Houseman appreciates welcome at Wolverine

September 8, 2009
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It's not often a Spartan will readily acknowledge that his biggest career break came when he joined up with a Wolverine, but that's what Michael Houseman admitted.

Houseman, a graduate of Michigan State University and longtime president of Houseman Construction Co., merged his firm into the Wolverine Building Group in April and became president of Wolverine North America, the company's division that builds projects outside of Michigan.

"I think it's the move to partner up with (Wolverine owners) Mike Kelly and Dick VanderZyden," he said of his most important career move.

"Time still has to prove that. The move was mostly an economic necessity. But for me, it's just a blessing to be here because of the fact it is such a strong company and their values are the same as mine. I feel like I fit into a pie that was missing a piece," he said.

Even though he is moving on to bigger and better things, Houseman said shutting down a firm that he started a decade ago wasn't exactly a piece of cake.

"Yeah, I can't lie; it was sad. But I've been blessed with so much more that I don't have any regrets and I'm not looking back, because I'm a firm believer that change is good and for the better. But when I go back to the old office and nobody is there … 10 years or 11 years of your life is a long time.

"No regrets, though, because I've been welcomed in here," he said.

"It's kind of funny: I'm a Spartan working for a Wolverine," he laughed.

After graduating from MSU with a degree in construction management, Houseman went to work for Meijer Inc. as an owner's representative. But he said he was looking for something more challenging and he found it when he hooked up with some friends who had just started a small construction firm. Those friends were Michael VanGessel and John Wheeler; the small company was Rockford Construction.

"They'd just started Rockford and they asked me if I'd come over and be a superintendent. That was a very good learning experience. I spent almost 11 years working there with John and Mike, and I was their vice president of construction when I left. That was a tremendous education, which gave me the knowledge I needed to start my own company," he said.

"They may have been in business for four or five months when I came over. I had some grocery store experience from working with Meijer, and they had a grocery store coming up. Mike and I are still close friends. He called me then and asked if I was interested in coming over. I jumped at the chance," he added.

"Aside from Wolverine, I would have to say that would be one of my biggest career moves: to chose to be with Rockford and be a part of that growth and to work under John Wheeler and to learn from him. He is a good man. His leaving Rockford is kind of sad, and I did learn a lot from him."

Name: Michael Houseman
Company: Wolverine North America
Title: President
Age: 45
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Alpine Township
Family: Wife, Mary Kay, and sons, Chad, Ryan, Tyler and Braydon
Business/community organizations: On the board of Mackinaw Center for Public Policy and Streetlight Outreach Ministries.
Biggest career break: Merging his firm with Wolverine Building Group earlier this year.

Houseman left Rockford in October 1998 to start Houseman Construction. Despite the deep respect he had and still has for VanGessel and Wheeler, Houseman said his human nature took over. He wanted to go out on his own to do things a bit differently, but still get the same stellar results that he had at Rockford.

Perhaps the biggest difference was Houseman didn't want to rely on subcontractors as strongly as he did at Rockford. For him, this was as much of a customer-service issue as anything else.

"I like to have my own crews and labor forces to ensure quality and schedule to our customers, and at the time, John didn't want to do that. In fact, I had an opportunity to build a department to about 40 carpenters at one time, and he decided he didn't want to continue that. So we disbanded it," he said.

"It made for a lot of stress on a construction project, especially when the construction market was busy and a sub was not performing. If you don't have your own people, you're really at the mercy of that sub, because if it's busy, you can't go and get another sub. So that was probably the biggest change right there. I wanted to have my own crew."

Houseman said his crew grew into multiple crews and his construction company began working on a lot of retail, restaurant, grocery and gas station projects, mostly outside of Michigan.

The fact that Houseman Construction did a lot of out-of-state work in those niche markets caught the eyes of Kelly and VanderZyden when they were looking to extend Wolverine's reach.

"The reason we decided to acquire Mike and his company is because of his personal attention to customers. He is great at customer service and he inspires his employees to provide great service, as well. Mike's vision for the company is to grow the business nationally by serving chain restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores," said VanderZyden.

