Edison Is Builder At Heart

May 29, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Even as a kid, John Edison wanted to build things. Whether these “things” were buildings, relationships or a future, it made no difference, he just wanted to build. And it’s fair to say that he has succeeded at constructing all three.

A little more than seven years ago, Edison and Doug Brant founded the BETA Design Group, a full-service architecture and engineering firm located at 50 Monroe Place. Today, BETA is one of the city’s top design companies, and a leader in the design of educational, health care and commercial facilities — a nice feat in a field filled with quality competitors.

Edison got an early start in the construction field by building highways for his father’s business, the L.W. Edison Company. When the family sold the business Edison was faced with a career choice: move to Detroit and continuing building highways, or take a detour into the local real estate development field with WBDC. He took the alternative route and has called that move his biggest career break.

“Obviously, one career would have been very familiar. But I took the opportunity to stay here in town because I liked Grand Rapids and West Michigan. So I tried something new,” said Edison, educated as a civil engineer and now executive vice president and COO of BETA Design Group.

“I started working in highway construction in the summers with my father when I was still in high school. I have always loved the construction industry. For 12 or 13 years, I was in the highway construction business, and 15 years ago I became involved in the design and construction of buildings,” he added.

BETA Design began when WBDC ended. Edison, Brant and another partner, who has since left BETA, bought the firm’s assets, picked up some of its clients, and hired some of its employees. That was March of 1994, after Edison spent eight years with the company.

“It was a situation where WBDC wasn’t going to be able to continue. Yet, there were 55 employees and a whole lot of projects under contract. It made sense to try to keep those jobs viable and keep the clients’ projects on track,” said Edison. “We had a fairly good opportunity there with an existing workload and an existing staff.”

As for what he likes most about the business, Edison still enjoys the creative process. He said building something from nothing, and then stepping back to savor that creation, provides a sensation that is difficult to describe and hard to beat.

“I think the fun part of it is starting with basically just a seed of an idea and then actually creating something physical out of that. It’s satisfying and a lot of fun,” he said.

Running a close second on Edison’s most-liked list, maybe ranked at personal favorite 1A, is watching his young designers develop their skills and move on to more complex projects.

“I find that equally as satisfying,” he said.

But topping his list of least favorite things about the business is the shorter deadline. Advances in design technology have sped up the process, at least in the mechanical sense, and because of that more work is expected to be done in less time.

“Yet, the expectations for our completeness and thoroughness haven’t changed any, and that can be very frustrating when we’re not really given the time to do the process as it should be done,” he said.

Runner-up on his most-disliked list is something that just about every area executive can relate to, no matter what business they’re in. Namely, trying to find qualified and experienced people in a tight labor market and then keep them on-board.

“Everyone in the area is busy,” he said.

So what is Edison’s all-time favorite project that BETA has designed? Is it Kenowa Hills High School? The Steelcase Development Center? How about the corporate headquarters for Foremost Insurance? Well, it could be any of those three.

“My favorite projects are probably the ones where the clients pay on time,” he said, laughing, before turning serious. “I have a hard time picking out one project. We have worked on some very exciting, intriguing and interesting projects in education, health care and commercial markets that have allowed us to expand our thoughts and our experiences.

“Working on the educational and health care projects and helping to improve on the delivery of those services in a community is really rewarding. So my favorite is usually whichever one we’re working on now.”

Edison is in his second term as a city parking commissioner, a position he really enjoys and one that has opened his eyes to the workings of local government.

“We do some zero-based thinking, as we face the challenges of spaces and make sure we’ve got the right amount of inventory for the city. It has been a challenge and it has been interesting,” he said.

“I’ve enjoyed working with (Parking Services Director) Ted (Perez). He weaves his way through the minefields that he has to deal with very well. He is very good at that and I’ve learned some things from him that I’ve been able to put to use in my own business.”

Edison is married to Louise, and they have a daughter, Patty, and two sons, Michael and David. They recently welcomed a daughter-in-law into the family, as Michael married Robin last month. Edison is a University of Michigan graduate, and he has a favorite hobby.

“Golf is my vice,” said the single-digit-handicap golfer. “I play pretty well. But I also play with people who are a lot better than me, too. But I enjoy it.”

Edison was born in Kalamazoo 50 years ago, and moved here when he was a year old. He has been pleased with his life so far, being able to build the things he treasures the most. And he plans to continue doing that, as there is no quit in his immediate future.

“I’ve been thinking about that because two of my kids have graduated from college and my last one will be graduating next year. We, Louise and I, will truly be empty-nesters at that point. And I don’t know where that is going to lead us,” said Edison.

“I don’t see myself retiring at 55 or 60. I would hope that I could be of some value here. I know that we are going to have to transition the leadership, but I hope that I will still have something to do,” he added. “I can’t see myself retiring and playing golf everyday.”

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