Our Team

Heart of America is unique in having the ability to lead all aspects and phases of the project from start to finish under one company.

From conceptualization and construction to marketing and operations, please read about our top officers for each department.

Mike Whalen, President and Chief Executive Officer

Des Moines Register Article: People to Watch in 2016

Mr. Whalen is the founder of Heart of America Group (the “Company”) and has served as President & CEO since 1978. Through Mr. Whalen’s entrepreneurial leadership and vision, the Company has grown from a single restaurant operation to a profitable and growing real estate development and hospitality enterprise with twenty-seven existing restaurant/hotel properties, several retail/office development/leasing activities, and exciting plans for future property developments. Mr. Whalen received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois in 1975 and his Law degree from Harvard Law School in 1978. Mr. Whalen is heavily involved in several trade, professional, real estate, political, and civic organizations.

Kim Whalen, Executive Vice President

Ms. Whalen began her career with Heart of America in 1979 when she joined the company as the first accountant and has since been an integral part of the strategic direction of the company. Her ability to manage accounting processes for several restaurants and hotels, new development projects, as well as maintain strong banker and vendor relationships led her to become Heart of America’s first CFO. After the arrival of her children, Ms. Whalen stepped away for awhile to focus on family. Since 1999, she has served as the Executive Vice President. Her unique knack for thinking strategically and creatively parlayed her into a leadership role on the design team where she focuses her energy on developing attractive, unique designs for the company’s development and renovation projects. Ms. Whalen often reflects on the various opportunities she’s had to “play” through the years. Her involvement in conceptualizing and designing hotels, restaurants and retail space projects along with her focus on business strategy continue to help shape the company’s direction for the future.

Chuck Ullrich, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Mr. Ullrich joined the Company in 1999 as Vice President & CFO and is responsible for the finance, accounting, insurance/risk management, human resources, information technology, budgeting, capital expenditures, forecasting, and administrative functions of the Company. Prior to joining the Company, Mr. Ullrich was employed by Mid-Continent Bottlers, Inc. as Vice President & CFO from 1994 to 1999 and as Corporate Controller from 1987 to 1993. From 1982 to 1987, Mr. Ullrich was employed by the public accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. Mr. Ullrich received his Bachelor’s degree in Accounting from the University of Northern Iowa in 1982. He received his C.P.A. designation in 1982.

Kirk Whalen, Vice President and General Counsel

Since 1994, Mr. Whalen has served as VP & General Counsel and is responsible for all legal matters of the Company, including contracts, development agreements, legal issues, employment matters, municipal activities, and all other legal affairs of the Company. He is also intricately involved in all real estate activities. Prior to joining the Company, Mr. Whalen was a partner in the lawfirm of Langford, Hill, Trybus & Whalen from 1985 to 1994. Mr. Whalen received his Bachelors degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas in 1981 and his Law degree from the University of Florida in 1985. Mr. Whalen is a member of the American Bar Association.

John Schulz, Vice President of Construction

Mr. Schulz joined the Company in 2013 as VP – Construction and is responsible for all project construction activities and property renovations, including management/oversight of our development projects, onsite staff and the quality of the finished project. Prior to joining the Company, Mr. Schulz was a VP of Project Management of multiple Project Mangers while directly project managing large single projects with extensive hands-on experience from project conception until well after its completion for 27 years. Mr. Schulz experience in a wide range of locations and types of construction fits well with the upcoming retail, hospitality, and convention center work currently programmed for construction.  Mr. Schulz received his Bachelor’s degree in Construction Science from Bradley in 1986.

Ajay Singh – Vice President of Brand Development Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse

Mr. Singh joined the Company in 2012 to oversee the franchise development of the Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse concept. Mr. Singh’s career spans a diversity of experience from the automotive sector to the financial industry. From 1991 to 2004 Mr. Singh oversaw several luxury brands for one of the nation’s largest privately held automotive firms. His experience with Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi, Jaguar and Lexus included sales, operations and manufacturer relations. In 2005 Mr. Singh entered the financial industry as a Private Banker with Wells Fargo Bank. He would then lead the development of a Private Banking unit as Executive Vice President for American Bank & Trust. Mr. Singh graduated Summa Cum Laude from Northwood University in 1990 with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.

Dan Oliver, Corporate Architect

Since 1999, Mr. Oliver has served as Corporate Architect for the Company and is responsible for the design process, including plans and specifications, for new project developments and property renovations. Mr. Oliver is a LEED certified architect. Prior to joining the Heart of America, Mr. Oliver was the Director of Design for Design Build Associates, a Ryan Company, from 1993 to 1999, and was an Architect with Mekus Johnson in Chicago from 1988 to 1993. Mr. Oliver received his Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from the University of Illinois in 1988.

Michelle Sparkman, Director of Training and Marketing

Ms. Sparkman joined Heart of America in 2013 as a Brand Manager. Since joining the company she has worked with the Heart of America team to help conceptualize, market and open multiple hotel and restaurant brands. In her current role, she is responsible for the development and direction of the marketing programs, in-house advertising agency, graphic design, public relations and corporate communication. Ms. Sparkman also oversees training and development for Heart of America.

Jenny McGowan, Director of Design

Ms. McGowan joined Heart of America Group in 2016 as Director of Design. In her role she is responsible for creating and translating the design vision into environmental designs consistent with Heart of America’s values. She ensures that projects adhere to budget, schedule and approved design vision. Prior to joining the company, Ms. McGowan worked for Walt Disney Imagineering as an Interior Design Lead at the Shanghai Disneyland Resort. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Interior Design from Iowa State University.

