VanGessel Builds Relationships

June 13, 2002
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BELMONT — Fifteen years ago, Michael VanGessel went into business with his boyhood buddy John Wheeler and Rockford Construction Co. came into being. Their first job together was building a small cottage north of town.

Earlier this summer, VanGessel learned that Engineering News-Record ranked Rockford Construction at No. 294 on its list of the nation’s Top 400 Contractors, marking the first time the firm had broken into the top 300. The ranking also confirmed Rockford’s position as the most active builder on this side of the state.

“I think when you get an award like that, you just kind of pick your head up from the day-to-day stuff and go, ‘Wow, we accomplished something among our peers that is pretty significant.’ It shows that it pays to come into the office and work hard every day because that really is what I think makes the difference,” VanGessel said of his initial reaction to the news. “Hard work does pay off.”

VanGessel singled out the hard work of the firm’s employees who constantly travel and don’t receive a lot of local recognition. “They deserve a special congratulation because they are often away from their families.”

His response to the honor typifies VanGessel. He is a most unassuming, quiet man who values his privacy and happily leaves most of the company’s public persona to be shaped by Wheeler, his business partner and close friend. They grew up together on the near West Side of Grand Rapids, the Alpine-Leonard area to be exact, and worked summer construction jobs together when VanGessel was on break from his building management studies at Michigan State University.

After VanGessel earned his degree, he went to work with Wheeler in Indianapolis and the two became partners when they returned home. Today, Wheeler is company CEO and the more visible of the two. VanGessel, who shies away from the limelight, is president of the construction side of the company — the largest division at Rockford with 90 of the firm’s 110 employees.

“I’m responsible for the sales and operations of that 90-person group,” he said. “The balance of the 20 remaining people are involved in property management and development.”

The remodeling of the Meijer store in Jenison and the construction of a Family Video shop in Iron Mountain stand out as two of VanGessel’s favorite projects. Both were done more than a decade ago, and marked the start of two longstanding and successful business relationships that Rockford still has with Meijer and Family Video.

“Another one of my favorite projects, because it was one of our first projects and I still think it’s a beautiful building, was the Stark & Co. Building, which sits on the Glenwood Hills Parkway. It’s a very nice office building, and great relationships came out of that as well,” he said.

In talking with VanGessel, it doesn’t take long to realize that the relationships he has built throughout his years at Rockford are what he savors most about the business. The people he has worked with and the clients he has worked for are the highlights of his career, and will likely remain so as long as the 37-year-old continues working. He called the employees of Rockford the “finest group of people” he could possibly work with, and said he values the friendships he has made with those who work in other fields.

“As a contractor, I have been able to move inside of so many different arenas. I’ve been affected by government, by inspections, by the diverse client group we’ve got with universities, retailers, office and medical. You get to be a very well-rounded person because you’re exposed to so much,” he said.

“In a real operational way, you don’t always get to see what they do. But you certainly get to associate with a lot of people of different backgrounds, and that, to me, is the ‘funnest’ part of what I get to do for a living.”

Running a close second to what VanGessel likes most about his work is being able to take pleasure in a finished product. Whether it’s new construction or the renovation of an old building, the sensation of its creation is special to him and is something not everyone gets to enjoy in their line of work.

“I get to, literally, produce a product, and be part of an end product that we can be very proud of and will be there for a long time to come. It’s just a neat feeling to be part of a creative process like that,” he said.

Besides being busy at Rockford, VanGessel is regularly involved in the community. He was past president of the Inner-City Christian Federation, just about his favorite nonprofit organization, which builds homes for those who can’t afford one. He and Rockford do a lot for God’s Kitchen, the downtown food pantry. VanGessel also is involved in the fundraising effort for the Heartside neighborhood, sits on the MSU board for the Building Construction Management Program and belongs to the Associated Builders & Contractors.

“If you get out of the central business district and look at the city as a whole, the neighborhoods and the health of those smaller communities are important. What a group like ICCF brings to those communities is so huge to the overall vibrancy of a city. Those kinds of groups do so much,” he said.

VanGessel and his wife, Gayle, have been married for a decade now. They have three children: daughter Sophia and sons Gabriel and Anthony.

“My family is first and foremost, and I certainly am trying to keep my focus on my spiritual life. I love to fish. I’ve got a Big Lake boat and I like to take my buddies out and catch some king salmon,” he said. “This year, I think I’ve gotten out eight times and I think I’ve caught 40 fish. So, I’m not doing too bad.”

As for the future, VanGessel sees more advancement for Rockford Construction. He said the firm wants to continue working with existing clients and attract a few more, all the while remaining heavily committed to the community.

“We’re 15 years old and I think we’ve done a very good job in a short period of time in getting our systems together. But we can continue to improve those,” he said.

“I think we’re kind of reaching that plateau where some people beyond John and myself are going to want to start taking the company in some different directions. And we want to build the programs, policies and procedures behind them to let them start making this company what they want it to be, too.”

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