Farmers plants jobs in West Michigan

December 7, 2009
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Work has already begun on construction of a new job-making machine being built by Farmers Insurance Group of Cos. on its 100-acre campus in Caledonia.

The $80 million project is expected to be completed by June 2011.

Once construction is complete, Farmers plans to increase its West Michigan work force by up to 1,600 employees — a much-needed shot in the employment arm for the region.

“In addition to a call center growth space and offices, the building will include a print and distribution center, an extension of our award-winning University of Farmers training facility, a branch of the Farmers Credit Union and a fitness facility,” CEO Richard Woudstra said in a statement.

“We will also use local vendors, including the general contractor, civil engineer and excavator for the project,” he added.

The work involves putting up two new buildings and a new atrium; Wolverine Building Group is managing the construction.

One structure is a three-story, 264,045-square-foot office building. The other is a single-story, 100,000-square-foot print and distribution center. The atrium will be four stories tall and will connect the two new buildings with each other and with an existing Farmers call center.

Matt Larsen, the project’s manager for Wolverine, said the site work was under way, the foundations were about to be laid, and the parking lots had received the base coats when the Business Journal spoke with him.

Work on the project actually began in late July because of the property’s soil.

“It’s a clay site. With winter coming, we wanted to get as much parking lot, road and utility in the ground as we could prior to the ground freezing. Clay creates really difficult working conditions in the winter. Once it freezes, you’re going to be working really hard,” said Larsen.

Larsen said the Farmers’ project is providing employment for up to 600 construction workers, and that 150 to 200 are working on the site on any given day.

“We expect to finish in the late spring of 2011 or early summer, maybe June,” he said.

What is different about this project for the Wolverine crew is the elbow room they have to build. Larsen said the work site measures about 30 acres, and that is a lot more space than they had when they built the River House condominium tower on a very tight footprint in downtown Grand Rapids.

“We have nature all around us and lots of space. Coming off the River House project where I didn’t have room to turn around, now I’m in kind of a big open field,” he said.

“Logistically, we think we’re really going to enjoy this,” he added.

Although there is an industrial element — the print and distribution center, which will also offer some warehouse space — Larsen sees the project as more of an administrative development, because the biggest piece is the three-story office structure.

“The other building is a print-distribution facility. There will be a lot of machinery and imaging equipment in there, but there is quite a bit of support space in there, as well,” he said.

The atrium is part of the project because the construction site, just off North Kraft Lake Drive in Caledonia, has multiple levels. The existing call center sits in an area lower than the work site. In fact, the lowest level of that building will be below the floors of the two new structures. The atrium will tie the three together and provide indoor access among the buildings.

Farmers Insurance also has its corporate headquarters on the campus, but that building is located closer to Kraft Lake and won’t be connected to the atrium.

The project was designed by Rees Masilionis Turley, an architectural firm based in Kansas City, Mo.

Farmers Insurance Group is a wholly owned subsidiary of Zurich Financial Services, an insurance-based financial services provider with a global network of subsidiaries. Farmers is the nation’s third-largest personal property and casualty group, providing homeowners, auto, life and business coverage, and financial services to more than 10 million households.

“Farmers has been in Michigan since 1949,” said Woudstra. “Today there are thousands of Farmers employees, agents and district managers all across the Great Lakes State.”

The Farmers Group acquired Foremost Insurance in 2000 and has its national headquarters in Los Angeles.

“We’re obviously excited to be a part of it and looking forward to bringing the talents of West Michigan to the forefront again,” said Larsen of the project, “and putting some people back into some offices with some jobs that this area and the economy certainly needs. To me, that’s the key.”

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