Chris Whalen, Real Estate Development

Mr. Whalen joined Heart of America Group in 2015 to oversee Real Estate Development of current and future projects. Prior to joining Heart of America Group Chris worked as a Director at Interra Realty in Chicago concentrating on multifamily and retail investment sales. Chris graduated from Drake University in 2011.

Kurt Steiner, Corporate Controller

Mr. Steiner joined the Company in 2008 as a Staff Accountant. In his current role, he is the Corporate Controller responsible for  the Company’s financial statements, accounting policies and procedures, internal controls, franchising, leasing and other duties of the Company. Prior to joining the Company, Mr. Steiner was employed by Arby’s Restaurant Group, Inc. Mr. Steiner received his Bachelor’s degree in Accounting from the University of Northern Iowa in 2006 with a minor in Economics.

Dereck Trebilcock, Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse Brand Leader

Mr. Trebilcock joined Heart of America Group in August 2004 as a Chief Operating Executive for Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse (Des Moines, IA). Mr. Trebilcock has overseen the opening of several restaurant concepts within the Heart of America Group. His principal focus is on the strategic operational development of the Johnny’s brand including menu development, cost controls, brand standards, staff development and franchise training and support. Mr. Trebilcock is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park New York. He has interned at the Ritz Carlton, Naples, FL and was involved in special event catering for Market Basket, Franklin Lakes, NJ.

Joe Spalding, Brand Leader, The J Bar, The Republic on Grand, Marriott and Hilton Properties

Mr. Spalding joined Heart of America in January of 2005, as a Director for Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse in Des Moines. Mr. Spalding became Chief Operating Executive of Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse in 2007. In late 2011, Mr. Spalding became the Chief Operating Executive of the DoubleTree by Hilton in Des Moines, overseeing a multi-million dollar renovation. Mr. Spalding was elected to the “2013 Hilton Circle of Leadership” program and in that same year became Brand Leader for Hilton and Marriott. In 2014, he became the Brand Leader for The J Bar. Most recently, Mr. Spalding has become Brand Leader for The Republic on Grand, helping to conceptualize Heart of America Group’s newest bar and restaurant concept. 

Scott Math, IHG Brand Leader

Scott began his career with Heart of America Group in 1986 while working in one of its restaurant concepts during high school and college. Scott has held numerous roles and operated several of our hotels over the years, as well as served as our market area sales leader in Des Moines. He currently is serving as the Chief Operating Executive of Johnny’s Holiday Inn and Suites in West Des Moines, Iowa, as well as the director of IHG brand operations. His hotel serves as the training ground for incoming executives who will operate our IHG brands, and he helps direct the opening teams for our new projects. Scott currently serves on the board of directors for Central Iowa YFC, and is an active volunteer for many youth group organizations.

Jason Nash, Boutique Hotels Brand Leader and Operating Executive

Jason joined the company in 2008 as Assistant Director of Hotel Operations and Chief Operating Executive of the Comfort Suites at Living History Farms. In his current role, he is the Chief Operating Executive of Heart of America Groups’ original concept boutique hotel in Des Moines -Hotel Renovo. In his Brand Director role, he is also responsible for overseeing the other boutique hotels in our portfolio. Prior to joining the Company, Mr. Nash has held several different hotel operations roles since he began in the industry in 1991. He was Regional Director of Operations for B & L hotels from 1991-1998. Jason also worked for Marriott International from 1998-2008 and had several different positions including: Director of Services; Front Office Manager; General Manager; and Regional Lead General Manager.

Dave Bush, Machine Shed Brand Leader

I joined Heart of America Group in 1983 with Machine Shed Davenport, working my way up through the kitchen. In 1984 I was promoted to kitchen executive and was part of the opening team for River City Café in Davenport. I returned to the Machine Shed in 1992 to prepare for the open of Machine Shed Rockford, and went on to open Machine Shed Pewaukee and serve as the training store for Machine Shed Appleton and Lake Elmo. In 1999 I opened Thunder Bay Grille Pewaukee, and was promoted to General Manager in 2003. In 2011 I took over the roll as Director Of Facilities for the restaurants, developing our in house service staff. In 2014 I was promoted to Brand Leader for Machine Sheds.

Terry Waite, Thunder Bay Brand Leader and Operating Executive

Terry joined Heart of America Group in 1997 as a chef at the Pewaukee, WI Machine Shed. Since then, he worked his way up to Executive Chef at both, the Pewaukee and Appleton Machine Shed locations. After several years, Terry transitioned into his current roll as Chief Operating Executive of Thunder Bay Pewaukee. A year later, he added Thunder Bay Brand Leader to his duties.

Dan Whalen, Vice President of Construction Emeritus

Mr. Whalen joined the Company in 1999 as VP – Construction and is responsible for all project construction activities and property renovations, including the on-site management/oversight of our development projects, and all contractor coordination. Prior to joining the Company, Mr. Whalen was an independent construction contractor from 1980 to 1998, having built and remodeled several of the Company’s restaurant and hotel properties and the current corporate office, was the Owner/Operator of two Happy Joe’s Pizza franchises from 1975 to 1980, and was the General Manager of a hotel from 1973 to 1975. Mr. Whalen received his Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois in 1973.

Dennis Cox, Vice President – Restaurant Operations Emeritus

Since 1993, Mr. Cox has served as VP – Restaurant Operations and is responsible for the direction and oversight of all restaurant sales and operations for our Machine Shed, Thunder Bay Grille, and Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse concepts. Prior to joining the Company, he was a partner and VP – Operations for Sun Aid of Florida from 1991 to 1993, was Plant Manager for Sugar Foods from 1986 to 1991, was Plant Manager for McCormick Spices from 1984-1986, and was a Manager for Ralston Purina from 1969 to 1984. Mr. Cox received his Associate degree from Palmer College in 1969.

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