Roger Johr helps grow and guide Williams Works

May 17, 2009
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Is it uncommon for a man who has had a lengthy and successful career designing large structures made of steel and concrete to spend his time away from work on a pastoral 25-acre farm helping his wife raise a herd of alpacas?

Not for Roger Johr, the likable principal-in-charge of engineering at Williams & Works.

Johr and his wife of 33 years, Rita, have 40 alpacas on their Caledonia farm, which also does double duty as their home. An alpaca looks like a llama and is roughly the size of a deer, weighing in at around 150 pounds. The Inca Indians of South America were the first to domesticate the alpaca, whose wool is sheared annually because of its similarity in softness to cashmere.

The Johrs got into the alpaca business in 1998 after Roger got tired of all the traveling he was doing for his employer, a large engineering firm. Raising alpacas seemed like a natural thing for them to do at the time: They had the acreage in Caledonia and Rita had been raised on a small farm and was thinking about raising horses on their land. But then Roger read an article about alpacas in, of all things, an airline magazine while he was jetting to yet another work site.

“So I brought it home and said, ‘What do you think about these?’ So she started looking into it a little bit, and then we both spent about a year and a half checking into the whole industry and visiting different breeders and farms across the country,” he said.

“From a livestock standpoint, they’re fairly easy to raise. They’re a very hardy animal and a lot less work than horses. They’re grazers, kind of like sheep.”

The Johrs breed and sell the animals and raise their own hay for feed. Rita converts the sheerings into her own brand of yarn that she markets and sells.

“We’re probably one of the few — I guess you would call it ‘vertically integrated’ alpaca farms here in Michigan,” he said.

Johr, whose specialty is bridge design, earned his civil engineering degree from Michigan State University in 1975. His interest in engineering surfaced while he was a child growing up in Detroit. His parents’ home was a mere four blocks from where the I-94 expressway was being built. “That always fascinated me when I was a kid. So that’s what I ended up doing,” he said.

After graduating from MSU, he went to work for the state doing road work. Two years later, he moved to Grand Rapids and joined the first incarnation of Williams & Works. His biggest career break came five years after that move, when the state was going through a major recession. He had been in the business for seven short years.

“Back in the early 1980s when I was with the original Williams & Works and we went through a downturn in the economy, they presented me with the opportunity to go out to New Mexico and work with a firm they had an affiliation with on a fairly major highway project to manage the bridge design work on it,” he said.

“It was one of those opportunities where you could show them what you could do or show them what you couldn’t do. That was kind of a defining moment in a certain respect, because when I came back from that ‘adventure’ if you will, out there, they put me in charge of the bridge and structural department at the firm at a fairly young age.”

Today, Johr leads the firm’s transportation division, which includes designing highways and bridges. He works closely with county road commissions and a former employer, the Michigan Department of Transportation. So how has business been recently?

“Spotty at best, I guess. But we’ve been fairly fortunate. We’ve had enough to go around and it’s kind of kept us — I wouldn’t say overly busy — but we’ve been able to get by. And that’s probably been as good as it gets in the business right now,” he said.

The engineering company also offers surveying and planning services, which means the firm is well positioned in the market.

“From a client’s standpoint, we’re fairly diversified in working with communities and different parts of the industry. That’s kind of helped us weather this whole downturn over the past number of years. Last year wasn’t pretty, but we got through it.”

When asked what he liked best about his job, Johr immediately said there wasn’t anything that he didn’t like about it. After pausing, though, he said his favorite thing is that he still designs for clients, on top of his marketing and sales responsibilities.

“Ten years ago when Roger approached us about joining Williams & Works, we were extremely excited to get someone of his professional stature to join our then-young company,” said Steve Williams, a principal in the firm.

“He has since focused on growing our structural engineering practice into one of the best in the state, and his business experience and advice has helped guide us through these difficult economic times,” Williams added.

Roger met Rita when she worked as his father’s secretary and he was a part-time employee. His dad, Robert, owned Excello Micromatic, an industrial machinery firm in Holland that was purchased in 1986 by the conglomerate Textron. They dated for about three years before marrying.

The Johrs have two grown sons, Karl and Erich. Karl is a manager at Pratt & Whitney in Muskegon and oversees the remanufacturing of aircraft engines. Erich is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy.

“I have no idea of what he does, and it’s probably just as well,” Johr said with a laugh.

When he isn’t working, Johr said he helps Rita with the alpaca business.

“We enjoy having the animals on the farm and doing all that stuff. For a city kid, that’s a real enjoyment for me,” he said.

Johr has been president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Michigan for the past year. He will relinquish that post at the end of next week when his term expires, but he will stay on the board for another year as its past president. Johr has been an ACEC board member at some level for the last six years.

“It’s giving back to the industry, is the way I look at it,” he said of the time he has spent in an association leadership role.

“ACEC really helps firms out as far as business practices and business issues with the Legislature and so forth. It’s really not focused on design-type issues or technical issues. It’s more management, human resources, finance, tax issues, liability issues and those kinds of things. You don’t get much of that in engineering schools. It’s been a resource for our industry, and Williams & Works has been a member ever since I can remember.

“There’s a lot of good information and a lot of good networking with your peers. The other thing that it’s done an excellent job at over the last 15 years is the partnering work with the highway department and the consulting industry. That has been a very beneficial thing for the firms that have been involved.”

ACEC Executive Director Ronald Brenke said Johr has been a major asset for the group and a strong leader during his presidency. Brenke said he has developed new programs and services that have proved to be indispensable to the member firms during a tough economic time.

“His experience and knowledge of business issues has been invaluable to the council, especially during the CEO roundtables held twice per year throughout the state. Roger’s tenure on the board of directors demonstrates his commitment to the engineering industry, his unselfish nature and his strong character as an individual,” said Brenke.

Besides his involvement with ACEC, Johr is also a board member of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Kentwood and Lutheran Child and Family Service of Michigan.

As for the immediate future, Johr has two wishes. He hopes the economy improves and that the state figures out how to pay for infrastructure.

“For the consulting business here, I’m hoping that can pick up some. And I’m thinking exactly the same thing for the alpaca business. Obviously, sales are pretty slow with the economy the way it is. People don’t have the extra income, and with the downturn in their investments, they just don’t have the money to buy alpacas these days,” he said with another laugh before turning serious again.

“So I guess for the immediate future, I’m looking forward to the economy turning around here again. I think the other thing we have a real challenge with as a society is how we fund all the infrastructure we’ve built and improvements we’ve made over the last 100 years. I don’t think we’ve really come to grips with how we do that yet as a society.”

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