
Joe Reynolds, a construction manager for South Jordan-based SIRQ, the general contractor on the project, said the fence “had to be done very precisely. We went through a lot of design iterations to make sure we had our bases covered. All in all it was a very technical installation. I don’t know a lot of (fencing) contractors that would have been up for it.”
Mountain States Fence was established January 3, 1963 by Dennis Higgins, Rick’s father, along with two partners, Shelby Taylor and Dean Rowley. Dennis had been a general manager for Real Lock’s chain link fence division and when they decided to shut that division down in ’62, he figured is was time to be an entrepreneur.
“He saw an opportunity to take over what they had been doing,” said Rick. “We bid to general contractors and he knew the contacts so it was a fairly seamless transition.”
Rick started working for his father at age 16 in 1967 digging postholes and installing fence and worked at MSF through college. In 1973, the younger Higgins moved from Utah to attend law school at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco. He returned to Utah and practiced law for nine years before going back to MSF in 1985. By that time both Taylor (’83) and Rowley (’85) had sold their interest back to Dennis.
“We finally came up with a contract we could agree upon,” Rick said regarding his decision to rejoin the company in the mid-80’s. He ran MSF’s construction operations from 1985 to 2000, and then took over reigns as President/CEO from Dennis.
Mountain States Fence has earned an enviable reputation as a top-notch contractor throughout the Western U.S., particularly on federal projects. Rick Higgins also said his time working as a lawyer was a boon for the long-term potential of the company.
“You tend to think differently (as a lawyer), he said. “Those experiences broaden you, make you a better thinker. Your approach differs. Smaller companies can get in a rut; the thinking is always the same. We have to be careful of that even now.”
Rick said the firm has three or four federal jobs going on at any given time and appreciates the work.
“We do a lot of work for the Federal Government,” said Rick. “We’re good at all the paper work and requirements, and have almost created a niche in that respect. We’ve had general contractors ask us to take over federal jobs just because we understand those nuances.”
The firm had its best year from a gross revenue standpoint in 2008 ($9 million), and has been able to weather the downturn in the economy in recent years. Higgins said the firm had revenues of $6.5 million in 2012, up about 20 percent from 2011, and hopes to continue that kind of growth in 2013.
Higgins is also very active in local industry associations, particularly the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) of Utah. He served as ABC Utah’s Chairman of the Board in 2006, is currently on ABC’s Board of Directors, and is chairman of ABC’s PAC Committee.
“Rick is extremely passionate about the merit shop philosophy, which is why he sits on the board,” said ABC Utah President Chris Hipwell. “He was instrumental in helping me navigate what my responsibilities were when I was first named to the board. He also has a deep interest in politics and is knowledgeable about what it going on in the political arena both locally and nationally.”
Higgins said being involved in associations offers an opportunity to give back to the industry while forging stronger friendships among contemporaries.
“Personally I think it’s stimulating, and I enjoy the relationships,” said Higgins. “As a company it enhances our image and gives us an opportunity to participate in whatever those organizations do to give back to the industry. It gives us ways to improve the economic and political environment. It’s important to be involved. I think companies that join (industry) organizations are more professional and better companies overall.”
Even though he turns 62 in 2013, Higgins feels he has plenty of fuel in the tank.
“My plan is to walk away at 70,” he said. “I never want to be in the way, or become one of those guys that sits in the office and is a pain in the ass because he’s an old fart. If I’m healthy and productive I’ll keep working. If I feel I’m a bump on the log, I’ll get the hell out of the way.”
MSF works on up to 500 projects a year. Some major current projects include the MAPS Plant at Kennecott, a job for the Sinclair Refinery in Wyoming, and a project with Barrick Gold Strike Mine in Northern Nevada.
Beyond the firm’s financial stability, MSF has a strong safety record (EMR of .79 as of December 2012), of which Higgins is particularly proud.
“A large part of our success is our safety,” he said. “A guy doesn’t come to work for me to get hurt. We’ve incorporated that into our company. Our safety record is so good that we’ve been certified by four different safety organizations; we can work on projects other companies cannot. It’s given us an edge.
“We’re not the biggest fence company, but we have a good reputation for delivery.”