One year after two big milestones in Jim Riley’s life, he will be able to celebrate.
Covid-19 put restrictions on any type of celebration last year but Jim, Kirk and Kevin Riley of Jim Riley and Sons feel it is just as good to remember and celebrate a year later. Jim started the business in 1970 and sold it to his sons Kevin and Kirk in 1994.
Jim recalls the last fifty years as being filled with hard work, wonderful customers and great workers, including two of his sons and one grandson, now part of the business. At the age of 81, he can step back, relax and let the next generations take over.
Jim grew up on a farm between Morris and Donnelly as one of nine children born to Tom and Betty Riley. At the age of 15, he quit school and started helping on the farm. Then at 19 he got his first job working with Bud Crow at a salvage and repair yard. He earned $35 a week for a job that encompassed much more than 40 hours. During this time, Jim married Bud’s daughter, Carol, and they started their family of four boys, Kevin, Kirk, Kyle and Ken.
The family lived in Morris and later moved to Hancock where Jim worked at nearly any job he could find to support the family. This included working in the Taconite mines up north, Kimberly Clark flax straw crew and for Chuck Henrichs driving semi and hauling cattle. He also purchased a 1970 Ford truck that he used for hauling gravel and dirt.
During the winters of 1968 and 1969, snow removal work became a full-time job. It was long hours and hard work but also made him think about a future using heavy equipment to do all kinds of jobs. In 1970, while still living in Hancock, Jim Riley Construction was formed. He purchased a used backhoe for $2,000 and then a newer one for $10,000 at an 18 percent interest rate. That type of backhoe would now cost $85,000 to purchase new.
Through word of mouth and a little bit of advertising, his business grew. He would bury buildings and tree claims, remove large rocks, dig trenches, help with street repairs, tear down buildings and anything else his backhoe and truck could do. The work was hard and growing the business was tough.
The family moved to Morris in 1976 and Jim purchased an old gas station across the street from the American Legion. He continued to do snow removal in the winter and soil work in the summer. Jim also continued to work part-time driving trucks.
When the business grew to the point that help was needed, he hired Denny Marty as a full-time employee. As the boys started to grow they were regular visitors at the shop and were soon put to work doing odd jobs.
At the age of 12, Kevin remembers starting to operate the backhoe. When Kirk was old enough, he was also put to work. The boys were paid $10 a day for long, hard days but they loved it. Kenny also gave it a try but soon told his dad that this was not for him, “I don’t think I like this, I would rather feed pigs,” he said.
Jim’s brother, Bob Riley, came to work as a full-time employee in 1978 and worked there until the day he went into the hospital in 2002. Bob was a very dedicated and loyal employee.
Jim, Kevin and Kirk together continued to grow the business and add new equipment. They all agreed that good customers helped a lot and many of them were repeat customers. Denny Marty continued to work there for 14 years.
When Kevin and Kirk were 20 and 21 years old, they bought into the business. In 1994, Kevin, Kirk and Kyle bought the business from Jim. That is when Jim Riley and Sons Inc. was formed. Two years later Kevin and Kirk bought out Kyle. Jim Riley and Sons is now owned by Kevin and Kirk.
The work soon became more diverse and large scale. One of the first big projects was Pacific Ave in Morris where they dug in all the new water and sewer lines. They did the same in Morris’ Klinker Addition and also tore down many large buildings in the county.
Demolition turned out to be a major part of the business. They also started doing field tile work and burying groves and farm sites in the rural area.
Things went smoothly until one year when Jim became trapped in a trench that caved in on him. He was covered with soil about 12” above his head and the boys had to scramble to dig him out, mostly by hand. For the next two years, this misfortune happened to two more employees. Thankfully all were rescued in time and survived. Kevin has had some narrow escapes tipping over the backhoe on three occasions.
One of the biggest projects taken on was a huge demolition of a sewage treatment plant by Owatonna that started in 1989. It took two years for them to complete this job. They have since taken down several schools throughout the state and for several years traveled in a three state area doing work. They now have enough work locally so do not travel as far.
The business moved to the current site on Hwy 9 north in Morris in 1984. They needed more space and an area to do truck repairs. Additional help was added now including Kirk and Kevin, Brad DeGier, Darren Lilienthal, Eric Riley and Scott Kripner. Eric is Kevin’s son and the third generation working there.
Jim and his second wife, Cathy live in Morris. Besides the boys, they also had two daughters, Tiffany and Mandy. Jim also has a daughter, Karen, with Lola Brown. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tiffany died in a car crash several years ago. Kyle is also deceased so life in general has been a challenge.
During the last 50 years, Jim never cared to do anything “flashy” to promote his business. 50 years in business is something they want to celebrate but as they stated, it is more about thanking their customers. “It is time to celebrate and appreciate all the customers who made our business a success through all the generations,” stated Kirk.
They will be holding an Appreciation Supper on Saturday, June 12 at the shop on Hwy 9 north. They encourage customers, friends and community members to stop out and help them celebrate two big milestones while Jim, Kevin and Kirk say thank you to everyone for their support.