2015 Business of the Year: LHC

Building the first and final phases of the Kalispell bypass has vaulted a long-time locally owned company to the top tier of the construction industry, where it is now involved in some of the most prominent local developments

By Dillon Tabish
Jeff Claridge, owner of LHC Inc., pictured on Dec. 18, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Sitting in his office in mid-December, Jeff Claridge was surrounded by an uncommon amount of activity. Trucks were loading gravel, workers were mixing concrete and crews were traveling back and forth from LHC’s headquarters off Stillwater Road in Kalispell to the major project just down the road.

The winter months are typically quieter times for construction companies, but not for LHC. Not right now.

The locally owned and operated business, founded in 1968 by Claridge’s father, Roger, is involved in an unprecedented project at the moment.

LHC is building the final phase of the U.S. Highway 93 Alternate Route, or bypass, which broke ground in October and is slated for completion next fall.

It’s a fitting bookend for a transformative project and local company that has risen to the top of the ranks in a robust and revitalized construction industry. Nearly 10 years ago, LHC was involved in the first phase of the bypass. In total, LHC has worked on five phases since then, including this final stretch, which features the construction of nearly five miles of road, new bridges and overpasses and a lengthy pedestrian path.

Over $100 million has been poured into the entire project, and the final contract, awarded to LHC at nearly $34 million, is the largest single contract in the state’s history.

The sizeable job is allowing LHC to keep nearly 50 workers on payroll during winter, which is typically when construction slows to a halt. Another 25 local workers are subcontracting, creating a boon to the local economy that will continue for the next 12 months.

“We’re really fortunate in the Flathead Valley to have several homegrown contractors right there, like LHC,” said Robert Vosen, district construction engineer with the Montana Department of Transportation.

“These companies are part of the community and they’re providing good work and have a sense of pride in what they’re doing. I know Jeff (Claridge) personally, and he’s very supportive of the community, not just in the construction industry but he’s always helping out with fundraisers and other groups. He really supports and cares about the community.”

The Claridge family has deeps roots in the Flathead Valley. Jeff Claridge’s great grandfather moved here in the early 1900s. His father, Roger, founded LHC in the late 1960s as a timber-hauling company. By the early 1980s it evolved into a construction business and purchased a large gravel pit. By the 1990s, it was a go-to company for water and sewer projects and again evolved into asphalt and concrete work as the valley’s economy began to boom.

After graduating with a master’s degree at the University of Montana, Jeff Claridge moved back home looking for work. As it happened, he joined his father’s company.

The two envisioned a company that could tackle bigger projects, but the opportunity wasn’t there. Not until an historic opportunity emerged in 2006.

In the fall of that year, after decades of debating and planning, Montana’s Department of Transportation made a watershed announcement. The state was prioritizing the development of an eight-mile alternate route in Kalispell that would relieve increasing congestion along the combined thoroughfare of Main Street and U.S. Highway 93.

While excitement swept the valley, the sudden progress caused some immediate anxiety. The creation of the bypass was coinciding with the construction of Glacier High School, which was surfacing in the same vicinity as the northern section of the future alternate route. Transportation officials and community members agreed that a relatively small but pivotal piece of the bypass project — a 1.2-mile section of four-lane road known as Reserve Loop — needed to be completed when the new school opened in the fall of 2007. The timeframe was narrow and the project was complex, including the addition of the area’s first modern roundabout at Stillwater Road.

With no time to waste, MDT sought the right company for the job.

Claridge, the vice president of LHC, saw the project as both an opportunity and challenge.

“It was a really tight schedule and we had never done a project like that before,” Claridge recalled recently. “We cut our teeth on that one.”

MDT awarded the company the contract to build the Reserve Loop project in early 2007.

“It was the biggest dirt job we had ever done. It was the biggest paving job and the biggest gravel job we had ever done. The magnitude of it was huge,” Claridge said. “But we wanted to do it. We weren’t afraid, we were excited.”

Despite being understaffed and under a severe time constraint, LHC completed the Reserve Loop project on time.

“That gave us a little confidence and we just started going from there,” Claridge said.

Over the last 10 years, LHC has peaked at nearly 200 employees who are based at the company’s 350-acre site. It has worked on several prominent projects over the years, including infrastructure in the Spring Prairie and Hutton Ranch developments, where Walmart, Cabela’s and other major retailers have surfaced. It has helped Kalispell Regional Healthcare build out its campus. The company also recently worked on the first phase of the U.S. 93 West project in Whitefish that included expanding the highway and infrastructure west of Baker Avenue.

But nothing stands out more notably than the bypass project. It is transforming Kalispell’s transportation grid at a time of major economic growth in Northwest Montana. It has also helped LHC grow in stature and size alongside a healthy local construction industry.

“It’s pretty exciting to be able to say that we built this thing that will change the landscape of the valley,” Claridge said. “To say that we were a major part of that is pretty exciting for us because we’re locally owned, born and raised. We’re all natives and we feel like we’re part of the fabric of the community and this is important.”