The Riskas of H & J Construction: Innovators in Building
One of the Valley’s most innovative mid-century construction companies was started in 1949 on a shoestring budget by brothers, Harry and John Riskas. The office of H & J Construction Co. was a converted barbershop, and Betty Riskas, John’s wife, provided much of their $9,000 capital and a used Studebaker truck. The brothers initially completed every job themselves, utilizing their carpentry experience acquired in the Midwest and afterward during World War II.
But 14 years later, when H & J Construction moved its operations from Phoenix to the Bay Area, things were different. The company had up to 1,500 employees on the payroll. The tale of how H & J Construction became so successful so quickly corresponds to their pioneering methods that dovetailed with the Valley's explosive growth.
The H & J Construction story starts with their father, James Riskas, who immigrated from Corinth, Greece to Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1905. He was in the construction business until retiring in 1947, when he moved to Phoenix. James and his wife, Ann Marie, had three daughters, Sofie, Marie, and Helen, and three sons Tom J., Harry J., and John J.
Tom Riskas, who was discharged from the Army after landing at Normandy on D-day, followed his father to Phoenix and started Riskas Construction. The company built several homes around Phoenix starting in the late 1940s. He hired his brothers, Harry and John, as carpenters. In 1949, the brothers split from the family business to open H & J Construction.
“Their one-room office was once Red’s Barber Shop at 16th Street and Camelback,” says John J. Riskas Jr., John’s son. “Dad was a field guy and a true craftsman while Harry was more the businessman.” The company started with small projects, such as custom houses, and later built housing sub-divisions. By 1952, H & J Construction focused on commercial construction, particularly motels.
Harry was born in 1920 in Wisconsin and educated in Indiana. Six months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Harry joined the Navy and served as a fighter pilot in the South Pacific during World War II until being discharged in 1946. He completed his education in uniform, attending three institutions: DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana; Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington; and the U.S. Naval Air University in Jacksonville, Florida.
John, the younger brother, was born in 1922. He also was stationed at Pearl Harbor as a member of the U.S. Merchant Marine but spent most of the war as a machinist building B-17s in a former Studebaker plant in Fort Wayne. It was there he met Betty Beber, who then became his wife and lifetime partner.
With his experience in industrial construction, John designed improved methods of scheduling sub-contractors. He directed the company’s on-the-job operations in the critical early phases of building and was recognized as an expert in handling concrete.
John pioneered the development of pre-cast concrete slabs, which increased efficiency. “He laid out the construction schedule and materials, and the crews went to work," his son says. “I remember going to the Frontier Gardens Apartments in Phoenix with Dad and riding on a forklift with him. He brought me up in construction.”
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This article originally appeared in the Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Nov/Dec 2019 issue, Vol. 8, No.6. The Arizona Contractor & Community magazine is a bi-monthly publication.