"This is exactly what Mike Kelly and I were looking for when we started Wolverine North America a couple of years ago. Houseman has a great track record for building these projects very quickly, which the owners truly appreciate. We are excited about the future of Wolverine North America with Mike at the helm," he added.

Houseman brought a crew of 50 with him to Wolverine, and 18 of them were working on a project in Tennessee when he spoke with the Business Journal. He said he has marketed his work toward "multi-site clients," meaning a customer with more than a single location, such as a bank with branch offices. So for all practical purposes, what Houseman did at Houseman Construction is what he is doing at Wolverine.

"I had a partner in Houseman Construction who was a 50 percent owner, and through the transition, Mike and Dick have replaced him as my 50 percent partner. They had already had the name Wolverine North America, and it really applies to what I've been trying to do — and that is to get our presence outside of Michigan," he said.

"We're licensed in 20 different states and I've opened an office in Arizona which we've maintained under Wolverine North America, and it's thriving nicely."

Houseman seemed destined to work in construction, as he began to do so right out of high school. His started by setting steel at a Steelcase building on Broadmoor and found he really enjoyed the work. So he went to MSU and earned his construction management degree.

"That was the right thing to do," he said.

Michael, a native of Grand Rapids, married Mary Kay 17 years ago. They live in Alpine Township with their four sons: Chad, Ryan, Tyler and Brayden. "She is a stay-at-home mom who is busy as heck," he said.

They were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, but when he asked her if she would like to go out on a date, he wasn't sure if anything would develop.

"I thought she blew me off because she said, 'Sure. My number is in the book.' If you ask a girl out on a date and she tells you that, you figure she doesn't want to talk to you. It ended up that our mutual friend called me two weeks later and said, 'Aren't you going to call Mary Kay to ask her out?' I didn't think she wanted me to."

He called and she agreed to see him. They went horseback riding and got pizza afterward. "She came home from that date and told her mom that she was going to marry me. So she knew way before me. And I told her it was a good thing she didn't tell me that then because I might have run," he said with a laugh.

"She is a wonderful lady. We've been married for 17 years, and she has been outstanding. She is very strong and has been very supportive of what I've done."

Houseman said a couple of his sons may follow in his footsteps. They enjoy tinkering just like he did when he was their age, and it was that tinkering that led him into the field. But he added that he wasn't going to push them in that direction.

"It's a tough business, and there is the contractual risk that you take on. But I won't hold them back from it or try to deter them from it — but I don't know if I'll necessarily promote it," he said.

Houseman loves to golf and fish in his spare time. He also serves on the advisory board for the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy in Midland and is a board member at Streetlight Outreach Ministries, which was founded in 1988 by worshippers from Resurrection Life Church on Ivanrest Street in Wyoming. Houseman first became involved with the ministry, which serves the area's homeless population at 515 S. Division Ave., by donating his time and construction talents to the nonprofit.

"So we've tried to support them either financially or by doing work for them, and have been doing that for probably 10 or 11 years. They asked me to be on the board maybe six or seven years ago, so I've tried to work with them in an advisory capacity," he said.

"They not only minister to the homeless spiritually but they also feed them, educate them and help them with other things. It's a neat little ministry. They're quiet. There is no shortage of that need and no shortage of the nonprofits down there, but it's just one that I've had a heart for."

As for his immediate future in his new position, Houseman said he sees more growth on the horizon for Wolverine North America outside of Michigan. He said the client base is solid and once credit loosens up, business should really pick up. He sees much of the same for the three other groups at Wolverine.

"I just see tremendous growth for Wolverine as a whole, because as I go out and do my projects — my retail, my gas stations, my restaurants on multi-sites — I'll be able to draw in the other groups," he said.

"It makes no sense to limit our work to just restaurants. We might as well seek out some hospital, school and office work. I hope to be not only a positive profit center for the Wolverine Building Group but also a catalyst to take their other teams and get them outside of Michigan. This economy has taught us that we don't want to be stuck in one state, that's for sure, at least not in Michigan."

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