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New High CEO focused on growth, 'supercharging' talent development

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Mike Shirk, center, is the new CEO of High Companies, Lancaster County's largest private company. Nevin Cooley, left, former CEO, a High Cos. board member and trustee of the High Family Trusts, is seated with S. Dale High, chairman of High Industries Inc. and High Real Estate Group LLC.
Mike Shirk, center, is the new CEO of High Companies, Lancaster County's largest private company. Nevin Cooley, left, former CEO, a High Cos. board member and trustee of the High Family Trusts, is seated with S. Dale High, chairman of High Industries Inc. and High Real Estate Group LLC. - (Photo / )

High Companies is already the largest private company in Lancaster County and one of the biggest in Central Pennsylvania.

But CEO Mike Shirk, who succeeded Nevin Cooley on Jan. 1, is thinking bigger.

“We're not going to be in maintenance mode,” said Shirk, a Manheim Township native and former vice president of architectural specialties worldwide at Armstrong World Industries.

The 39-year-old said the company, which was founded in 1931, is going to be “supercharging” its talent development efforts this year. High plans to add 50 to 100 positions this year, he said, with much of that growth on the industries side to support the company's manufacturing volume growth in steel and precast concrete services.

“Speed is an advantage,” said Shirk, adding that he's also still “getting up to speed” in the role after coming on as CEO-elect in early November. “The faster we can put the right people on the highest potential opportunities, the more we can get done.”


For most of his career, Shirk said, his focus has been on creating unique strategies and driving them to create value for customers and accelerate long-term company growth.

His prior sales and general management roles exposed him to multiple industries and he's worked in about two dozen countries. He believes that gives him an advantage at a diversified company like High, which has a physical presence in eight states and sells into even more.

“This is a very professional and well-run company,” he said. “Goal No. 1 is don't mess that up.”

S. Dale High, chairman of High Industries Inc. and High Real Estate Group LLC, said he has a great deal of confidence in the company's future.

“We wanted someone who would value our existing teams and leadership that's in place and develop those teams to an optimal level,” High said. “Fitting the culture is important, and the company's philosophies and values. We felt Mike brought that and, as a bonus, we got someone who cared deeply about Lancaster County. His roots are here.”

Shirk's role on the board since 2011 also gave the leadership team a measure of confidence, High said.

Cooley, who has been with the company since 1986, is now a trustee of the High Family Trusts and a company board member.

“I'll be his Wikipedia,” Cooley said of the transition to Shirk.

Growth areas

High Industries, which includes High Steel Structures Inc., should see strong growth this year. High Steel is currently working on steel girders for The New NY Bridge, the largest project in the company's history.

High expanded its Williamsport plant by 30,000 square feet. The $11.4 million project bolstered the facility's lift capabilities and increased its automation.

In late 2013, the company established High Structural Erectors LLC, which combined the field operations capabilities and expertise of High Steel and High Concrete Group LLC, two other High Industries affiliates.

“We've done capital projects at every location,” Cooley said, even during the recession. “We did not fully take our foot off the accelerator. We just watched where we were driving.”

On the real estate side, Shirk expects growth in every asset class. Specifically, High is targeting development opportunities in the multifamily, hotel and retail sectors.

“It will probably be a mix of development as well as potential acquisitions,” Shirk said regarding apartment complexes. “We have about six major apartment communities right now. We would like to double or more than double that.”

In hospitality, High is eyeing potential sites in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for development, Shirk said. High Hotels Ltd. owns 13 hotels.

The company is evaluating retail opportunities in the suburban Philadelphia market, he said: “We saw some potential gaps or opportunities for grocery-anchored retail centers. We are going to really step up our investment.”

Shirk would not disclose the amount of the company's planned investments. However, overall investment in just its existing facilities will increase roughly 50 percent year over year, he said.

CRIZ, other opportunities

Lancaster's City Revitalization and Improvement Zone designation, or CRIZ, should continue to boost momentum for downtown development, Cooley said.

“It takes new revenues and redeploys them to make possible those catalytic type projects,” he said. “The CRIZ will accelerate sustainable development opportunities.”

High has been accumulating parcels on East King Street for possible future development.

The company also is looking at options for a roughly 100-acre undeveloped parcel it owns in the Greenfield Corporate Center. Shirk mentioned the prospect of adding up to 300 multifamily units as well as potential retail options.

The Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences recently announced plans to move into Greenfield and convert the Bosch Security site.

In Cumberland County, Cooley said, there is potential to add more office space on parcels High controls in the Rossmoyne Business Center. Additional restaurants could be added to support activity in that center, which is off Route 15 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

“There are multiple counties which we see growth occurring,” Cooley said, also citing development opportunities in Chester County at its Highland Corporate Center.

Shirk said that although most of the focus will be on growing existing business units and their holdings, he is not shying away from further diversification.

“We're always assessing our market and what's going on. If we see an opportunity come up, we'll take a look at it,” he said. 

More about High Companies

High Companies, which is in the Greenfield Corporate Center, employs about 2,000 people companywide.

About 2,700 people work in the East Lampeter Township-based center. With the addition of the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences, faculty and students will grow that number by 50 percent, according to High.

High controls more than 1,000 hotel rooms in Central Pennsylvania. It also owns more than 1,300 multifamily units.

More about Mike Shirk

Mike Shirk, 39, was named Nevin Cooley’s successor at East Lampeter Township-based High Companies in August 2014.

A High board member since 2011, Shirk started as CEO-elect in early November.

The 1993 Manheim Township graduate previously served as vice president of architectural specialties worldwide at Armstrong World Industries, where he was responsible for managing sales, engineering and manufacturing in North America, Europe and Asia.

Prior to Armstrong, he worked at Bain & Co. in Boston, where he advised companies across several industries on a variety of corporate strategy, growth and operational effectiveness issues. He also worked for Lockheed Martin Corp. in New Jersey, where he held sales and engineering roles in the maritime systems and sensors division.

Shirk received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Bucknell University. He received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in business administration from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He lives in Manheim Township with his wife, Andrea, and their children, Tyler, 6, and Haley, 2.

High was No. 6 last year on the Business Journal’s Top 100 Private Companies list, which was ranked by 2013 revenue. High finished 2014 with $593.2 million in total revenue, up from $515.6 million in 2013.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin and Cumberland counties. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal.

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