Rockford Revamps Its General Trades Division

October 22, 2008
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When Rockford Construction Co. takes on a renovation project, people who are familiar with the firm’s track record might see that as business as usual. After all, Rockford Construction has renovated a lot of buildings over the past two decades — so many that Engineering News-Record had the firm rated at 227 on its national list of the Top 400 Contractors last year and in the 44th spot in its nationwide ranking of Top Green Contractors for 2007.

This project, though, is far from being a routine renovation.

Rockford Construction will reconfigure 18,275 square feet at 1501-1505 Kalamazoo Ave. for a lot of reasons, but mainly to pump new life into its building trades division and to help residents in the urban sector. The builder bought the southeast-side structures, which are near the intersection of Boston Street and Kalamazoo in the Boston Square Business District, from Mercantile Bank last February.

“The buildings are meant to house a general trades and carpentry group, kind of as an independent business unit here at Rockford Construction,” said Michael VanGessel, the firm’s president and company co-founder with CEO John Wheeler.

“We’ve had carpenters and laborers that have been with the company, and we have gone through ebbs and flows over the years and their numbers have changed. But they’ve always kind of worked under the basic lead generation that we’ve created here at Rockford, and they’ve never had kind of an independent format that I want this group to have — until this point,” he added.

The company has produced a lot of work for those in the general trades, such as framers, concrete cutters, drywallers and millwrights, through all the contracts it has won over the past 20-plus years. Under the new set-up, the group will still have that relationship, but also will be able to go out and find its own work.

“This group would perform work for Rockford Construction, along with other subcontractors that we currently work with. But it would also be an independent group that would work on projects that are often — and it’s hard for me to believe this in our growth pattern — viewed as maybe too small for Rockford Construction,” said VanGessel.

“We always feel that there are no projects that are too small for us. But we also realize that, as the years go along, we do need to be, I think, listening to our customers and we need to customize this group to do that. Specifically, what we are going to do with this group is make the guy with the tool belt the guy that is going to run the job.”

Putting the “tool man” in charge removes a management layer as there won’t be a project superintendent or director on these jobs, and that move should reduce the cost of a project.

“We can really get this at price points and control smaller projects on a much closer basis,” said VanGessel.

The group, which already exists in an old format, is called Rockford General Trades. VanGessel wants to have the new format, with its new direction and marketing effort, up and running by Nov. 1. Ryan Wheeler, son of John Wheeler, will direct the division’s business development along with 14-year Rockford veteran Patrick Wilhelm. Ken Bailey, executive vice president of operations at Rockford, and Operations Vice President Dan Clappison will also play vital leadership roles in the new trades division.

VanGessel told CQ that he had looked long and hard at a number of sites for the right place to base the general trades division, which has been in a warehouse at Broadmoor Avenue and 32nd Street for the past two years. He felt that address, though, didn’t offer the trades division the attention it deserved and was too far removed from what he wanted the business to ultimately become.

He said Boston Square, a densely populated neighborhood with plenty of traffic and surrounding businesses, would give the division the exposure it warrants. It’s a sector VanGessel is familiar with, having worked on projects there in the past. But what’s most important to him about being in the district is it lets him achieve his main goal, which is to get residents in a diversely populated neighborhood more involved with the division.

“We want to be within walking distance of people in the community who could possibly be future workers. You know, a lot of times if they can get to the office, we can get them to the job site. We can help them by being closer in location, and we can help that property out with some rejuvenation,” he said.

The renovation of the Kalamazoo Avenue buildings should be finished by the projected starting date for the revamped general trades division. Isaac Norris, a Grand Rapids architect who has worked with VanGessel in the past, designed the project.

“We want to keep the work as local as possible,” VanGessel said.

Grubb & Ellis|Paramount Commerce brokered the property sale.

VanGessel said a new general trades division puts Rockford Construction in a better position to compete for the smaller jobs it might otherwise have to turn away.

“It’s straight business. We’re backfilling what we think is a very good need that we will create, and that is doing our own work. Secondly, there are opportunities that we need to take advantage of in this marketplace. As things shrink and projects get smaller, we need to have another service that I think hits that marketplace,” said VanGessel.

“Thirdly, we want to have an identity that’s singular and known in the community. … We wanted to be back in the urban environment and we want to reach out to the neighbors in that area. And we want to provide ownership opportunities for new individuals. So, for all those reasons, we did it.” CQX

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