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Echo Lighting Gallery has built a business on strong partnerships.

When Brad Huisman got started in the lighting business nearly 20 years ago, he was fortunate to have the backing of the right partner to support his efforts. Although he was working solo, he was part of a larger group of companies. That solid relationship gave him the freedom to grow his business.

About a year ago, the situation could have changed dramatically. But Huisman’s history of building relationships laid the foundation for a new partnership and new opportunities ahead.

“When I got started, having the support of the Brunia family and the Electric Wholesale name allowed me to make connections with builders and developers that I couldn’t have made as easily on my own,” he says.

Electric Wholesale was based in Ames. Huisman originally focused his lighting sales efforts there as well, working out of an office at the Electric Wholesale showroom. “We’ve always had a unique business model,” he explains. “At the time, there were something like 14 retail lighting stores in the Des Moines area, and that market seemed pretty saturated.”

Instead, Huisman took a direct approach, marketing to the builders themselves. When the growth in Ames slowed down, Huisman knew that if he was going to survive, he would have to expand his reach.

“I started making contacts in Ankeny and Des Moines with some of the bigger builders and developers, getting involved with the Greater Des Moines Home Builders Association, basically working out of my car the whole time. Once I built those relationships, the builders were sending their designers or project coordinators up to our wholesale showroom in Ames to make selections,” he says.

Before long, he had an office, a few fixtures on display, and a rapidly growing client base. “We’ve thought about retail because the market has changed,” Huisman says. “But that’s never been how we approached our business.”

A retail location would require different staffing, warehousing, and marketing. To Huisman, it would mean a complete departure from the type of relationships he’s developed over the years. So when he and his wife, Erin, opened EW Lighting Gallery in Ankeny, it wasn’t the retail lighting store it may have appeared from the street.

Once again, his partnership with the Brunia family was key to the company’s growth.

Huisman says, “They weren’t interested in trying a retail lighting showroom either. But with the popularity of internet shopping and home improvement television, homeowners were becoming more demanding about the styles and products they wanted. We needed to be able to walk our clients through that selection process.”

EW Lighting Gallery provided that setting. It also offered a more central location for Huisman and his team to serve the fastest growing communities in the state.

The company has since expanded its services, providing site walk-through to help clients plan every step of the lighting and the necessary electrical well in advance. And EW Lighting Gallery’s in-house designers work alongside the clients’ design teams to select everything from light fixtures to ceiling fans and mirrors.

“We still aren’t open to the public in a typical retail form. For us, service comes first. To do that right, we cater to the builders and their customers directly,” Huisman says. “Our relationship with homeowners starts with the builder or designer. That way our team can set up an individual appointment with the homeowners and their design partners to really customize their selections.”

When the Brunia family decided to sell its Electric Wholesale company, Huisman wasn’t sure what that would mean for his corner of the business. Fortunately, his years of expertise and years of developing the right relationships served as the only introduction he needed for the company’s new partnership.

“Echo Group out of Council Bluffs purchased Electric Wholesale last November,” says Huisman. “But none of the companies in the Echo Group works directly with lighting, so they were intrigued by our business model.”

Not only did Echo Group welcome the Huismans and their team on board, but the company hopes to expand Huisman’s approach into more markets where Echo Group already has a presence.

Huisman’s Ankeny location is now Echo Lighting Gallery.

“They have been so great. They just want us to keep doing what we do. When the time is right, they hope to add more Lighting Gallery locations and have me help with that growth where I can,” says Huisman.

“We’ve been doing this a long time now,” says Erin. “The builders and designers we’ve worked with have come to trust that experience. When a new client comes in, we can say, ‘Trust us. This is what we do.’”

The Huismans’ business partners have recognized that, too.

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NAHB economist sees a slowing economy ahead.

A discussion of the economy isn’t typically filled with nail-biting drama. But according to National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) chief economist Robert Dietz, the current U.S. economy is the equivalent of a plane coming in for a crash landing.

On Thursday, September 8, the Iowa City chapter of the Home Builders Association hosted Dietz at its monthly gathering. His presentation included an aerial view of the U.S. economy, as well as a look at Iowa specifically.

