Van Laan Concrete Staying In Family Hands

April 17, 2002
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DUTTON — Though there are always plenty of opportunities to sell a mature, successful business, Tom Van Laan, owner of Van Laan Concrete Construction Inc., wants to see the business he built stay in the family.

So he’s handing over the reins of the company to son Scott Van Laan, who is poised to take over as president of the 40-year-old business sometime between mid-April and the company’s fiscal year end.

“This country was built on family-owned businesses, and it has worked all these years,” Tom Van Laan pointed out. He hopes his succession plan will ensure this particular business remains family-owned for generations.

Van Laan and a partner launched the company out of a house in April 1962 after getting his first construction contract. 

“It was a lot easier in 1962 for someone to strike out on his own in the concrete business than it is today,” he recalled. “Then, it was just a matter of buying a pick-up truck and a few two-by-fours, and you went out and started.”

In the beginning, the firm was involved primarily in residential projects, but its focus evolved into a mix of commercial, industrial, institutional and high-end residential projects of varying size and complexity. Over the years, the company built up a fleet of crew trucks, excavating and bulldozing equipment, and concrete pump and boom trucks.

Having taken on numerous projects outside the regular scope of concrete work, Van Laan Concrete has developed specializations in complex foundations, water tanks, dams and high walls. Those specialties evolved out of need, as clients began requesting them, Van Laan said.

After buying out his partner in 1976, Van Laan established an office on 68th Street in Dutton. By 1981 the company had swelled beyond the space constraints of its headquarters, so he moved the firm to its current location on Dutton Industrial Drive.

In the late 1980s, Van Laan opened Van Laan Construction Supply, a complete construction and masonry supply business housed in the company’s original 68th Street office.

“We felt there was market in this area for it, and having the supply division helped our construction division because it gave us a better volume of product purchasing,” he explained.   

The supply arm of the company sells foundation supplies, reinforcing materials, construction chemicals, cement products and convenience items from hand tools to power trowel blades, to bump posts, boots and tarps. It also offers equipment services and rentals. 

The construction and supply divisions usually account respectively for 70 percent and 30 percent of the annual revenue mix, and that’s how Van Laan prefers it to shake out.

Industry-wide, Van Laan Concrete is a small- to mid-size concrete subcontractor, but in the West Michigan area it is among the largest, he said. 

“We’re big enough that we can handle most everything that needs to be done,” Van Laan said. “There are some high-rise projects we’re not able to handle, but for the most part we can handle just about anything that comes along. 

“We have employees who have been in the business as long as I have, almost, and they’re very opportunistic. If someone wants something special, they’ll figure out a way to do it and do it quickly.”

Commercial and industrial projects, the bulk of the company’s business today, includes churches, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and banks. Although the company’s client base is primarily West Michigan, Van Laan said his company will work outside the West Michigan area at a client’s request.

The company has worked with the same general contractors for years and years, he noted, and has done a lot of work for Meijers, Steelcase and Johnson Controls, formerly Prince Corp. In fact, he said his company has been involved in nearly every McDonalds restaurant building or renovation project in West Michigan since the early 1970s.

He credits the company’s success in large part to the 74 “good people” he calls employees. Some 41 percent of them have been with the company 10 years or longer, and 10 percent have been there 20 years or more — which, he said, is a good track record for an industry that requires physically hard, heavy  work and exposure to the elements.

Van Laan’s general manager has been with the company 34 years.

“We can have all the modern equipment but it doesn’t mean anything without dedicated employees,” he added. 

His employees have also been a source of motivation for him through the years.

“They depend on you,” he said. “There are a lot of families that depend on that paycheck every week.”

He’s seen a tremendous amount of change in the industry over 40 years, from the composition of concrete products to the equipment. 

“The change in the equipment that’s out there now to place (concrete) with and handle it with is just unbelievable,” Van Laan remarked. “The industry went from a shovel and a wheelbarrow to laser-controlled screeds and mechanized concrete pumps.”

Both the product and equipment are better, safer and more accurate — and take less of a toll on workers’ bodies than before, he added. 

Scott Van Laan, 30, has worked for the company for 10 years, but actually started learning about the business in early grade school while hanging around his dad’s office and occasionally venturing out in the field with the crew. 

Scott actually went to Ferris State University to be a mechanic, but gravitated back towards the family business.

After joining the company, he spent the first eight years in the field, working his way up from laborer to equipment operator to foreman — and earning the respect of the employees, his father points out.

He bought into the company three years ago, moved into marketing two years ago and now serves as a vice president and member of the company’s board of directors.

Father and son have been discussing the succession plan for several years. Scott said his goal is to keep the company successful and moving ahead. 

“It’s not something you can do by yourself or think you can do by yourself. We have good people and I will need to rely on those people.”

He doesn’t think the company necessarily needs to get that much bigger, but he would like to see it diversify into some markets where there is less competition. Other than that, it will simply be a matter of keeping customers satisfied, he said.  

According to Tom Van Laan, the company always set goals, but it was never his goal to have a certain number of employees or make X-number of dollars.

“The goal was that whatever we do, we do it successfully; do it correctly, on time and on budget, and build relationships.

“The fact that we built relationships with owners and contractors made us successful — that, and our employees. Our employees helped build those relationships. We’re proud of the fact that we’ve developed that trust.

“West Michigan is a great place to do business because you can build those relationships and trust and actually form partnerships.”

The senior Van Laan expects to stay on as chairman of the board. He won’t be retiring, he said, but just freeing up a little more of his time for some other pursuits, like serving on community boards, golfing and hunting.  

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