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Heartland Acoustics & Interiors Continues Westward Expansion


At a time when many contractors are sitting tight, waiting for the dust to settle on the pandemic, Heartland Acoustics & Interiors, Inc. has busied itself with bold moves. Along with bringing on several new product lines and hiring a business development manager, the ceiling and speciality contractor committed to growth through a company merger in a new market.

    

Completed in December 2021, the acquisition of Seattle-based Forrest Sound Products (FSP) gives Heartland a fourth office and adds about 50 employees to its company.

    

The decision to do a merger “was a little counter-intuitive,” but for president and CEO Jason Gordon it has been part of an effort to emerge out of the pandemic “ahead of the game.”



Make It Happen

Gordon, who founded Heartland in Denver in 1997, saw his company grow to become the largest ceiling and specialty contractor in Colorado in less than a decade. When he chose to add another branch about a year ago, he looked at companies in eight or nine markets in the West. Branches in Texas, California and the Denver head office were started from the ground up, but Gordon didn’t have the time or energy to start another business from scratch. “I wanted to accelerate our growth,” he says.

    

During his search for the right opportunity, Gordon sought recommendations from Daana Denzel of Denzel Northwest, an independent representative for specialty acoustical and ceiling manufacturers. “She told me her dad, Ben Forrest, owns Forrest Sound Products and might be looking to retire.” Founded in the 1990s as a very specialized acoustical product supply company, FSP had steadily grown its commercial ceilings and specialties segments—“markets that were similar to the type of work we are doing in Denver.”

    

The opportunity looked right, the two owners hit it off right away, and the wheels of motion were set in play for the merger.

    

Completing the deal took months, and the company leaders did it the old-fashioned way—without a business broker or banks. “We tried to keep it simple and come together to make it happen,” Gordon says. The acquisition adds about 40 unionized carpenters and 10 office/warehouse staff.

    

Gordon says he won’t make major changes to the existing operations, and no staff cutbacks are in the cards. “We have our own processes on how we can improve things, but we’re not trying to tip it over and disrupt everything. We want to change, tune up and tweak it to get it a stronger operation—and be sensitive to the FSP staff who have had a way of doing things for many years,” he says.

    

That doesn’t mean Heartland sees things remaining status quo. Gordon wants to “scale up the business for a bigger presence in Seattle/Tacoma.”



Not Without Challenges

The new market does come with a learning curve. The work is complicated by seismic regulations in Seattle. Those rules require more workers like Heartland is used to on its California projects. “Our work in Texas and Colorado is done with fewer people because the seismic and building codes are different and there is just a lot more output,” he explains.

    

Seattle, unlike Heartland’s other branches, is a union town. “We knew coming here that to be the preferred contractor we want to be, we will need to have a union shop,” Gordon says. Being the contractor’s first experience in a union-shop environment, Gordon and his team spent months with FSP working out its new role. “It’s not just the financials,” he says, “it is also the business culture, the client mix and who you buy materials from …”

    

Another factor at the new branch is the state’s stringent COVID-19 health and safety regulations. While production continues at a steady pace, once crews are on site in Seattle, pandemic protocols can cause delays for personnel entering sites because of logins, temperature checks and other measures. They can add “significant time” to a job, Gordon says.

    

Heartland has not seen a branch shutdown due to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. Safety Manager Dan VandenBurg credits the company’s attention to health and safety for the unblemished record. He says from the early days of the pandemic, Heartland assembled a task force comprised of management from various branches to examine the potential issues on a weekly basis.

    

But VandenBurg attributes the company’s safety success also to the GCs it works for. “They take safety seriously,” he says. “They keep clean sites, they schedule correctly, they work with everybody.”



Supply Chain

While many people in the construction industry initially feared that the pandemic could cause major construction shutdowns because of supply chain issues, those worries haven’t panned out at Heartland. “It seems that it (material delays) has been very pocketed by a manufacturer here or there or a particular product,” Gordon explains.

