Steve Hightower: Middletown entrepreneur persevered to build $305M family business

'You've gotta want it.'

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio – Steve Hightower has a single word to explain how he built his Hightowers Petroleum Company into a $305 million-a-year business: Desire.

Desire is what drove Hightower to start the business back in 1984, he said. And it has propelled him forward for all these years, past the skeptics and lean times and hurdles thrown in front of him.

“The smartest guy in the world or the most brilliant professor may not have what it takes as far as that heart or desire,” said Hightower, 57. “Desire overcomes all of those objections and fears of what you can’t do or why it can’t be done.”

Bottom line, he said: “You’ve gotta want it.”

Father Was A Sharecropper

Hightower has wanted it for as long as he can remember.

His father, Yudell Hightower, was a sharecropper in Mississippi in the 1940s before he moved to Ohio in search of a better life.

The elder Hightower worked 40 years for Armco Steel, which merged with AK Steel in the 1980s. He started a janitorial business on the side in 1957, aiming to build an enterprise of his own to help provide for his family.

Steve Hightower started helping with the business as a boy, going with his father to clean buildings when necessary and learning the value of hard work.

Hightower attended Wright State University from 1974 to 1978, majoring in management and communications, but did not get a degree. He had been working all through college, but left to work in the family business full-time.

In 1979, he and his father launched a union cleaning business that ultimately became Hi-Mark Construction Group. Hightower owns that business, too. It posted annual revenue of $21.5 million last year.

Hi-Mark was growing fine in its early years, specializing in the construction of water and wastewater treatment plants. Often Hi-Mark partners with larger companies as a subcontractor. It now has offices in Middletown, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Md.


Taking A Chance On Oil

But Hightower saw an opportunity for a bigger business and formed Hightowers Petroleum in late 1984. The business became a contract carrier for industry giant BP Oil in 1985.

Now, that’s the business for which Hightower is best known. It posted revenue of $305 million in 2012 and boasts Fortune 500 clients that include Duke Energy, The Kroger Co., General Motors Company and General Mills, Inc.

The company was named the Best of America’s Largest Black-Owned Companies in the Industrial/Service category by Black Enterprise magazine back in May. It has won lots of regional accolades, too.

But Hightower’s journey as a minority entrepreneur has been anything but easy.

Many people assume black-owned companies get contracts handed to them, he said, that somehow they didn’t earn whatever success they have.

“As an African-American business, you’re consistently discounted,” he said. “There’s an assumption that you’re not as good as a company that is not African-American.”

Hightower said he and his employees have spent “years and years of fighting that image,” working 12 or 14 hours a day when necessary, to prove the Hightower businesses are “legitimate.”

Until 18 months ago, in fact, the only financing he could get from a bank was a $50,000 line of credit, despite his millions of dollars in revenue, huge corporate customers and the fact that his company was profitable, had no tax liabilities and kept more than $2 million in the bank.

Hightower’s local bank, which he declined to name, kept saying his company had to be treated like a start-up, even when it grew from $5 million a year to $50 million a year and to $100 million a year, he said.

“It wasn’t until we had gotten to $225 million a year that we had to go outside the marketplace to get a bank to do business with us and give us a real bankable loan,” Hightower said. “That is a pseudo racist society in play.”

Minority-Owned Firms Face Financing Challenges

Many minority-owned businesses encounter problems with traditional bank financing, said Crystal German, vice president of the Minority Business Accelerator and Economic Inclusion at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

That’s because often minority-owned companies don’t fit neatly into banks’ underwriting criteria, she said. In the case of Hightowers Petroleum, the company has grown so quickly in recent years that it might have made lenders nervous, she said.

There also aren’t many locally owned companies in the petroleum industry. And while Hightower is a second-generation entrepreneur, Hightowers Petroleum is not the same business Yudell Hightower built more than a generation ago.

“There’s some boxes that would be difficult for a bank to check,” German said. “That doesn’t speak to how sound his business is. But it speaks to how a bank goes through its criteria.”

But she said it also begs a question: “How

much larger could his business have been if the access to capital was easier, more timely?”

Hightower is not the kind of person to dwell on such questions, though. He’s too busy.

In addition to Hightowers Petroleum and Hi-Mark, he and two partners launched HP Energy Co. in 2012. That firm designs, installs and helps clients finance systems to make buildings more energy-efficient and cheaper to operate. Hightower’s partners in the venture include John Picard, a Silicon Valley architect and sustainable building design guru. Picard is best known for his work with the “Greening of the White House” project during the Clinton administration.

HP Energy hasn’t yet completed a full year of operation and doesn’t release revenue figures yet, Hightower said.

Success Built From Hard Work, Integrity

Stephen Hightower II, Hightower’s son, helps with marketing for HP Energy and works as the petroleum company’s vice president for strategic markets. The younger Hightower said the secret to his father’s success in building all his companies has been hard work.

“Steve is the hardest working man that I know, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Stephen Hightower II said. “He’ll go 17 hours a day, go to bed, wake up at 4 in the morning, catch a plane and do it all again.”

The motivation, the younger Hightower said, is to build something for the family and for future generations.

“It doesn’t come by accident or happenstance. It takes a concerted effort,” he said.

That goes for everyone in the business.

“He’s the toughest boss I ever had,” the younger Hightower said of his father. “For anybody who thinks being the boss’s son is easy, I’d like for them to spend some time with me, and I’ll show them otherwise.”

Still, Hightower’s success has drawn his family into the business. His 81-year-old father still has an office and comes to work every day. And he now has two sons, including Stephen, a daughter and a nephew who work for the family businesses.

Hightower’s customers say it’s his integrity and perseverance that set him and his businesses apart.

“He’s a go-getter,” said Herb Schutte, CEO of Ulliman Schutte Construction in Miamisburg.

Schutte has been working with Hightower and his Hi-Mark Construction since the late 1980s, even before he founded Ulliman Schutte with co-owner Matt Ulliman. Hi-Mark often works for the company as a subcontractor in wastewater treatment plant projects.

“He’s of the highest integrity. His family’s of the highest integrity,” Schutte said. “I trust him, and I’m sure he trusts us.”

Hightowers Petroleum has been doing business with Kroger since 2008, said Denise Thomas, Kroger’s director of corporate supplier diversity.

The company supplies Kroger with E10 87 and premium gasoline for sale at Kroger fuel centers throughout Ohio, she wrote in an email response to WCPO’s questions. It’s a high-quality product at a competitive price, Thomas said.

“I believe Steve is a good businessman because he is realistic,” she wrote. “Steve prides himself in providing exceptional service to his customers. He takes the time to ensure that his staff is well trained and informed, therefore ensuring that they are able to rapidly respond to customer requests.”

Hightower said he also works to communicate effectively with his suppliers and his customers – whether he’s got good news for them or bad.

That has built trusting business relationships over the years, he said, which in turn has led to more business.

That combination of integrity and hard work has been critical, he said. But perhaps more important than anything else has been that desire, that drive to succeed. Even in the early years when Hightower thought the business might not last another day, he never quit.

Now he’s got three companies with about 80 employees total and runs one of the region’s rare black-owned businesses with third-generation family members in leadership roles.

“I had more desire than I had money. I had more desire than I had knowledge. I had more desire than I had access,” he said.

“But that desire won,” he said. “That’s what got the rest of it.”

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