Inside Track: Heeringa was 'built to be a manufacturer'
Trendway chair and CEO says he is one of the few people doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do.
Don Heeringa has a passion for industry that hasn’t waned over his more than 50 years in the business.
As majority owner, chair and CEO of Holland-based Trendway, a maker of movable walls and office furniture, Heeringa has been with the industry so long he remembers when NeoCon — the premier trade show for the design-build industry — was in its infancy.
This year, his company threw itself a 50th birthday party to coincide with NeoCon’s 50th year, putting on display in its Chicago showroom a “pictorial history” of Trendway through the years.
Heeringa is a big part of the company’s evolution.
At the age of 27 in 1973, he answered his father and brother’s call to help buy Trendway, then a 5-year-old company with 13 employees that was struggling with quality and production problems.
Forty-five years later, it’s a fixture of Holland’s industrial scene, with 320-plus employees who own a combined 25 percent stake in the company through an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP).
Heeringa’s path to manufacturing leadership had just one detour: the Vietnam War.
After graduating from Holland Public Schools, he attended Ferris State University for one year, playing on the football team, and decided Ferris wasn’t for him.
He transferred to Arizona State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an industrial management focus in 1969 — when the draft came knocking.
Heeringa was sent to Germany, where he served in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps for two years.
“I let myself get drafted because it looked like the shortest way from A to B,” he said. “You always have the option to do different things, but at 23, two years of service sounded the best to me. I decided to take my chances, and it worked out for me.”
Upon returning home, Heeringa lost no time resuming his plan.
“I went back to Arizona State and signed up for grad classes and got a part-time job trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do,” he said. “I ended up working in the commercial real estate business for six months. Then I got a call from my father, who said there was a local company that was struggling that was for sale.”
By this time, in addition to his military service, Heeringa had seven consecutive years of manufacturing experience from a part-time summer job at Holland Hitch Company where he worked through high school and college, manufacturing truck parts.
For Heeringa, working the line wasn’t just a job.
“My father was in the business, and I always liked machines, building things and raw materials,” he said. “I believe I was always built to be a manufacturer.”
Holland Hitch Company agreed, electing him to their board of directors, where he served for 10 years.
While working at Holland Hitch, Heeringa picked up experience in several departments, from making service calls to deal-making to fix-it work.
“I learned what to do and what not to do,” Heeringa said. “I learned getting along with people at all levels was really important to get the job done. I worked with the UAW, and I learned a lesson about dealing with people.”
He was amazed at what he could learn from others.
“People doing the job had great opinions about how to do the job better and save money, and nobody asked them,” he said. “I used that skill at Trendway, which had a lot of problems when I first got there.”
At Trendway, part owner or not, Heeringa took on legwork as the vice president of manufacturing administration, traveling across the country to complete projects for customers so Trendway could get paid.
“It’s pretty easy when you go somewhere, and they say, ‘Which problems do you want to go after?’ and you can just pick,” he said.
As the family turned the company around, one by one, leaders were replaced or left, Heeringa said.
“I had a smaller ownership stake, and it kept growing as my parents transferred stock to me and my brother,” Heeringa said.
By the 1980s, Trendway was named one of the fastest-growing companies in the state. Heeringa said it would be a more challenging feat for a furniture company now.
“The industry is not growing like it was, but we have seen a maturing, and we have to find better ways to make money. We have to adjust our product lines to meet the customer demand for residential furniture in the workplace,” he said.
But he added: “We still have our niche and are doing some of the same things, so we must be doing something right.”
Mark Kinsler, Trendway president, told the Business Journal this year that Heeringa has a leadership and service mentality, and it shows in the company culture.
“One of Trendway’s special qualities that continues to support our success is not directly related to manufacturing office furniture,” Kinsler said. “We have an exceptional culture of caring and community outreach.”
One example is the annual Cruise-In Benefit car show Trendway hosts, with all proceeds going to people in the community nominated by Trendway employees.
The event features street rods, customs, motorcycles, trucks and restored cars, with as many as 2,500 people attending and over 600 vehicles parked on Trendway’s property.
“Last year was the 17th year we’ve done it, and we have raised $350,000,” Heeringa said. “It supports my car interests, along with helping people. … The company has been supportive because they know 100 percent of the proceeds go to help the individual.”
Trendway in September also was recognized by the National Veteran Business Development Council as the 2018 Veteran Business of the Year.
Heeringa said he believes the designation will help Trendway establish additional trust with customers.
“People would just as soon deal with a vet, to be honest, and get good products. … I’ve heard from many veterans that it means a great deal to them to deal with us,” he said.