Food means work for Dan Vos Construction

August 6, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The original Dan Vos was a celery farmer in Lowell who worked as a carpenter during the winter months, back in the 1940s. Eventually, the off-season job took over, and by 1951, it had became a full-time family-owned business, now well established in the design/build commercial construction industry in West Michigan.

Ironically, the agriculture in the region is a key ingredient today in the ongoing success of Dan Vos Construction Co. in Ada.

Construction of food processing plants is the company’s major niche. In Holland alone, it built the Boar’s Head Provisions plant, the Quincy Street Inc. pork processing plant, and the Hudsonville Ice Cream plant. Vos did two complete plant renovations for Michigan Turkey Producers in the Grand Rapids area, built the Nestlé Ice Mountain water bottling plant in Stanwood, and the new Byron Center Meats retail store and meat processing facility.

“We worked for Bil Mar back when Bil Mar was around,” said Dan Vos, the grandson of the company founder and one of the owners today. “That’s kind of how we got involved with Request Foods — through Bil Mar,” he added.

Request Foods was originally the prepared entrees division of Bil Mar Foods, one of the nation's largest turkey processors, founded by Bill and Marvin DeWitt. When Bil Mar was bought by Sara Lee in 1988, a group of investors led by Marvin’s son, Jack DeWitt, purchased the division and launched Request Foods in a new 100,000-square-foot plant built by Vos Construction.

Request Foods expanded in 2001 with a 100,000-square-foot addition, as the company began to focus more on co-packing frozen entrées for consumer product companies and major food service organizations. In 2003, the company expanded yet again, increasing its size to 350,000 square feet.

In February, Request Foods announced it would build a $35 million food processing plant on 128th Avenue in Holland Township, near its existing plant and headquarters on Donnelly Drive. Because the investment is calculated to create up to 250 new jobs, state and local officials approved an Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zone designation on the planned construction site, which will reduce property taxes by $5 million over 15 years. The Michigan Economic Growth Authority also granted Request Foods a $2 million state business tax credit.

Jack DeWitt was quoted in a February news report saying that the company was expecting sales to rise from $180 million in 2009 to $240 million this year, due to a contract to produce frozen foods for the Campbell Soup Co.

In May, Michigan Department of Agriculture Director Don Koivisto said that Request Foods is “one of the top frozen food providers in the U.S., and it is currently purchasing about $50 million in supplies from Michigan producers and businesses.”

With all the agriculture in West Michigan, the Dan Vos company should be busy for years to come.

Vos said that “more years than not,” food processing plant construction “has been the majority of our work. It’s between that and pharmaceutical.”

He said Vos Construction has been building for Perrigo in Allegan “for 28 years, I think,” and has also built for Amway.

All of the companies mentioned have one thing in common: Their products are consumed by people or used on the human body, which requires a very clean production environment and a plant structure that is designed to withstand constant intensive cleaning and sterilization.

Constant cleaning, said Vos, “is a big thing in this business, so there’s lots of stainless steel because nothing else holds up to that caustic environment when they’re cleaning.” He said Request Foods prepares food in two shifts, and the third shift is dedicated to cleaning the facility.

“Every single machine gets torn apart as much as possible,” and is then sprayed with sanitizing foam and hot water, he said. USDA inspectors are in the plant every day, taking samples to ensure no bacteria are present.

The typical environment in a food processing plant is one of extremes. Massive ovens and large quantities of boiling water are under the same roof with coolers and freezers, some of which are designed to operate as much as 43 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

Vos said the new Request plant under construction is about 250,000 square feet. Time is money for companies building a major processing plant, so Vos Construction is using pre-cast concrete sections for the exterior walls. The sections are 12 feet wide, about a foot thick, and 32 feet or more in length. They are so heavy that each must be delivered separately on its own truck. Installation with a crane goes very quickly. Interior walls are made of insulated metal panels: two sheets of stainless steel with insulation between them.

There are peculiar challenges to building food processing plants with interior deep freeze rooms that routinely operate at minus 10 degrees or colder. The walls and ceilings are insulated, of course, but so is the floor. If not insulated under the room or built with sublevel vents to expel super-cold air, the frost will permeate the ground under the floor and can result in frost heaves that cause serious structural damage.

The building needs to be substantially complete by May 2011, Vos said.

Request Foods already has over 350,000 square feet of structures built by Vos Construction. “They’ve been a great client to have,” Vos said.

The food industry has historically been much more consistent than others, in terms of business and growth, said Vos. “It seems like it doesn’t have the ups and downs that other businesses do in the economy. Everybody has to eat,” he said.

The pharmaceutical industry is also more level and predictable. With those two industries as its mainstay, Vos Construction has been fairly steady, although the company did have a couple of layoffs. Right now, it employs about 68 or 69 people, he said.

Vos said Vos Construction is well aware of its strength in food processing construction, but up to now, they haven’t made a point of it while looking for new projects.

“It’s hard to brag, and we haven’t bragged about us enough,” he said. “Once a client works with us, they tend to call us back.”

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