With the Federal Reserve tightening interest rates and inflation the highest it’s been in nearly 40 years, Dietz says a recession in the next 12 to 18 months is inevitable. “The plane is going to land hard,” he says. “How hard depends on the Fed.”

Dietz doesn’t expect a crash like that of 2008. But on a national level, the plane is definitely coming down. “That’s not to say there won’t be growth in some markets,” he believes. “Communities that encourage growth, communities that create an affordable environment for builders and developers to work, those communities will see growth.”

After two years of dramatic increases in nearly every sector of the economy, the U.S. saw numbers contract during the first quarter of 2022. Dietz says this was due in part to the artificial economic stimulation from the government’s stimulus program during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cash flow increased, but output was reduced,” Dietz explains. “Those two together equal inflation.”

Core inflation, although just beginning to come down, peaked at nearly 9% higher than it was in mid-2021.

Unemployment is another factor playing into the changing market. Two statistics in particular reveal how great a part. First, there are twice as many vacant jobs as there are individuals on the unemployment rolls. Second, the labor force participation rate has been steadily declining since 2000.

“And on top of that already-declining labor force, add the fact that half of those who stepped away from employment during COVID have not returned,” says Dietz.

Despite these warning signs, Dietz doesn’t anticipate a hard landing for the economy. “I expect the Fed to keep interest rates a little higher for 2023, then begin a gradual decrease in 2024 as the economy levels out,” he says.

Dietz isn’t the only expert who’s forecasting this approach from the Federal Reserve. As he explains, “The markets have already anticipated this tightening in the monetary policy, so most institutions have adjusted rates accordingly. Rates aren’t expected to fluctuate dramatically for consumers because of this.”

As far as the construction market is concerned, materials costs and supply issues will continue to be concerns. Lumber prices are coming down from their 2021 peak. However, building materials as a whole are still up about 16% compared to pre-pandemic prices.

Dietz says this is one area the federal government could play a bigger part. “Supply side issues aren’t being addressed effectively.”

Because of increased demand and increased material prices, housing affordability will remain a major issue in the industry. As of late August, only 45% of homes on the market nationally were affordable for the average buyer. That is the lowest percentage of affordable homes in over a decade.

“Iowa continues to have strong population growth and a stable market,” Dietz says, “so I don’t anticipate the same fluctuations here and elsewhere in the Midwest that we’re seeing in some other areas of the country.”

The median price of a new home increased by nearly 40% by early 2022, but prices are recovering to be more in line with inflation and other prices.

Dietz anticipates custom home building will remain stable and that multifamily projects, which have increased more than 15%, will level off over the next couple of years. Single-family projects are down nationally, although strong in Iowa. As the rest of the economy levels out, he expects single-family projects to begin rising again, likely early in 2024.

Long-term, Dietz is watching a couple of potential warning signs for the construction industry—an aging workforce and declining population growth. “In July of this year, there were about 375,000 job openings in the construction industry,” he says. He says twice that number of openings ae added each year as the market grows and workers retire.

Not only is the median age in the industry 41, but a quarter of the workforce is made up of immigrants. Drawing young people to the industry and encouraging sensible and enforceable immigration policies will both be key in sustaining the industry in the future.

“The U.S. fertility rate continues to drop. That will affect not only our labor shortage but the rental markets and the first-time buyer market,” says Dietz.

If population numbers continue declining, there will be fewer first-time home buyers in 25 years, fewer renters, and a smaller pool of workers to fill job openings.

Despite those warning signs and the turbulence of the past 24 months or so, Dietz says the U.S. financial industry has implemented safety practices since the 2008 crash, so brutal decline is unlikely.

Experienced air travelers have learned to expect bumpy landings from time to time. Dietz says economists understand how to deal with that: Planning ahead and avoiding unnecessary risks will make even a bumpy landing less painful.

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An unexpected twist in the road opened a new path for Brenden and Erin Hannah.

Looking back on life before COVID, some changes are obvious. Masks may be less common, but they’re still evident in some public environments. A much higher percentage of employees is working remotely than before 2020. And you can get almost anything delivered right to your door, from groceries to tacos.

Some pandemic effects are a little harder to trace. But Brenden and Erin Hannah can look back on the spring of 2020 as the moment when their professional lives took an unanticipated turn.

