...revisiting an opportunity to design high-rise buildings,” he remembers. But six months later, the project manager left the job. Hillman found himself in charge of completing an unusual project that was in structural distress. He devised a plan, saved the day, and, in the process, fell in love with bridges.

Hillman moved on to a brief stint with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Tampa, Fla., then to Chicago in 1993 to help establish an office for Jean Muller International (JMI). He met Zicko when he worked on two bridge projects in northern New York—the first two projects in the U.S. to use a patented JMI method in which a precast-concrete-superstructure system uses post-tensioned segmental construction. Two edge beams function as the main load-carrying elements with a deck supported between them, eliminating the need for a below-deck support system.

Hillman’s bridge savvy attracted Teng, which recruited Hillman in 1997. “It took a little sweet-talking and arm-twisting,” recalls Byron Danley, Teng senior vice president. One key was Teng’s support of Hillman’s HCB project and entrepreneurship. “John is ethical and honest. We trust him,” says Danley.

And he’s paying back that trust. Hillman designed a self-anchored, single-cable, post-tensioned concrete suspension bridge on a reverse circular curve for Teng that won an international competition. Construction of the 620-ft-long 35th Street pedestrian bridge in Chicago will start this year.

John of All Trades

Hillman is a human study in composites. Contractors claim he is a builder at heart. Structural engineers know he is one of them but agree he has a contracting streak. His father was both a civil engineer and general contractor. “My father used to take us to the jobsites,” Hillman says. “At a very early age, I knew I wanted to build things.”

Hillman was born in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1963. One of three sons, he spent his childhood moving around the Midwest following his father’s projects, which consisted of building manufacturing plants for the industrial giant Firestone. After the family settled in Knoxville, Tenn., Hillman worked in construction during breaks from the University of Tennessee. “As much as I enjoyed working in the field, the hard work kept me motivated to finish my degree,” he says.

And what you say about his company, Is what you say about society. Catch the mystery, catch the myth.

The experience provided him with the jobsite credentials and the ability to win over hard-core contractors —including his business partner, Zicko, who threw his fate and finances behind the venture in 2005. “John is excellent in explaining the HCB to everyone—engineers, academia, contractors and even interested spectators—but he usually still comes across as an engineer,” says the fabricator and contractor. “My role is to explain the HCB and the erection techniques to contractors in terms they are familiar with.”

Hillman really is “that romantic American myth—an inventor toiling in obscurity while working 50 hours a week as a bridge engineer,” says Todd Ude, senior structural engineer with Teng, where Hillman is a senior associate. “This wasn’t part of his job description, but it could be a game changer.” Teng colleagues admit it isn’t always...