Driesenga Nurtures His Business

June 19, 2002
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HOLLAND — He calls it the “scariest” lesson he’s ever learned in business. Looking back, Dan Driesenga is the better for it.

Just three months after forming his engineering firm in January 1995, a state fund that paid for addressing problems with leaking underground fuel storage tanks in Michigan went broke, erasing a third of the company’s projected first-year revenues. Driesenga, who had founded the firm on the high hopes of securing work related to the fund, was forced to quickly re-think the direction of the business.

While the challenge was a tough one at the time, Driesenga & Associates Inc. today is a much better company because of it, Driesenga said.

“I look back at it now as a blessing in disguise,” Driesenga said. “At that point, we really shifted gears.”

Nearly seven years after surviving that early challenge, Driesenga & Associates is thriving, with four offices in West Michigan (Holland, Muskegon, Spring Lake and Grand Rapids), 80 employees and annual revenues of about $4.5 million. The company provides a full range of engineering services to clients — land surveying, civil engineering and design, soil and construction materials testing, and environmental consulting.

In recognition of the company’s growth and success, the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce awarded Driesenga its 2002 “Small Business Person of the Year Award.”

“It’s an honor to stand up here,” Driesenga said last week as he accepted the award at the Holland Area Chamber’s monthly Early Bird Breakfast.

Driesenga started the company after seeing the growth of the Holland area and a niche market for materials testing and geotechnical services to support the local construction industry. Previously local construction companies needed to retain those services from firms in Grand Rapids or Muskegon.

While feeling the apprehension that all entrepreneurs experience when weighing whether to start their own business, he recalls that he didn’t want to end up at the end of his career filled with questions about what could have been.

“I knew the idea was going work. This is really my way of finding out and I had to go for it, and I’m glad I did,” Driesenga said. “I knew there was an opportunity. And let’s face it, Hollanders like to do business with Hollanders.”

A West Ottawa High School graduate who earned a civil engineering degree from Michigan State University, Driesenga worked for seven years at Dell Engineering, an environmental consulting firm in Holland, before forming his own company. He considers Dell Engineering’s founder, LeRoy Dell, a mentor.

Before Dell, Driesenga worked for engineering firms in Chicago and Lansing.

Starting out, Driesenga was a one-man shop. By the end of the company’s first year, he had seven employees and revenues of $450,000. In the second year, Driesenga & Associates grew to 14 employees and sales of $710,000.

As a businessman, Driesenga stresses the importance of doing the “little things” for clients, such as hand-delivering a proposal rather than sending it via e-mail or fax, and he constantly keeps an eye out for new business opportunities and markets.

The company has been able to grow over the years in part through key acquisitions. The 1997 purchase of Joiner Engineering in Spring Lake brought surveying services in-house. He solidified the surveying business, which now accounts for 50 percent of company revenues, in 2000 with the acquisition of Sandel Chappell & Associates in Muskegon.

As a husband and the father of two young sons, he works to always strike a balance between work and family or personal time for both himself and his employees. Success in business, he says, is much more than sales volumes and the size of your workforce.

“We don’t think about it in those terms at all,” he said. “I think things are going well when I hear laughter out in the office.”

Driesenga considers contributions to large construction projects such as the U.S. 131 S-Curve and the South Beltline as providing a “lasting legacy” of the company’s work.

“Our handiwork is our lasting legacy,” he said. “Those things will be here long after we are.”

He likens running and nurturing a small business to fatherhood, particularly in the early stages. Shortly after he formed Driesenga & Associates, his first son, Mitchell, was born. He remembers going through “a lot of sleepless nights” that were spent caring for a crying newborn, or worrying about the future of the business.

“It’s been quite an analogy of watching the boys grow up as the business grows up,” he said. “I feel like we’re just getting started as a company and it’s been nearly seven years.”

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