Local Builder Flips New Orleans Venture

March 2, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Will the Big Easy flip for Bruce Heys Builders?

Stay tuned to discover the fate of the fledgling New Orleans branch of the Ada-based builder and remodeler of upscale homes. What started out as a service project last winter — fixing a flood-ravaged church post-Hurricane Katrina — is turning into a new venture, said company owner Bruce Heys.

And in the process, the local crew may get their 15 minutes of fame by appearing on the cable television show "Flip That House" on TLC, The Learning Channel.

Through the SunshineCommunityChurch connections of one of his crew members, Heys said, the company hooked up with FirehouseFamilyMinistryCenter in New Orleans. His five-member crew from West Michigan spent two weeks in January 2006 at the church, hanging drywall, painting, doing finish carpentry and installing hardware. Their costs were covered by donations from Heys' suppliers and customers.

"Our guys were paid to go down there through money that was generated here. They took two weeks out of their lives to go down there and help out, and that was really the start of it," said Heys, 43, a PurdueUniversity graduate.

"When they came back, our superintendent, Mike Klumpstra, said, 'Bruce, there's probably an opportunity here that we could look at to grow the business.' We had no intention of starting a business down there, originally. It was just a way to help somebody else out, kind of a fun thing to do. Then the more we thought about it after those guys came back, it looked like it was a win-win situation."

Heys said getting a Louisiana contractor's license took about six months. But finally, in late 2006, the crew returned to New Orleans for a paying job, a remodel and addition for a damaged home.

"They're short on labor," Heys said. "They're desperately looking for qualified carpenters to rebuild and put things back together."

Yet the rebuilding process has been stymied by bureaucracy, and many owners of damaged properties are still waiting for cash from insurance or the government, he said. Until that happens, they can't hire a builder.

Still, Heys said, his company has met with more than a dozen potential customers in New Orleans and are about to begin work on a new home for a couple who've been living with relatives in Michigan since the storm but who want to get back to Cajun country.

"So many people talk about why would you want to live in a spot that's below sea level? It just doesn't make any sense," Heys said. "But if you've lived there all your life, you really don't know any different. I mean, that's just what you do. So of course you're going to rebuild."

The company is setting up a permanent New Orleans office, to be staffed by Klumpstra's son, Chad, starting in April. Chad Klumpstra, currently a crew member, said he went to New Orleans 10 times in 2006 and is looking forward to moving there as supervisor.

"I absolutely love it down there," said Klumpstra, 25. "The people are great and the culture is a lot of fun."

Heys said his company plans to replace the construction of spec homes around Grand Rapids — a sector that has dried up recently — with "flipping" in New Orleans: buying homes, remodeling them and then selling at a profit.

"Rather than doing spec houses here, we're going to be buying and fixing houses down there, and flipping down there," he said.

A Louisiana Realtor led Heys to apply for an appearance on "Flip That House," a cable television show that focuses on different "flippers" and projects around the country. The show will document Heys' first flip in New Orleans, a 1,400-square-foot home that he expects will take four months to renovate. "It will probably be aired sometime in the later part of '07," Heys said.

"A year, year and a half ago, I would never have thought we'd be in New Orleans," Heys said. "One of the things that … this whole Louisiana opportunity (did) is, it's really opened up my eyes. Don't ever say never."    

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