At a time when the construction industry has been turned upside down by supply chain issues and surging material costs, the Helm Group has powered through with double-digit revenue growth while also expanding its services and geographic reach.
Buoyed by the acquisition of Engel Electric in Rockford, Ill., and success in landing a series of major projects, Helm Group pulled down more than $388 million in Midwest revenue in 2021. That’s up from the $265 million the company reported in pre-pandemic 2019, for a more than 46% jump over that period of time.
Along the way, the Freeport, Ill.-based mechanical contractor has been a major contributor to community and charitable causes while also helping train the next generation of construction design technicians.
The Helm Group’s record of growth during difficult times, its innovative use of technology and its commitment to community and philanthropic causes prompted its selection as ENR Midwest’s Specialty Contractor of the Year.
“We pretty much expanded everywhere and had more revenue everywhere,” says Brian Helm, president and CEO. “Kansas City, Milwaukee, Omaha, Chicago—we did more volume in each one of them.”
While the Helm Group has posted impressive growth over the past few years, it first had to navigate some challenging months following the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. After the pandemic hit, Helm Group saw business take a temporary dip as some major customers put projects on hold.
The specialty contractor was on tap to do the plumbing and HVAC on Applied Underwriters’ new building in Omaha, for instance, when the company paused construction to see what kind of changes might be ahead with the office market. Helm was already in the design phase and was gearing up for the project, “doing CAD drawings, purchasing equipment,” Helm says.
“One thing at Helm is that they do promote from within the company,”
—Jake Dumler Project Manager, Helm Group
The company faced a key decision.
“We weren’t sure whether to commit that team to another project or keep them on hold, basically indefinitely,” he says. The company decided to stick it out, and was ready to go when Applied Underwriters decided to move ahead six months later.
“We were able to shift some of our people part-time to other projects, but remained committed to restarting the AU job once we were given the green light,” Helm says.
The mechanical contractor had other storms to weather as well. Hospitals that had been planning major expansions and larger ERs also slammed on the breaks, in some cases coming back with modified plans to retrofit parts of hospitals to deal with the pandemic.
However, by 2021, other projects that had been put on hold were also back, and Helm Group was starting to pick up a surge of new work on top of that.
The firm’s revenue rose 13% in 2021, with volume of work up 20% so far in 2022, Helm says.
One of the firm’s marquee projects has been the $450-million expansion of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where the mechanical contractor is completing its work. Helm Group provided HVAC services for The Joan and Paul Rubschlager Building, a 10-story, 480,000-sq-ft, outpatient center that includes clinical services for the hospital’s cancer and neurosciences departments.
The mechanical contractor tied in the new addition to the hospital’s central utilities plant while installing nine custom rooftop units and four custom air-handling units. The tie-ins had to be carefully orchestrated to prevent any disruptions, with the work taking place amid a busy hospital grappling with the fallout from the pandemic.
Another big project for Helm has been the In Grown Farms’ Grow Facility, with the firm doing the HVAC and plumbing for the cannabis complex in Freeport, Ill.
Helm worked with the client on design and equipment selection, which was crucial for the company to achieve its aim of getting the maximum growth out of its plants. In particular, the cannabis grower needed to be able to precisely adjust the temperature and humidity to match each phase of the growth of the plants in its facility.
One of Helm’s longtime contractor clients is Ringland-Johnson Construction of Cherry Valley, Ill. Brett Johnson, president, says his firm has worked with Helm Group on roughly 160 different projects over the last decade.
Johnson noted the mechanical contractor has proven invaluable on any number of projects, including a complicated electrical substation complex near O’Hare International Airport designed to monitor and regulate temperature at various points as demand for power rises and falls.
“Helm has been much more than a vendor or a low bid,” Johnson says. “They have been a significant help in relationships with clients on one of the most sensitive parts of a building, which is mechanical systems.”
Meanwhile, the company’s expanding portfolio has provided opportunities for up-and-coming project managers like Jake Dumler. Dumler started off as a college intern from Iowa State in the summer of 2016 and today is a project manager, overseeing HVAC installation in office space built into a new Chicago apartment and condo project.
“There has been a lot of growth,” Dumler says. “One thing at Helm is they do promote a lot from within the company. When they see someone doing exceptional work, they make sure you know you are being recognized and there will be an opportunity to grow with the company at some point.”
In addition to bringing in more work, Helm has also expanded its reach and its overall base of revenue with the acquisition earlier this year of electrical contractor Engel Electric. The two companies have worked together since the late 1950s. Through the acquisition, Helm will expand its capabilities and array of services it can provide to include green energy projects like wind and solar farms as well as power wiring and building automation.
The deal brings with it 110 additional employees, boosting Helm’s total payroll to more than 1,300, Helm says.
As its portfolio of projects has grown, Helm Group has also had to come to grips with supply chain issues as well. And the mechanical contractor is not afraid to put its size to work when it comes to procuring the equipment and material it needs at the best price it can negotiate.
“We like to think we have pretty big buying power,” Helm says. “We like to think we can leverage our size and buying power.”
However, in order to temper the impact of construction price increases, the specialty contractor is also pushing for quicker turnaround times when bidding on projects in order to lock in pricing. In particular, the company is telling potential clients that a contract decision must come within 15 days in order to lock in the bid price. That’s compared with 60 days just a couple of years ago.
But internal management is also key, with the company working to ensure the right equipment and materials are distributed to the jobs with the tightest deadlines and greatest needs, Helm says.
And as part of its efforts to boost efficiency, Helm Group has turned to innovation and technology.
The mechanical contractor is using a “lot more workflow technology,” tracking every item in the firm’s supply chain, from the time it is ordered until it gets delivered onto the jobsite, Helm says. Practically every piece winds up in the company’s fabrication shop, with the company using software and QR codes to keep a handle on things.
“We know where every piece is all the time,” Helm says.
Helm Group has also built a solid track record when it comes to giving back. The mechanical contractor has put its money on the line when it comes to helping the community, and for the past 15 years has ranked as one of the largest supporters of United Way of Northwest Illinois.
And Helm Group is helping out in more direct ways. Employees are teaching CAD to high school students in a number of metro areas the company does business in. Along with teaching CAD skills, instructors from Helm also organize contests in which students design model projects. The winner gets an internship with the company.
“We’re trying to get kids interested in design and construction so that we can increase their career options and hopefully convince them that construction is an excellent career choice,” Helm says. n
Along with giving a boost to local schools, the teaching has also opened a pipeline to the company for up-and-coming CAD technicians at a time when they can hard to find, Helm says.
“If we had 10 candidates we could train, we would take them right now,” he says.