Part III of a series
Robert "Speedy" Hildreth's grading company was a family affair. His sons, Philip and Jason, could be found in the trenches next to dad.
It was also a family affair when Robert's business - DK & SK Grading - struggled when new jobs stopped coming in last year during the economic downturn. That left Robert - a Fort Mill resident for 30 years - and his sons without a paycheck, sometimes for up to four weeks.
Ultimately it led all three to the unemployment line late last summer when DK & SK folded. The dreams Philip and Jason had of working hard so dad could retire: gone.
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All the equipment to run the business is gone, too.
As for Robert's bills, "We're a month behind on everything," he said.
Today, Robert, 60, finds himself in unfamiliar territory for the first time in his 45 years in construction - wondering if he'll have enough money to keep the cable on or when he might find work.
"I was driving a backhoe before I had a driver's license. I have never been unemployed. Always made it on my own," said Robert, whose wife of 34 years, Kathy, 52, works at Target full time and gets health insurance.
"If it wasn't for Kathy, I don't think we could make it."
The Hildreths pride themselves as a family that sticks together - whether it's being good friends, helping each other with bills or as coworkers. Even before DK & SK Grading, Philip and Jason worked with their dad at two other grading companies.
It's no wonder when Philip and Jason needed to find employment, they started with family first by turning to younger brother Zachary, 18.
Zachary's job at Sticky Fingers helped Philip, 34, rejoin a restaurant industry he worked in before. A few months after Philip started in the kitchen, 26-year-old Jason got hired as a dishwasher.
On any given weekend, the three brothers can be found behind-the-scenes at the Ballantyne, N.C., restaurant.
"If Zach hadn't been working at Sticky Fingers, I don't know where we'd be," says Philip, who has a 9-year-old son.
"Five years ago, I don't think I would be working at Sticky Fingers. There were lots of jobs that would pay more out there.
"I am grateful for this job. Be happy you have a job in the morning."
The 'bottom fell out'
Robert's company, which he opened in summer 2007 with a business partner, was just getting off the ground when, six to sevens months later, the "bottom fell out." Subcontractors stopped sending work their way, Robert says, which meant no money to pay bills and salaries.
The problem, Robert says, was most of his company's equipment - including an escavator, a trackhoe, a skid steer and a track loader - were leased-to-buy and came with an $18,000 payment every month. An established company could have possibly weathered the downturn, Robert says.
"They can let their equipment sit. It's not costing them anything," Robert says. "We stayed on a lot longer than a lot of companies, but the subs didn't have work for us to do."
Smaller equipment and a trailer the company owned were sold to pay off debt.
Robert has posted his experience on Craigslist, hoping to find some side work until his employment prospects improve. He said "no one" has responded.
"I'll do anything working around people's houses, whether it's rebuilding a deck, cutting down trees or painting," Robert says. "I'm pretty good with my hands."
He's also contacted contractors, but there's no work, either. Robert says he is limited in his job search, because driving means paying for gas - money he doesn't have right now. The stresses are growing by the day with his unemployment checks coming to an end in a few weeks.
"I'm hard-headed. I almost didn't sign up for unemployment. They talked me into it," Robert says. "Now, it kind of makes me feel uneasy with unemployment running out and nothing coming in. I am going to have to find something to make ends meet."
In the meantime, Philip and Jason say they're getting by working at Sticky Fingers.
Philip says he's making "not even half" his previous pay working 35 to 40 hours a week as a pit master, while Jason says he's making about 25 percent of his old pay working 20 hours a week as a dishwasher.
"If it wasn't for Sticky Fingers and child support, I would be left out in the wind. I would be living with my mom and dad," says Philip, who is still able to draw a portion of his unemployment - $75 to $100 a week - to make up for the loss in pay.
"It's one missed paycheck from everything being cut off."
Robert says he's been fortunate to have his sons around and family within walking distance. His oldest child, Shannon, lives down the road. She pitches in by dropping off groceries when there's a "buy one, get one free," Robert says. His brother, Gary, lives next door and brings by pizza and has provided money to cover expenses.
"When times get tough, if one of us has the money, we help each other," says Philip.
It's that kind of family bond that keeps Robert and his sons optimistic they will get through this chapter.
"When you think you're down," Robert says, "something shows up."
Robert does not plan on joining his sons at Sticky Fingers,
"I am too damn old to be standing on my feet that long at a restaurant," he says. "I would be no help."