    

He says because Heartland does ceilings and specialty markets only, it has not been affected by the steel stud supply shortages faced by drywall framers. “We have ceiling grid and metal ceilings, but we haven’t seen the same shortages,” Gordon says. Still, extruded aluminum is in short supply and could be until summer.

    

Geoff Johnson, Heartland’s director of preconstruction, says pre-pandemic the cost of materials varied from one branch to the other, but now prices are similar across the board. Most of Heartland’s manufacturers have escalators for a year, but estimating the cost of product past a year is difficult. “If your job is out to 2025, we carry pricing that we think is going to work … but we may get into 2023 and it may be 10% higher. It’s just the nature of the business right now.”



Manpower

A scarcity of skilled labor continues to be a concern in the field. While Gordon thinks the pandemic hasn’t made manpower issues worse, it hasn’t made things better either, and shortages aren’t going away anytime soon.

    

“Unemployment is super low, people are not coming back to the trades, and we have recruiting issues with young talent,” Gordon says. “There is so much pent-up demand for opportunity and project creation that there is going to be a strong backlog of work for the next 18 to 24 months. It’s good as long as we find the people to build it and get our materials on time.”



Expanding Scope

Other moves Gordon has made through the pandemic include the addition of new product lines: interior/exterior cladding, rain screens and interior demountable partitions. The exterior segment is typically done by drywallers or framers, but Gordon believes he can expand Heartland’s scope of work there. “It’s been an exciting growth period in the second half of 2021 to get some traction under these products,” he says.

    

The new lines were introduced in 2019, but the launch was delayed by about a year because of COVID-19. “It was when everybody was figuring out how to meet the requirements of job sites, logging in and tracking,” Gordon says. “It wasn’t fun, very clunky and it required a lot of compliance with CDC guidelines. We didn’t have the bandwidth to bring on our new product lines then.”

    

Johnson says the merger and other bold moves by Gordon come from the president’s diligent research on the markets in the West. “He’s really got his finger on the pulse of the industry, and we look at it (merger and new product lines) as a great opportunity to expand during the pandemic. It will open up a lot of doors. We will be ready to hit the ground running when the pandemic is over.”

    

During the pandemic Heartland became proficient at working remotely and efficiently, largely because of the creation of an internal video conferencing platform. “We found some things (inadequacies) we might not have discovered if it wasn’t for the pandemic, and those will all be long-term gains,” says Gordon.



Projects in the Works

Among Heartland’s notable projects coming up this year is ongoing specialty work for Apple’s new flagship campus in Austin. The interior contract covers acoustical, metal and wood ceilings on one of the campus buildings. It is a challenging project. “Apple is extremely critical on quality control and level of detail,” Gordon explains.

    

In California, the contractor does a lot of work for the Office of State Wide Health Planning and Development, which regulates construction of healthcare facilities. To meet OSHPD’s seismic and other stringent building standards, Heartland has had to provide specialized training for its crews. “It’s very labor intensive and very technical,” Gordon says, noting its major OSHPD projects are in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, but Heartland is doing others around the state as well.

    

In Aurora, Colo., Heartland just wrapped up a large medical campus, and it is starting a high-profile job on the expansion of the Denver Convention Center. The scope of work includes acoustical and specialty ceilings and acoustical wall panels. “It’s a very large project but also a complex one,” Gordon says.

    

Heartland is also doing acoustical, speciality and wood ceilings at Seattle’s new Washington State Convention Center being constructed in a downtown high-rise building. In Wyoming Heartland has work on college campus expansions and is currently doing multiple projects at the University of Wyoming.

    

After 30 years in the business, Gordon still has his eye on further expansion. “I still love this business, and I have enjoyed this acquisition. I want to scout out a couple more opportunities and take Heartland into other markets where we can be successful.”

    

While he isn’t decided on one state over another, the next move may be in the West. “I grew up in Kansas—that’s why this business is called Heartland. I just feel comfortable west of the Mississippi—but it is more about finding the right partner who does a lot of the things we do.”



Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.

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