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Using GIS Mapping: Battlefield to Homefront

Mapping out a growth plan

On a day that changed so many lives, Joe Heieck made a decision that would forever change his.  As a college student on 9/11, Heieck was compelled by that day’s events to answer a grieving nation’s need by joining the United States Armed Forces.  After careful consideration Heieck settled on the Navy, not realizing that this move would shape not only his life but his career as well.  He was taking his first steps into the world of geographic information systems (or GIS) and laying down the path to the future acquisition of Lincoln’s GIS Workshop.

A graduate of Notre Dame and Harvard Business School, Heieck was drawn to the power of GIS as it allowed for “good thinking skills [and] to connect with people and gather information through intelligence.”  As a lieutenant in the Office of Naval Intelligence, Heieck worked closely with the SEALs and was first exposed to GIS, the Navy’s primary analytical platform.  But when Heieck left after eight years of active duty and embarked on his Harvard MBA, he was not thinking of transferring his knowledge of GIS into the civilian arena.  Rather, he was learning leadership skills and the perspective of an entrepreneurial CEO.  Heieck knew he was not “a start-up guy,” but upon graduation would look to “take an existing business and improve it over time.”

It would take a year of looking at 200 businesses in every industry across the Midwest and Rockies before “the stars aligned with the right fit and characteristics” to suit his abilities.  It just happened to be that the right fit was up the native Nebraskan’s alley and called for his Naval training in GIS.  So in January of this year, Heieck settled on GIS Workshop, a company started in 1999 that became available when the owner decided to retire.

 

"GIS allows people to use maps to get someplace better, whatever that place may be. The software involved rolls cartography and technology together and takes them to a whole new level. Heieck refers to this as a 'digital environment'."

 

When asked to explain the basics of GIS, Heieck put it in simple terms: “Everyone’s seeking information and to get to a better place.  The heart of information is maps, whether it’s to map a career or New Year’s Resolutions.”  GIS seeks to streamline technology to place information and data on a map so that patterns and solutions can be determined.  GIS allows people to “use maps to get someplace better, whatever that place may be.”  The software involved rolls cartography and technology together and takes them to a whole new level.  Heieck refers to this as a “digital environment.”

GIS systems require highly intelligent software that integrates, among other things, GPS, aerial and multispectral imaging (a technique that captures data at specific frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum), to best capture and utilize information, whether it be locating every light pole in an area or doing groundwater studies.  GIS Workshop’s biggest client base is local government or, as Heieck puts it, “the bread and butter throughout the Midwest.”  He highlights the challenge of gathering information in rural environments by stating that  “small counties and towns face the challenge of finding talented people to gather needed data and end up outsourcing” this task.  GIS Workshop fills this need with “cost-effective software and all the GIS support” possible.  Heieck and his team “offer 100% support and the technicians to perform all edits.”  The strength of the software and the talent of GIS Workshop’s developers leave clients feeling as if they are in the next room from the help they need.  Distance is not a major factor in doing business.

In fact, Heieck has clients in six surrounding states and looks to expand further into the Midwest and Rockies.  He plans to utilize both organic and inorganic growth, stating that a good business model doesn’t “push into a territory with its own sales force” but looks into an established arena and takes advantage of the relationships in place.  This also applies to GIS Workshop’s development and implementation of software.  Those working directly with the software on a local level are highly involved in the construction of databases.

 

"For Heieck, the act of gathering information isn't enough to answer the need for data. 'People sit on a lot of information and that information is telling a story,' he says.

 

Nine months into his stay as CEO of a small GIS company, Heieck makes a point to use the software every day.  While he leaves coding and development to his experienced team, he strives to continue to learn the business inside and out.  He has a natural ability for communicating and works to “get to know customers and understand their needs and how to fit [GIS Workshop] into their success.”  Beyond helping his team of twenty to do their best work, Heieck continually works to reach out and talk to clients.  It is because of this that GIS Workshop can mainly rely on word of mouth to gain new clients and reach into new areas.  The added personal touch of open communication with customers certainly appeals to the demeanor of GIS Workshop’s rural base.

For Heieck the act of gathering information isn’t enough to answer the need for data.  As he puts it, “people sit on a lot of information and that information is telling a story.”  While the data might not produce a story visible to the eye, it can be “manipulated to show the story and let you know where to go.”  Heieck also applies this philosophy to the running of GIS Workshop.  When he purchased it earlier this year, his main focus was to professionalize the existing business.  While he is present for his team on a daily basis to help lead, he enjoys the challenge of balancing working on the business and working in the business.  Like any good CEO, Heieck makes sure to surround himself with the right talent to make this a possibility.

What is perhaps most unique about GIS Workshop is not just the scale of technology and software used, but the enthusiasm that Heieck has for his company and the industry it serves.  As Heieck puts it, “I believe wholeheartedly that [GIS Workshop] is the best in the Midwest.”  Not only is he continually impressed by the power of information, but the technology that brings it to focus is also a source of excitement.  The continued improvement and use of software ensures that “the power of maps is the sky’s the limit.”  It seems the same is true for Heieck and GIS Workshop.

 

The Firm Deal Review

Industry: Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

Established: 1999

Reason for Sale: Retirement

Servicing States: Six and expanding

Employees: 20

Year Purchased: 2015

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