Progressives Perry Dives In

October 26, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Having a job that you like is cool. But having a job you like at a company that was recently named a “Cool Place To Work” is, well, the coolest.

“It feels great, that’s the simple answer,” said Michael Perry, an executive vice president at Progressive AE who also sits on the company’s board of directors and who has been at the firm since 1998.

In August, Progressive AE was named one of 60 cool places to work in Michigan by Crain’s Detroit Business and the Grand Rapids Business Journal.

And it’s not just the free bagels and doughnuts that Progressive hands out every Friday that makes the often-honored architecture and engineering practice a good place for Perry.

“There are so many great projects to work on here and there are a lot of opportunities for individuals to not only work those projects, but there are opportunities for them to really focus on any one of the three legs of our profession — those are design, the technical, and project management,” he added.

Project management is Perry’s expertise, and the list of projects he has managed is very impressive. Perry has directed efforts for health-care facilities, churches, sports complexes, fitness centers, hotels, corporate headquarters and even a parking garage or two.

“I have a pretty diverse background, and health care is a big part of it. I’ve worked on a lot of health complexes and fitness projects, not necessarily acute care but more the fitness side. And I enjoy that. I’m pretty active myself,” said Perry.

Perry first discovered his interest in architecture at the age of 13 when he spent a summer at the McCormick House in Mackinaw City, where his uncle was the home’s caretaker. That house and its design have stayed with him all these years.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a slate swimming pool in the front and the whole house was basically glass and slate. No ornaments, very cleans lines and great views of the woods and the water. I think that really kind of inspired me,” he said.

In a lengthy and successful career, like Perry has had, it’s often tough for someone to choose a single event that marked an epiphany in their professional life. But after quickly rewinding the years, he said living with Millard and Mary Pryor while studying architecture at the University of Michigan was it. The Pryors took him in while he earned his B.A. at the University of Michigan, and in return he did many of the household chores and a variety of odd jobs for the gracious couple, who were in their 80s at the time.

“It really positioned me well for a lot of the things I do now, here in life. First of all, it allowed me to attend the university without having to pay rent or utilities and that was a big plus. But more than that, I really learned a lot from Mr. and Mrs. Pryor,” said Perry, who went on to earn a master’s degree from the same school.

Millard Pryor had retired as a business owner, and he provided Perry with advice about ownership and emphasized the value of working as a team. On top of that, the Pryor home was designed by Bob Metcalf, who happened to be the dean of the architecture school at the university back then. Quite a good omen for a designer just getting his feet wet.

“I think so. But to be honest, everything really got started because of my swimming background. My first job in architecture before I attended the University of Michigan was for an architect named Glen Beech in Frankfort, Michigan,” said Perry.

“He asked me about my hobbies and I said I was a swimmer, and he said, ‘So are my kids.’ And suddenly the whole conversation wasn’t about what I knew about architecture, it was about swimming. He was the guy who contacted the Pryors to see if they needed a live-in student. But I used to sit for hours with Mr. Pryor in his study and listen to him talk about business. Both he and Mary were very community-minded.”

As is Perry. In addition to the professional organizations he belongs to, Perry is a board member with the Southeast YMCA and an elected Boston Township trustee, and he is active with the local Economic Club and the World Affairs Council.

Perry lives with Irina, his wife of five years, in Saranac. He said Irina, a native of Russia, has given him an indispensable trait that eludes most Americans but has assisted him in his career. He said she has taught him to see things in a more “worldly” fashion.

“At first I probably didn’t realize the importance of that, but as time has gone on and with the world becoming flatter … it impacts our work force and some of our future projects. I think there is a value there and I really appreciate that international perspective she has given me,” he said.

Besides swimming three to four times every week, Perry also likes to fly-fish and hunt. He credited his father with giving him the knowledge and tools to do both and for instilling in him the passion he has for both.

“I am very proud of the fact that this will be the 34th year for my dad and I to go hunting together. We haven’t missed a year so it’s a tradition, and both of us really, really like the camaraderie. It’s a fun thing for us to plan again.”

As for his immediate future, don’t expect Perry to make many changes. He said he is “very happy” at Progressive and plans to continue putting teams together, something he has done since he coached swimming in Ann Arbor. Perry also sees good things in the coming years for his “Cool Place.”

“I think it’s going to a real positive future for Progressive and I think that’s because we’ve organized ourselves to be more of a partner with clients to provide comprehensive services. And if you look at a building, you learn that it’s really a reflection of the client’s business and organizational strategy,” he said. “We have to be a solution partner.”    

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