Do It Best Leverages Housing Industry Expertise To Reinvent Itself And The City Of Fort Wayne, Indiana

It’s rare these days that housing isn’t a headline in national and local news. There are affordability issues, caused by supply chain disruptions, lack of labor, regulation, and many other challenges, which means that creating solutions will take creative and focused collaboration.

That focused collaboration happened on a project in the heart of the country – Electric Works.

In 2020, phase one of the $286 million Electric Works project broke ground in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Do It Best was founded in 1945 to serve lumber and building materials dealers in the surrounding tristate area.

While Do It Best wasn’t the first or even the largest employer in that market, keeping the company in the city was the catalyst for today’s Electric Works project.

More than 65 years before Do It Best entered Fort Wayne, GE had started manufacturing there, growing to 25,000 employees, nearly one-third of Fort Wayne’s working population and creating a sprawling manufacturing campus. GE eventually decommissioned its buildings and nearly all employees were gone by 2009, which left a big gap for the city to fill.

The Electric Works project fell into place when Do It Best, the largest privately held business in the state of Indiana according to Ellen Cutter, the chief economic development officer for Greater Fort Wayne, was looking for a different space.

As one of the largest building product distributors in the country, Do It Best’s original location is on both rail and a major state highway, which was appropriate for distribution and served as a very useful place for many years.

“Currently, our office, which has been converted from our original warehouse built in 1947, is surrounded by railroad tracks and industrial buildings,” said Dan Starr, Do It Best’s CEO. “For a corporate headquarters—where we’re not actively doing any distribution or warehousing—it’s no longer an ideal location, with departments and work groups often cut off from each other.”

Plus, Do It Best is becoming more and more of a technology company, and with that transition, it had to shift focus to attracting talent. A better facility was a critical piece to recruiting the right people.

“Fort Wayne has been home since our founding in 1945,” Starr said. “Our roots are here. We have an exceptional team in Fort Wayne, and we didn’t want to disrupt that dynamic or the culture we’ve worked so hard to nurture and grow. But we knew that attracting and retaining the next generation of Do it Best team members was going to require a different approach.”

Kicking Off Electric Works

Do It Best considered eight different markets as locations for its new international headquarters, which coincided with its distribution centers, said John Urbahns who serves as the president and CEO of Greater Fort Wayne. So, Fort Wayne had to be strategic about preparing incentives to keep the longtime partner, hoping to make it into a can’t-miss opportunity, which is how the Electric Works project evolved.

“We took the approach to have a high quality of life and low cost of living, and focused on projects where private sector would invest,” Urbahns said. “We have been focused on maintaining diversity with the economic base supporting Fort Wayne. There are aerospace and defense, manufacturing with GE, and a lot of growth in ecommerce logistics.”

One thing these companies have in common is the need to attract technology talent. Fort Wayne’s investment in the Electric Works project and a $100 million riverfront development represent the commitment it is making to be an attractive option that offers a high quality of life with high quality jobs.

After several large investments in city improvements, such as a new baseball park, improved walkability, and better public infrastructure, the city started attracting private investors. Plus, as Cutter pointed out, the city was able to attract the largest state redevelopment tax credit in history for the Electric Works project. Due to this reinvestment, Fort Wayne has had six consecutive years of positive domestic migration, leading it to be the fastest growing area in the Great Lakes region.

“We wanted a space that was appealing to our current and future team members that supports our collaborative work environment,” Starr said about the company’s search for the right location for its headquarters. “There weren’t a lot of options in Fort Wayne to accommodate what we wanted to achieve — until Electric Works. It fulfilled many of the requirements we set for a relocation.”

Starr sees the move to Electric Works as an opportunity to attract and retain top talent.

“I meet with each of our newest team members one-on-one, and consistently, Electric Works comes up as a reason they considered us as an employer,” he said. “The response from our current team and candidates has been overwhelmingly positive. Electric Works has given us visibility to candidate pools we would not otherwise be reaching today. The attention and interest it has gained is really exciting.”

The Build

Do It Best is scheduled to move into its new 200,000-square-foot space of the 700,000-square-foot phase one project in October. It won’t be a typical move in, because the organization has been a lot more involved than an average tenant.

“Without Do It Best as the anchor tenant, this project wouldn’t have happened,” said Larry Weigand, the CEO at Weigand Construction, a minority part of the development team. “They took a leap of faith to be the anchor tenant. We went through specifications early on with Do It Best to put as many of its products in the core and shell. They were competitive and had a good supply chain and good ability to hit timelines and schedules.”

