Putting a finish on it

October 30, 2010
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Linda Vos-Graham insists she’s not an in-the-spotlight type of person. She lets the glare of the sun-speckled evidence shining off her company’s high-profile glass glazing work speak for itself.

Many observers would agree she has become an accomplished figurehead in the traditionally male-dominated construction and development scene in West Michigan. So much so that she was recognized earlier this year by the Grand Rapids Business Journal as one of its 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan. But Vos-Graham, president and owner of the 50-employee Vos Glass Inc., 902 Scribner NW, deflects credit for the full-service glass firm’s ascension as a key player in the local building and trades sector to the company’s experienced team of glass-product professionals.

“I guess I’m a novelty, in a sense, but I’m just one of many kids in West Michigan who were generationally born into the construction business,” the 49-year-old Vos-Graham said. “There are a lot of second-, third- and fourth-generation family members involved in many of the companies here. But we have a very successful business, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact I am female.”

Since becoming the president of Vos Glass in 2002, Vos-Graham has doubled the size of its gross annual sales and work force. The Grand Rapids company has boasted sales in the $10 million to $13 million range for the past three years. Approximately 85 percent of its work is in construction, with the other 15 percent in retail.

Vos-Graham’s involvement on the frontlines of a sometimes volatile industry included her participation in a 10-year effort with the Michigan Glass Association to pass legislation banning insurance companies from restricting where customers could go for auto-glass repairs. Gov. Jennifer Granholm finally signed the bill into law in 2004, essentially keeping insurers from “steering” customers to certain shops. Opening the field of auto-glass replacement to more repair shops is still near the top of the list of accomplishments she cites.

Vos-Graham, who has been with Vos Glass since 1983, currently serves as vice president of the American Subcontractors Association of Western Michigan. She previously served on various boards and committees with the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Michigan, Michigan Glass Association, Child & Family Resource Center and Grand Rapids Exchange Club. She is currently involved with the YMCA in Belmont, where she resides with her husband, Ken Graham, and two teenage sons, Nathan and Eric Traxler.

Just last week Vos Glass received two 2010 Award of Excellence honors in glazing from the Associated Builders and Contractors of Western Michigan. It was saluted in the “Glazing Under $2 Million” category for its work on Holland Hospital’s restorations, and in the “Glazing Over $2 Million” for its handiwork on the Van Andel Institute — Phase II.

During Vos-Graham’s tenure as president, Vos Glass has successfully completed glazing projects of all types and sizes throughout West Michigan. The company has earned recognition for its work on the Steelcase Learning Center, Saint Mary’s Southwest Outpatient Center, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, Saint Mary’s Lacks Cancer Center and American Seating Park, along with numerous safety and training awards.

The National Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. Safety Committee recently bestowed Vos Glass with a Safety Training and Evaluation Process Platinum Level Award for the fourth straight year. Vos is the only glazing contractor in the Western Michigan Chapter of ABC to receive the recognition.

“Being committed to safety is an ongoing process, and the biggest reward is a safer workplace,” Vos-Graham said.

And the Vos workplace is not only safe — it has a familial feel. Vos-Graham noted the glass and glazing profession involves a tradition of children carrying on the work and business of its elders. “We have had a lot of father-son teams on staff and many brothers and cousins,” she said.

Thirty percent of its employees have or have had family members working there. Lead glaziers Jeff and Kevin Veltman have been with Vos Glass for 25 years. Their father was one of the company’s original glaziers.

Linda’s husband, Ken, serves as the vice president and director of project management, leading several of the company’s recent downtown endeavors. The couple carries on a tradition of spouses being involved in the family business that goes back to the start, when her mother, Barb, worked closely with her father, the late Clarence “Jake” Vos. Barb is 78 now but still comes into the office a couple of times a week to help.

Family ties, particularly when it came to choosing a career path, have always played a factor for Vos-Graham. Much of her drive to succeed and ability to take charge of any situation could be seen when she was a 12-letter sports standout at Northview High School, from which she graduated in 1979. She continued her athletic endeavors on the softball field well into her 20s. Not one to attend college, she was “self-learned,” something she wouldn’t recommend today.

She endeavored to make a living as a free-lance writer, and it was then that she met Hank Meijer of the well-known Meijer Inc. family. He introduced her to his brother, Mark, who had started Life Ambulance, for which Vos-Graham worked for a while.

“That was very beneficial. I was able to work with (Mark) when he started the ambulance company from scratch. I learned the development of the business and became close to the Meijer family.”

Her primary mentor in the glass business was her father, Jake, who “was known by everybody in town as the glass guy,” she said. He died from cancer in 2003, a few months after Vos-Graham took over as president. Jake had worked for another glass company in Grand Rapids before going on his own at the age of 50 to begin Vos Glass.

Many of the relationships her father developed during his tenure have paid off as many of the “old guard” construction leaders have made themselves available for consultation by Vos-Graham, she said. “They knew dad and I value their outlook on how things are.”

“In 30 years, I held every position there is in the company,” Vos-Graham said of her evolution with the family-owned operation. “So that probably makes me a very good person to build a strong team of professionals around me. I was involved as a controller, CPA, in insurance — the entire compilation right away.”

She maintains the broad focus to this day. “I involve myself in every little task at least a little bit, like going into estimating and pulling numbers together. I like winning. I like seeing success.”

Vos-Graham noted the original diverse nature of her father’s glass business, involving automotive, residential and commercial work, remains the company’s forte to this day

“We’ve been involved in some wonderfully great, huge projects in Grand Rapids,” she noted. “But I certainly see the projects being much smaller” in the near future. “We’re helped by the fact that all of our employees are cross-trained. A guy high up on a building tower one day can do a shower enclosure the next.

“I often wonder what my dad would say about the situation with the economy right now,” Vos-Graham said in noting the shift to smaller, yet necessary projects. “Anyone who knew him remembers that he was not short of his opinions. But he was very intelligent, and I learned to put myself and the company in the best possible position to weather this economic storm.”

Vos-Graham helps herself meet life’s challenges head on by hitting the gym to work out with a group of eight women at 5 a.m. most days. She’s in the office by 6:30. Her active sons, who attend Rockford High School, also keep her hopping.

But she’s not interested in globe-trotting her company’s services much beyond the local area. “We’ve been fortunate to stay in West Michigan — Holland, Muskegon, Grand Rapids, and a little bit in Kalamazoo. We won’t go out of state and I won’t wander into the east side of the state. Here, we know the trees in the woods and know who we’re working with. They’re important relationships, and we’re going to stay true to them,” she said.

That philosophy also comes from wanting to enable her non-unionized employees to go home to their families at night, rather than being on the road.

Vos Glass has been involved in a considerable number of environmentally friendly projects in recent years, pursuing LEED-certified efforts through glass performance standards and positive heating and cooling impacts from glass installations that “have definitely contributed to the greenness of buildings. We’ve also done a couple of projects with self-cleaning glass, including at the Lacks Cancer Center.”

“It’s really fun to go through town and say we did this building or that building,” Vos-Graham said. “We’ve also been involved in taking down and renovating buildings my father did 25 years ago. The focus right now is on re-using buildings and making them as energy efficient as possible. It’s driven the glass industry to create energy solutions through methods like coatings or aluminum systems.

“The aesthetics are taking a secondary seat to the energy concerns,” she noted. “What’s driving the decision to replace glass is energy.”

And that’s something Vos-Graham and her close-knit operation have plenty of these days.

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