Houseman Construction The Year Looks Boomish

April 16, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Mike Houseman says this recession isn't going to last long.

Houseman, the president of Houseman Construction, told the Business Journal last week that as the new year progresses, he's receiving more and more calls for proposals. "And it's ironic," he added, "but a lot of those calls are coming from tool and die companies."

In fact, he said that his firm is coming off a huge growth year and is running on a 2002 business plan that is looking at a 10 percent increase in the year ahead.

"A lot of construction companies around here had a good year last year," he said.  "And so did we."

In 2001, he said, the company's revenues grew from $14 million to just over $21 million. "And now our focus is to settle in at that volume. Our business plan for this year looks at an increase of roughly 10 percent, so that we should top out somewhere around $23 million."

Not bad for a company founded just 3½ years ago.

Currently the company, located at 4346 Leonard St. NW, not only is doing commercial construction contracts in this region, but also has four projects underway in Chicago, four in Detroit, one in Traverse City and another in Boyne City, and just completed a shopping center in Norton Shores. It also works in Indiana and Ohio.

Houseman founded the firm after 11 years of work with Rockford Construction.

"I just decided that I wanted to get out on my own," he told the Business Journal. He said that his departure from Rockford was amicable and that he and Rockford's principals remain good friends.

"We're competitors, too," he added, "but we sometimes do subcontracting for each other. 

"I just had a slightly different vision than Rockford did," he explained, "and I was getting very frustrated with the subcontract market at the time."

He explained that during the late '90s, the economy was booming and demand verged upon saturation of the regional construction industry.

"Some of the subcontractors were not performing well," Houseman said, "because they were so busy. They couldn't perform to quality standards that you wanted."

Too, he said, being that busy, some subcontractors couldn't meet the contracted construction schedule.

"If you didn't have your own people," Houseman said, "you were kind of at their mercy.  You can threaten to implement their contract to perform their work for them, but how are you, in reality, going to do that if you don't have the people?

"And in a busy market," he added, "if you kicked them off the job you'd lose tons of time — and money — trying to find anybody to do the work."

Accordingly, he said, part of the focus of the company he wanted to create was to "get back to the grass roots of construction."

"We wanted to develop our own team of skilled tradesmen," he said. "And right now we have 20 skilled carpenters, finish carpenters."

He said his primary reason for setting up the firm's staff was not that Houseman would do all its own work.

"We do self-perform some of our work," he explained, "but that staff [of skilled tradesmen] is there to add quality assurance, to provide customer service, and so we can get better adherence to schedules on projects for our customers."

And along the way, he said, something unexpected happened.

He said that with so many skilled people in house, the company almost automatically developed an entirely new aspect — now its maintenance division headed by his father, Gerald R. Houseman.

The senior Houseman was unavailable to talk or have his photo taken because he and a crew were in Sault Ste. Marie last week repairing the exterior and interior walls of a Rite Aid pharmacy into which some motorist happened to crash a car.

"We had the skilled people for those busy times when customers were dying for somebody to come pay attention to their problems. We could do that. And it really became a big part of our business.  We did over $1 million in maintenance last year."

He said the division is available for anything from repairing a door to repairing a major plumbing problem. "We don't have in-house plumbers, but we offer the single-source contact," he said.

The maintenance division not only takes care of many of the state's Rite Aide outlets, but also does maintenance for Grand Valley State University. Houseman Construction also operates a management division.

"We were blessed with so much work over the winter," Houseman said, "that we've probably added five people. Now that's not a measure of the market but a measure of our customer service.

"Repeat business comes from taking care of your customers."

One important customer with whom Houseman has been dealing is Spartan.

"Sometimes we get a call and they want the entire package put together in two weeks," he said. And sometimes, he added, it's a design/build project which must come together almost that rapidly. "You really have to stay prepared, because sometimes a call will come that we need to start the project next Wednesday."

Houseman said he loves that sort of challenge as well as the day-to-day challenges that are a part of construction.

"Each day is different, and each site is different.

"One site looks good, but turns out to have a high water table.

"Another place looks impossible. People tell you, 'It's impossible to build a Meijer's there.' But then you carve out 20 feet of muck, put in sand, and when you go home at the end of the project, you really feel like you've accomplished something."

Another challenge, he said, is that the rules are always different.

"The regulations never stay the same," he said. "I'm not saying that they're bad, but they can make things hard because they do affect the style of your construction."

He said that perhaps the toughest project his firm ever tackled was building a new building just beyond the bluff which forms the west side of Alpine Avenue in front of Menard's.

He explained that the project required a 28-foot retaining wall that was an integral part of the building.

"What made it difficult was that it was one of the rainiest summers we've had," Houseman chuckled. "It rained every day and the water made that hill want to move."

The project required a 28-foot wide set of footings and a series of sheet piles held together by cables. "It was dangerous and it was very interesting and challenging."

"It worked out," he said. "That hill didn't move and it won't ever move now."

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