Six years after ending a similar combination with a different 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 Friday and took effect Monday. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
The combination will see HG absorbed into VHB, with all of its 17 employees gradually coming over to VHB’s office. The regional company has 30 offices up and down the East Coast and totals 1,800 workers companywide.
The deal comes six years after HG called an end to its 18-month marriage with 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 is different in that this time HG was the one playing the field.
“We have been approached by many firms for the last several years,” she said. “I think a lot of engineering firms have as their expansion strategy the idea of acquisition, and we were approached by about all of them at some point. But we hadn’t seriously considered 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 its engineering director and production director, respectively – revealed that they preferred joining up with a larger firm over an internal succession plan that had been in the works. But only if they found the right fit, Gerstenmaier said.
“If we didn’t, then we would just continue on the way that we were because we were doing very well,” she said. “VHB was at the top of the list.”
Diane Linderman, who leads VHB’s Richmond office and has collaborated and competed with HG over the years, said the combination made sense to VHB, as well, when Gerstenmaier came calling about a year ago.
“They bring a really strong landscape architecture studio to us, which we’ll be able to (use to) really strengthen our integrated services with our engineering folks,” Linderman said. “Adding this great team is going to allow us to pursue bigger and better and more complicated 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, though the companies have also collaborated on projects over the years.
“We have had some success in winning very large projects, but often we are disqualified because the perception from the client is that we’re not big enough to do a really big complex project,” she said. “Getting past that perception, that we might not have the bandwidth, I think we will get over that bump, because VHB is a really well-established and strong engineering firm.”
HG’s landscape work over the years includes an ongoing expansion at Westminster Canterbury and new townhomes planned at Westchester Commons. Other projects have 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 enhancements at Capitol Square in Richmond. It’s also working on 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 pretty challenging in terms of finding top talent,” she said. “There’s a lot of work out there; it’s just mainly finding enough people and the right people to produce at the standards that 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 based there locally 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-and-Grove area for sale. The 6,300-square-foot complex at 5701 Grove Ave. and 124 Granite Ave. were listed without an asking price by Reilly Marchant with Thalhimer. City records show the 0.3-acre property is assessed at $894,000 and last sold in 2015 for $3.6 million.
HG was founded in 2000 when Dave Gerstenmaier joined up with Higgins Associates LLC, a firm dating back 60 years that was 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 a principal and Meril as an industry relationship manager. Meril said retirement remains years off for both of them.
“Retirement, right now, seems terrifying,” she said. “Neither one of us really want to retire.
“Dave will probably continue on for many years, and I will continue on and be an ambassador to the firm or help with strategy and business development for at least a couple of years.”
She added, laughing, “Or until they just don’t want me doing that anymore.”