Jared Hills hasn’t worked anywhere except Divine Engineering since hiring on as a newly-minted University of Iowa graduate in 1959 — and he’s not about to stop now. Mr. Hills, who has owned the Cedar Rapids-based designer and manufacturer of heavy-duty chain conveyor systems since founder Howard Divine died in 1973, still comes into work […]
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Jared Hills hasn’t worked anywhere except Divine Engineering since hiring on as a newly-minted University of Iowa graduate in 1959 — and he’s not about to stop now.
Mr. Hills, who has owned the Cedar Rapids-based designer and manufacturer of heavy-duty chain conveyor systems since founder Howard Divine died in 1973, still comes into work almost daily. In fact, if you call Divine, Mr. Hills, who serves as president, may be the person who answers the phone.
In an interview from behind his vast desk in an office full of mementos reflecting his wide-ranging professional, philanthropic and recreational interests, he admits to starting his days a bit later and knocking off earlier than in those early years, when he was Divine’s first full-time engineering employee. He can do that, he says, because “the boys are taking over.”
“The boys” include his son Paul Hills, son-in-law Colin Dirks and grandsons Hunter and Walker Hills. “They’ve really taken hold,” he said. “I’m very pleased.”
Family members are part of a workforce of about 45, including office and shop employees, at the company’s southwest Cedar Rapids location. Founded in 1952 in rented space downtown, Divine acquired 15 acres at 5440 Sixth St. SW in 1956. Production facilities have been expanded multiple times at that location, as Divine has grown into a major international supplier of bulk-flow conveyors for materials ranging from grain and stone to meat and coal.
Grain processing giants like Cargill and ADM that are fixtures in the Cedar Rapids food production industry are mainstay customers for Divine Engineering. Among major sales in the early 2000s, Divine built and shipped 22 conveyors for a soybean processing plant in Egypt and 24 drag conveyors for a Louis Dreyfus plant in Indiana.
In six decades of serving the grain processing industry, Divine has delivered products to more than 30 countries outside the United States, including China, Canada, Mexico, Germany and Holland, and continues to enjoy robust demand from both the domestic and international markets.
“We’re booked up through 2024,” Mr. Hills says with a smile, noting that Divine will supply conveyor systems for five major U.S. soybean processing plants under construction, all within 100 miles of each other. “I don’t know where the beans will come from,” he adds.
The ag business is booming as new uses are developed for grains. That also creates challenges for Divine. One is materials. Steel and some parts can be difficult to source, Mr. Hills says. Another is finding skilled workers, especially welders.
“People interview, pass their welding test, then we never hear from them,” he laments. “The government makes it too easy not to work.”
The Mount Pleasant native took summer classes at the University of Iowa, so he could graduate the same year as his wife, Carol, who earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing. The timing was fortuitous. Armed with a degree in mechanical engineering, Jared came on the job market at the same time the Iowa State University engineering students Divine employed as summer temps were returning to school.
“I just happened to be available when Howard needed me,” said Mr. Hills, who calls his career “a Cinderella story.”
He quickly became a valuable team member, and the company’s sales surged. As Howard Divine and his wife, Vi, had no children of their own to take over the business, they arranged for Mr. Hills to take ownership upon his death.
Paying it forward
Divine’s success has enabled Mr. Hills and Carol, who retired after a school nursing career at Lincoln, Fillmore and Roosevelt schools in Cedar Rapids, to underwrite many causes close to their hearts. One of those is kidney disease treatment. In 2011, the couple donated $1 million to the University of Iowa to fund polycystic kidney disease (PKD) research. Jared and his son and daughter have all suffered from PKD and received kidneys from living donors.
In 2019, the Hills family donated nearly $1.8 million to expand Camp Tanager, which provides camping experiences for children, including those with diabetes and hemophilia, who might otherwise be unable to participate. They have also supported the Cedar Rapids Symphony and Big Brothers Big Sisters, among other charitable causes.
“We had the means of doing it. We felt there was a need,” Mr. Hills said.
While he’s happy to leave business travel to others, he and Carol still enjoy motor trips. He played tennis frequently until COVID-19 hit and the August 2020 derecho destroyed the facility he used, but now he’s eyeing pickleball as a replacement.
A tuba player for the University of Iowa Hawkeye Marching Band, he recalls with pride the band’s Rose Bowl appearance in 1957. He continues to play the tuba in the Cedar Rapids Municipal Band and New Horizons Band. He’s also been a Rotarian for 23 years.
Among the items in Mr. Hills’ office is a 1/8 working model of the Divinalator conveyor system that Howard Divine created when the company was founded. Employees built the model in 1983 as a Christmas gift. It’s been used many times in sales presentations and is handy for showing a visitor how chain conveyor systems operate.
Why does an 85-year-old keep working?
“I’ve always enjoyed work. It’s not a 9-5 job. If a grain processing conveyor goes down, the whole plant goes down,” he says.
His career may be a Cinderella story, but there’s no magic to Mr. Hills’ formula for his life as a busy, productive octogenarian.
“Just keeping active,” he says, “is the biggest thing.”