A graduate of the school of hard knocks

September 14, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Are there any major construction projects going on in and around Muskegon that don't have a sign indicating Clifford Buck Construction?

The question prompts a laugh from Jeff Buck.

"Certainly there is," he replied.

The fact is, however, Clifford Buck Construction Co. Inc. played a key role in some of the most high-profile architectural projects in Muskegon this year — and in many of the previous 85 years.

Buck, who is president and owner of the company, is the grandson of Clifford Buck Sr., who started the business in Muskegon in 1923. When they came of age, Clifford Sr.'s sons, Clifford Jr. and Bob, joined their dad in the company.

"We all grew up working for the company," said Jeff Buck.

All the Bucks were "brickys" — bricklayers: "I don't know if we were not smart enough to be carpenters …" Buck said, with a laugh.

"They wanted me to follow through in the trade," he said, so he started working summers as a laborer in 1967 at age 15.

In the old days, many Americans learned a trade through hands-on experience on the job, as opposed to taking classes or going to college. By the time Jeff Buck took driver's education, he had already learned to drive the hard way — on the job, so to speak.

Each morning his dad would drop him off at one of the company's current construction sites — a fire station in Norton Shores not too far from their home. Clifford Buck Jr. was a busy man and soon got tired of having to drop the boy off at his job early each morning.

"So I came home one day, and here is a car in the driveway," said Buck.

His father said, "There's your ride to work."

Jeff replied that he didn't have a driver's license.

His dad said, "I don't care. You get yourself to work."

So he started driving to work at age 15, with no license.

Years later, his entry into management was just as abrupt — and much more stressful.

After high school, Buck went to Ferris State College, where he nearly completed a two-year degree in construction technology. But "the almighty dollar was more important," so he went to work full-time for the family’s business, becoming a union bricklayer.

Jeffrey L. Buck
Company:
Clifford Buck Construction Co. Inc.
Position: President
Age: 57
Birthplace: Muskegon
Residence: North Muskegon
Family/Personal: Wife, Belinda; and daughters Alexis, 30, and Chelsea, 24.
Community/Business Involvement: Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, Association of General Contractors
Biggest Career Break: Being awarded contracts for renovation of the Muskegon County Museum and a facility for Coca Cola of Muskegon.

Clifford Buck Construction was a small company then with only a few employees. Eventually, Clifford Sr. retired and Jeff Buck's uncle moved to Florida to start a business there, so it was just Clifford Jr. running the company. After a few years, he brought Jeff into in the office to learn how to estimate jobs and do paperwork on bids.

One Wednesday night in December 1981, Clifford Buck Jr. died suddenly of a massive heart attack at age 52.

"We buried my father on a Friday and I walked into our company workshop on Monday morning, being the new director of Clifford Buck Construction. Twenty-nine years old, with no experience (running a business), and here I am talking to guys that have been with the business for 25 and 30 years — and they've got to follow my lead? A little scary …"

There was also a recession going on.

Buck said he frankly told his employees, "I need all the help I can get." They did help, and the company survived and grew. Today there are about 35 employees, most of them full-time. The company is best known now for the many health care and education construction projects it manages all over the western side of Michigan and into the Upper Peninsula. Sales run about $15 million to $20 million a year according to Buck, and there are four construction managers now, counting Buck.

Not long after Jeff Buck took over management of the company, he landed a contract for a major renovation of the Muskegon County Museum. After his low bid won the contract, Buck discovered to his horror that they had made an error in it: "We forgot all the doors."

However, "We had to stand behind our bid," said Buck, which meant he had to cover the cost of those doors. That ate up profit to the point where they probably didn't make any money on the project, he said.

"But in the long run, it turned out to be a very good client. We made money in the long run," doing work for Muskegon County, he said.

Another fortuitous contract in the early 1980s was a large new building for the Coca Cola distributorship in Muskegon. Buck said he got the job even though the Coke people knew he lacked significant management experience. The company successfully completed the project and Buck was able to begin adding more employees, eventually making Clifford Buck Construction the largest construction company based in Muskegon.

Buck has two partners now — Bob Herrmann and Andy Zorn — who are construction managers and "have basically taken hold of the business," he said.

Herrmann joined the company in 1978 as a union laborer, then received his journeyman’s card as a carpenter. He attended Ferris and earned a construction management degree. Since then, he has been involved in management of projects including the Muskegon Country Club, numerous schools and churches in the area, the new Hages Christian Bookstore, Brunswick Pool and Billiards, Mercy General Hospital, and new branch offices of Independent Bank and the Muskegon Governmental Federal Employees Credit Union.

Zorn, who has a degree in architectural technology and construction management from Ferris, joined the firm in 2000 as a project manager. He was involved in management of the ER expansion at Hackley Hospital, construction of the Parmenter O’Toole law office building on Muskegon Lake, the Muskegon Commerce Bank, Norton Dental Building, West Shore Urology, the new Muskegon Chamber of Commerce/Hines Building, the new Orthopedic Associates of Muskegon Building and ongoing projects at Hackley Hospital.

Clifford Buck Construction is wrapping up two major projects this year. One is a very high-profile addition to downtown Muskegon: the $11 million Culinary Institute of Michigan, owned and operated by Baker College of Muskegon. The other is Orthopedic Associates of Muskegon, a major medical facility just completed adjacent to Mercy Health Partners on Sherman Boulevard. The cost of construction alone was about $14 million or $15 million, said Buck; millions more were invested in equipment.

Buck described the culinary institute as a unique building, noting that the new three-story school contains more than $2 million worth of sophisticated kitchen equipment.

There is a partnership-type relationship between Clifford Buck Construction and Baker College of Muskegon that goes back many years, said Buck.

"I used to work directly with Bob Jewell, when their site was on Apple Avenue," he said. In the 1960s, it was Robert Jewell who organized the Baker College System of Michigan as it is known today.

Clifford Buck Construction is clearly playing an important role in the architectural revitalization of Muskegon. The work downtown, where the old Muskegon Mall was cleared away several years ago, may be the first encouraging trend in Muskegon since the city began losing some of its major industrial employers two decades ago.

With his company now in capable hands, Buck said he has suggested to his partners that "it's time for me to start relaxing and laying back. … These guys are construction managers."

Buck said there has been a profound change in the construction industry since he started working summers as a 15-year-old laborer.

"Ours has gone to a management industry now," he said, which requires a good deal of higher education — much more than a general contractor required when Jeff Buck was thrust into that role in 1981. Young people who want to work in construction today need a higher education if they want a permanent and meaningful career, said Buck.

"These kids now have to be managers as much as carpenters," he said.

On the other hand, he said, young, college-educated construction managers today are less likely to have had that valuable hands-on construction experience that everyone in the industry was once required to have.

Buck said his plans are to begin phasing in retirement around age 60, which is only a few years away. He still wants to work two or three days a week for the first few years and ease into it gradually. Although he enjoys fishing and hunting a great deal (he lives on Muskegon Lake), the idea of full-time retirement is daunting to a guy who has been working for the same company for the past 43 years.

"You can't fish and hunt 24-7," he said.

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