Six years after ending a similar combination with another suitor, a local landscape architecture practice is once again joining forces with a civil engineering firm.
HG Design Studio, the Richmond-based firm led by husband-and-wife owners Dave and Meril Gerstenmaier, has been acquired by VHB, a Massachusetts-based company with a local office in Shockoe Bottom.
The acquisition closed on Friday and became effective on Monday. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
The combination will see HG absorbed into VHB, with all of its 17 employees gradually transferring to VHB’s office. The regional company has 30 offices up and down the East Coast and totals 1,800 workers company-wide.
The deal comes six years after HG ended its 18-month marriage to Stewart Inc., a civil engineering company with a foothold in the Carolinas.
Where Stewart was the initiator in that combination, Meril Gerstenmaier said the deal with VHB was different in that this time HG was the one playing the field.
“We have been approached by many firms over the past few years,” she said. “I think a lot of engineering firms have the idea of acquisition as their expansion strategy, and we’ve been approached by just about all of them at some point. But we didn’t seriously consider anything until we had a really good conversation with our next-in-line.”
That conversation—with Charlene Harper and Randy Biltz, who round out HG’s leadership team as director of engineering and director of production, respectively—revealed that they preferred joining a larger firm over an internal succession plan that was in the works. But only if they found the right fit, Gerstenmaier said.
“If we didn’t do that, we would just continue on the path we were on because we are doing very well,” she said. “VHB was at the top of the list.”
Diane Linderman, who leads VHB’s Richmond office and has worked with and competed with HG over the years, said the combination also made sense for VHB when Gerstenmaier came calling about a year ago.
“They bring a very strong landscape architecture studio to us, which we’ll be able to (use to) strengthen our integrated services with our engineers,” Linderman said. “Adding this amazing team will allow us to pursue bigger and better and more complex projects.”
Founded as a landscape architecture firm, HG expanded into civil engineering in 2015, often pitting the company against VHB for projects. Gerstenmaier said HG’s size often meant it lost out, although the companies have also collaborated on projects over the years.
“We’ve had some success winning very large projects, but often we’re disqualified because the client’s perception is that we’re not big enough to do a very large complex project,” she said. “To get past that perception, that maybe we don’t have the bandwidth, I think we’ll get over that hump because VHB is a very well-established and strong engineering firm.”
HG’s landscape work over the years includes an ongoing expansion at Westminster Canterbury and new townhouses planned at Westchester Commons. Other projects included a $30 million infield redevelopment at Richmond Raceway and the University of Virginia’s Davenport Field project.
VHB’s local projects include UVA’s Ivy Corridor project and security improvements at Capitol Square in Richmond. Also in the works is a new apartment building in the Westwood area and a three-building complex to replace Richmond’s Public Safety Building.
Gerstenmaier said the timing was right to combine with VHB.
“The conditions in the market right now are quite challenging in terms of finding top talent,” she said. “There is a lot of work out there; it’s just mainly finding enough people and the right people to produce to the standards we have.”
Gerstenmaier said it will be about a six-month process for HG’s staff to transition to VHB’s office, which totals 28 employees and fills 6,500 square feet in the Canal Crossing building. VHB has been locally based there since 2003.
Linderman said the company is taking an additional 3,000 square feet previously used by RRMM Architects to make room for HG’s team.
Meanwhile, the Gerstenmaiers have listed HG’s office building in the Libbie-en-Grove area for sale. The 6,300-square-foot complex at 5701 Grove Ave. and 124 Granite Ave. was listed without an asking price by Reilly Marchant with Thalhimer. City records show the 0.3-acre property is valued at $894,000 and last sold in 2015 for $3.6 million.
HG was founded in 2000 when Dave Gerstenmaier joined Higgins Associates LLC, a firm dating back 60 years led by father and son Kenneth and Ralph Higgins. The name “Higgins-Gerstenmaier” was shortened to HG, and Meril Gerstenmaier joined the firm in 2010 as managing partner and majority owner, making it a SWaM certified business.
Both Dave and Meril will continue with VHB, with Dave joining as principal and Meril as an industry relations manager. Meril said retirement is years away for both of them.
“Retirement, right now, seems scary,” she said. “None of us really want to retire.
“Dave will probably continue for many years, and I will go on and be an ambassador with the firm or at least help with strategy and business development for a few years.”
She added, laughing, “Or until they just don’t want me to do it anymore.”