The couple had been operating Hannah Homes out of their own home for nearly a decade when they made two big decisions to invest in the company’s future. Erin quit her previous job to dedicate herself to Hannah Homes, and the couple decided it was time to find new office space.

“Shortly after starting Notch & Nail, we knew that to grow Hannah Homes further, the next step was a showroom,” says Erin. “We found this property in Valley Junction with an old gas station that had been vacant for quite a while, so we tore that down and built this building as a three-bay commercial space.”

About a year earlier, the Hannahs had started a sister company with the idea that they could more easily build their own cabinetry and custom trim products and offer that service to clients so that their business, Notch & Nail, could pay for itself.

“We thought we had a perfect plan—use one bay of the new building for the Hannah Homes showroom, one bay for our new Notch & Nail shop, and then rent out the remaining third bay,” Erin says.

By the end of February 2020, the showroom was complete, and the Hannah Homes offices had officially relocated.

A grand opening was scheduled for mid-April. Erin still has the invitations to prove it. “We officially pulled the plug on the grand opening the first week of April with the intention of rescheduling it for that fall,” she says.

But on top of the unexpected effects of the pandemic, the couple’s side business took an unanticipated turn also—for the better.

“Notch & Nail had been growing steadily, but in a different direction than we originally anticipated” says Brenden. “We began to get more and more opportunities in the commercial sector to build commercial cabinetry and architectural millwork. We very quickly started to get away from the residential market with our Notch & Nail projects. And during COVID, commercial projects didn’t slow down at all. We started to realize there was a real need for our services and a real opportunity for us to grow in the commercial space.”

To take Notch & Nail to the next level, Brenden couldn’t continue splitting his time between two companies. And if he took Notch & Nail to the next level, it would mean investing in larger equipment.

Fortunately, they just happened to have a brand-new showroom that remained closed to the public.

“That was a tough call,” Erin says. “Do we wait out the pandemic restrictions and reopen the showroom later? Or do we take the leap on this new opportunity?”

“We had always loved building homes, and we hadn’t planned to put that aside,” says Brenden. “But Notch & Nail was growing so fast, we knew we couldn’t do both.”

Looking back now, the choice seems obvious. But at the time, it felt like a blind leap.

Hannah Homes had always been just the two of them. By its very nature, Notch & Nail would require staff. Hannah Homes had been rooted in personal interaction and the relationships developed with clients and subs. Notch & Nail would be more project-based.

Once again, hindsight is 2020.

“We found our first employees through existing connections, but we also really lucked out with the guys we found through employment websites,” says Erin. “We have a great team.”

With four additional staff members and a growing work area with more than half a dozen pieces of large equipment, Notch & Nail has already outgrown its West Des Moines address. “We’re certainly glad we never got around to renting out that third office bay,” Brenden says with a laugh.

“We kept adding equipment, and Brenden’s office area kept shrinking,” Erin adds.

Larger equipment and bigger projects also drove a need for more materials and more storage, so Notch & Nail has been forced to find off-site solutions to meet all those needs. But that will come to a close by the end of the year.

Like déjà vu all over again, the Hannahs found themselves in the same dilemma they faced before the pandemic. “To continue growing, we needed more dedicated space,” says Brenden.

The company broke ground on a brand-new facility in Johnston that will be five times their current space. “This building has 4,500 square feet, and the new facility is about 23,000,” Brenden says. “We went into that project with growth in mind. It will have enough finished space for the office staff to work comfortably. But we’ll have plenty of open work floor to add equipment or to complete larger projects as well.”

Brenden is excited about the possibilities the larger space will provide, enabling them to take on even bigger cabinetry casework and architectural millwork projects. But he and Erin are just as excited about the smaller projects that continue to come their way.

“We’re finishing up a custom project replicating an 8-foot vintage winged clock for an airport hangar,” Erin says. “And a company that had originally looked into renting our third space ended up locating in Grimes. They hired us to create the casework and some custom pieces for their Lightbrite Coffee Roasters shop. That was one of our first tenant-improvement projects. Brenden also has a tour scheduled with a 13-year-old inventor who wondered if we could engrave his logo in a prototype he built,” Erin says.

“He asked if that was something we could do, and I thought, ‘A 13-year-old kid who’s come up with his own prototype? Yeah. We can definitely do that,’” Brenden says.