Cody Michaud, a senior project manager at Weigand, said Electric Works was able to leverage Do It Best’s global buying power on large lumber purchases, lowering the risk during the peak of lumber’s pricing volatility. The construction site was set up to be able to store the pre-purchased lumber, also allowing the project to get out in front of lumber’s pricing escalations.

“We also worked with various departments in Do It Best and their hardware sites and they set up an office at the project,” Michaud said. “We came up with a list of commonly used materials and they stocked those onsite, so we had material when needed – from nails to tape to reinforced visqueen. Plus, we got their price discount, along with reduced drive time while we supported the anchor tenant rather than the big boxes.”

Starr said that Do It Best was a perfect fit to be part of the redevelopment project, pointing out that the onsite tool crib also supplied the construction team with hand and power tools, work gear, paint, and other hardware supplies that kept the project moving.

This fortunate relationship didn’t make the project completely immune to the supply chain issues, unfortunately. But, the Weigand team prepared for that by leveraging relationships and bringing partners on board early in the design process to lock in resources. The relationship- and community-driven approach allowed them to get the labor needed for a 400-person crew, plus to pre-purchase about $7 million of equipment, including roof insulation, AC, and elevators, which were then onsite ready for installation.

Another challenge was that the project was a historical preservation project, and with century old buildings, nothing could be routine. With every part of the project, the Weigand team had to prepare and send a mortar sample mockup to the city’s preservation office, along with other more intensive approvals for each activity.

Weigand was actually able to replicate the lumber forms on some of the buildings built in 1917 that didn’t have plywood or modern forms.

“We have a strong reverence to maintain the historical integrity of what has happened on the old GE campus and we’re bringing that history into our new space,” Starr said. “Our offices will highlight that time of American ingenuity in manufacturing, not cover it up.”

The process certainly was not stuck in the past. Weigand used BIM in a two-year preconstruction process to understand what was behind every wall, doing very elaborate site investigations along with exploratory demolition. This technologically-centered process facilitated putting together bid package details for partners, which were then extended to a photo journaling of all materials coming and going kept up to date on the estimating program.

Attracting Talent As An Affordable Place to Live

According to the 2021 Housing Market Potential study by Zimmerman/Volk Associates, Fort Wayne’s population in 2021 was 265,615, and is projected grow 3% in the next 5 years. The report puts Fort Wayne’s median household income at $53,300, which is dramatically lower (about 27% lower) than the US Census Bureau’s report of a nationwide average of $67,521.

More than 13% of all Fort Wayne housing has been built since 2000, and nearly 70% of all housing is single-family detached. In order to maintain the affordability, Urbahns says that the city is in the middle of a conversation regarding zoning.

“The affordability gap in Fort Wayne is growing and we have to make sure we maintain a good stock of affordable housing,” he said. “So, we’re in the process of updating policies related to housing. We have to work intentionally to stay affordable.”

The housing market potential study also defined who is moving to Fort Wayne as individuals who want more walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods in downtown and in town, citing that younger singles and couples represent 42% of the market for new homes. These new home buyers have higher mobility, a strong preference for rental, and also an interest in the convenience and social amenities of walkable, urban neighborhoods.

Phase two of the Electric Works project will include 297 residential units, plugging directly into this type of demand.

“Fort Wayne has a lot to offer from a cost of doing business perspective, but also in terms of quality of life,” Starr said. “We couldn’t be happier to call Fort Wayne home. Plus, with the affordable cost of living and considerable Hoosier hospitality, it made staying here the right choice. Fortunately for all of us, Fort Wayne truly is a great place to live, work, and play.”

The Future of Collaboration

“Relocating gives us the opportunity to start fresh and build for the future,” Starr said. “We’ve been in our current location for more than 75 years. In the last 5 years, technology has changed drastically, let alone the last 75. Electric Works gives us the opportunity to reset and ensure we have the right technology in place to support our growth now and into the future.”

Do It Best is confident that the new space will enhance its responsiveness to members, its ability to collaborate, and its effectiveness in supporting members’ continued success.

Personally, I am excited to see a positive headline for housing – Do It Best supplies thousands of the builders across the country who are trying to deliver more housing to meet current demand. Keeping their location in Fort Wayne not only shows an amazing collaboration, but it also demonstrates a creative way to keep a focus on affordability.

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