April 2, 2019
Hillyard Hoop Dreams
DEFINITION: Independent and creative in thought or action.
Squeak. Squeak. Bounce. Bounce.
The scoreboard counts down, 6, 5, 4…
Fans hold their breath at the edge of their seats, cheerleaders hold their pompoms tight.
Amidst the chaos of a packed gymnasium… squeak, squeak. Bounce. Bounce. These are the only sounds that matter. Sneakers and a basketball against a polished gym floor.
3… 2… 1… Woosh. The crowd cheers, the band erupts in the school fight song. The still and quiet moments of a few seconds before are overtaken by jubilation (or sadness, depending on what side you’re on). Memories are made and stories are told about basketball glory days for generations.
Thanks N.S. Hillyard.
Without this St. Joseph genius, none of us would have stories to tell about playing high school basketball, college intramurals or watching our favorite professional teams win championships.
N.S. saved the game of basketball as we know it.
Newton Scott Hillyard was born in Iowa in 1867 and began his career in St. Joseph as a driver on an oil wagon route for Standard Oil in 1891. Always an inquisitive and thoughtful man, during his driving days he invented an automatic drip appliance for toilets. This was one of his countless inventions. He developed more than 100 patented formulas for products and equipment during his life.
The definition of an entrepreneurial spirit, in 1907 he left his job to start Hillyard Disinfectant Company, which later became Hillyard Industries. The company quickly became a leader in the maintenance industry. While he worked long hours, he also took his job as a father seriously. He and his wife Nona had four sons and a daughter. When his son Marvin took up the still fairly new sport of basketball, known then as “basket ball,” and asked his dad to sponsor a team, N.S. didn’t just write a check. He poured all of his efforts into it, looking for ways to expand, improve and promote the sport, according to his biography.
At that time, slippery oil dressings were used on the wood floors, making them slippery, unsafe and messy. N.S. worked to invent a better floor finish.
Unfortunately, his son Marvin, who brought him into the world of basketball, died of pneumonia in 1918. Before his death he inspired his father to be a sponsor for a nationally-known team. And, in typical N.S. fashion, he did, as he continued to grow his business.
In 1920, he constructed a new plant and office building (later to became N.S. Hillyard Vo-Tech School) that housed the largest wood gym floor west of the Mississippi River. He used it as a test site to perfect gym seals and finishes while eventually leading the St. Joseph company team, the “Shine-Alls,” to two national A.A.U. Championships in 1926 and 1927.
And then, the unthinkable happens…
The Joint Basketball Rules Committee, which governed the sport, announced without notice a change that would basically eliminate dribbling from the game, according to the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC).
“When a player would dribble the ball, it would pick up oil from the floor,” said Randy Roth, N.S.’s great-great grandson and Vice President of Strategic Accounts at Hillyard. Taking dribbling out of the game would mean less mess, he said.
“So Phog Allen, legendary basketball coach at Kansas University, called N.S. and asked him to help form a coaches’ association to fight the change,” Roth said. Allen, who played for basketball’s creator James Naismith, founded the NABC in 1927. He and N.S., who chaired the NABC in its first years, coordinated a nationwide protest against the rule change, which never went into effect.
“Hillyard is the only original NABC sponsor left from those days,” Roth said.
The company continued to make strides in the maintenance industry and its effect on basketball, with N.S. being awarded a U.S. patent on an innovative dust mop design in 1930. In 1936, the patriarch of the Hillyard family died, but not without instilling strong work ethic in his children and grandchildren. The company is now in its fifth generation of family leadership.
“Being a family business is what defines us as a company,” Roth said. “Nine of us in the fifth generation work here now.”
As the company continued to grow, it has about 220 employees in St. Joseph and about 900 across the country, so did its dedication to the sport it helped save. Developing floor finishes to improve the game and helping to lead the charge to keep basketball’s rules the way Naismith intended earned Hillyard a special permanent exhibit in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. The Hillyard family’s determination, much like that of N.S., to strive for perfection has made them a leader in their industry in cleaning products and equipment completely unrelated to basketball as well.
However, their combined passion for basketball and cutting-edge cleaning technology do meet in a couple of high-profile ways. Hillyard’s SureFoot Game Day Mop became “The Official Mop of NCAA Basketball” in 2013, and Hillyard became “The Official Floor Coating and Maintenance Products of NCAA Basketball” in March of this year.
“We put a tremendous amount of time and research into gym floor maintenance,” said Roth, who admits he doesn’t watch basketball for the players or the score, but to see how the floor is maintained. “This is a category we invented, and we take a lot of pride in it and want to remain an industry leader.”
The biggest names in basketball agree.
“Hillyard provides us with more than exceptional products. They deliver the expertise and knowledge that keeps our floor looking good and performing well year after year,” Staples Center officials say. The Staples Center is the home of the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Sparks.
Passion for St. Joseph
Despite the enormity of the Hillyard story in this time of March Madness, this story of uncommon character cannot end without discussing the loyalty the company has for St. Joseph. Hillyard is responsible for tens of thousands of basketball courts nationwide, but also many close to home.
“We have a strong history and heritage in St. Joseph,” Roth said. “Logistically, it’s a great place to be. You can ship all across the country. You’re close to the airport, cost of living is low, there’s no traffic, and big city problems.”
But it’s more than the logistics and demographics that keep Hillyard here. When it came time to expand their production and distribution facilities , company officials looked at many options, including leaving St. Joseph.
“We’re committed to the community and to our employees. This is our home and we didn’t want to move,” Roth said.
Instead of relocating to Kansas City or another destination, Hillyard decided to move production just down the street, to the 25-acre property that WireCo WorldGroup had recently announced it was vacating. None of the buildings could be repurposed and About 15 buildings will be torn down to make room for the construction of the new facility.
The former WireCo buildings could have left downtown with a campus that was undesirable to most companies, which could have left a potential eyesore for St. Joseph.
“We’re maintaining our commitment to downtown,” Roth said. “We’ve always been here and we want it to succeed. We saw what Mosaic did to get the ball rolling and we’re happy to jump on board to keep jobs downtown.”
Yes, Hillyard, keep the ball rolling, or bouncing, and keep the shoes squeaking.
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