Three years ago the Hannahs wouldn’t have anticipated such a turn of events. Hannah Homes is closed. That lovely showroom doesn’t exist anymore. And the company offices they designed never did serve the purpose for which they were planned.

But each of those twists brought them to today. And things are looking pretty good.

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Volunteers complete Habitat project during Iowa State Fair 2022.

Every home built by Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity is the result of thousands of volunteer hours. If you attended the Iowa State Fair in August, you saw that process in action and at hyperspeed.

“Our typical build takes three to four months,” says Habitat’s Lance Henning. “To schedule volunteer crews and subs who donate their time between other jobs, it’s a multistage process.”

That process was condensed into a meticulously scheduled nine days. Fair attendees not only had the opportunity to watch the build but to tour the completed home during the last weekend of the Fair.

More than 350 volunteers and staff worked on this project from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day. Inspections and skilled subcontractors were scheduled at precise times to keep the work on pace.

“By the end of the first day, the walls were up. City inspectors came through Monday so the drywall crew could get started,” says Henning. “The walls were dry and ready to paint when volunteers showed up Tuesday morning.”

State Fair CEO Gary Slater was part of the crew raising the first wall. He says the project has special meaning for him. “I was CEO when Habitat did their last State Fair build in 2005. I drive by that house at least once a week in a neighborhood just north of the Fairgrounds. The family has taken such pride in caring for that house. It’s encouraging to think I was part of that and to be part of this latest build, too.”

Like that first house from 17 years ago, this one has been moved to its permanent location in a neighborhood not far from the Fairgrounds. Slater says that was just one more reason the State Fair Board was happy to partner with Habitat again. “Their cause is one that affects not just individuals but the whole community. They do such a great job, not just with their projects but with keeping their stories in the media and reminding the community about their mission.”

According to Henning, that public awareness was one of the main goals for this year’s State Fair build. “As challenging as it is to coordinate, projects like this are always a great experience for everyone involved. We really wanted to raise awareness about the growing need for affordable housing. The visibility of this project at the Fair was a wonderful opportunity.”

The build site near the northwest corner of the Fairgrounds was visible to traffic on East 30th Street and was situated near some popular outdoor exhibits and rides to increase visibility.

“I had people stopping me to ask about it all week,” Slater says.

In addition to the State Fair Board, other public figures, including Governor Kim Reynolds, Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, and Representative Cindy Axne, stopped by the site to view its progress.

“Not all of them had time to stay and swing hammers,” Henning says. “But they signed the 2×4s that will be used as studs in the home’s basement. The homeowners will have that reminder of all the people who stopped by or volunteered to help build their home.”

The family, a single mother and her disabled adult son, completed Habitat’s “path to ownership” process and will move into the home this fall.

“That path to ownership is one of the things we’ve worked hard to develop,” Henning says. “Families who apply but are not yet ready for home ownership used to just get denied. But with our process, we can sit down with them. Within an hour we can show them where they are on that path and what steps come next so they can move forward.”

As home prices and material costs have climbed rapidly over the past few years, more and more families are struggling to stay on that path. Henning says statistics indicate that for every $1,000 price increase, 1,900 families are priced out of buying a home. “Those increases aren’t something we can pass on to our home buyers either,” he says. “They can only pay what they can pay. We rely on fundraising and volunteers to make up for that increased cost.”

Thanks to Habitat’s two successful ReStore facilities and faithful donors, the organization has been able to maintain its annual build goals. In addition to the 30 homes that will be completed in 2022, Habitat will also provide maintenance and preservation service for another 250 homeowner-occupied homes this year.

“We’ve been doing that for about 10 years now,” Henning says. “It’s one thing to be able to purchase a home. But as repair costs and taxes increase, it can be challenging for families to maintain their homes. So we provide that assistance, too.”

Slater says that attitude is what makes the Habitat projects such a great fit for the State Fair. “Every person on the project was super to work with. It’s such a great cause. We were proud to be part of it.”

Many hands certainly made light work. But as with most things at the State Fair, this, too, is best done on an occasional basis.

“I’d love to finish every build in nine days,” Henning laughs. “But I think our normal pace is a little more reasonable for everyone involved.”

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