Customer focus has sparked success for aj Veneklasen

August 26, 2011
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One of the area’s most successful and diverse general contractors turns 35 this year.

Alan J. Veneklasen started a.j. Veneklasen Inc. in 1976, back when Jerry Ford was president, and since then the company has performed a full range of industry-related services and has completed hundreds of projects for small, medium and even Fortune 500-sized clients.

Company President Chris Veneklasen, Alan’s son, believes the firm’s success and longevity are due to a pair of factors: making sure it kept its focus on what it does best and having a solid list of repeat customers.

“The obvious response is our great customer base. Our repeat-customer rate — I’m not sure we’ve ever factored it in — but it’s very high. I can’t actually think of a customer who didn’t repeat business with us. But to get that, I think we had to be solely focused on the customer’s happiness and make sure that a customer was happy during a project and when a project was finished. Doing that has probably created a loyal customer following,” he said.

“Then, probably, just really focusing on what we’re best at — kind of staying in that market niche of servicing small to medium-sized businesses. We do have some larger clients as well, but we’re really sticking to what we’re best at,” he added.

The company works in all construction areas — industrial, office, retail, residential, design-build — so it has been able to offer expertise in all facets. But one area has stood out enough that a.j. Veneklasen was able to make its mark in it and then hang its hat on it.

“We started in industrial. Right up through the 1990s, that was our primary business focus: servicing the manufacturers of the West Michigan business area. But in the early to mid-1990s, we recognized that focusing on just one industry could be a challenge for the future,” said Veneklasen.

“Thankfully, that timing was good, and we really branched out then into those other areas like retail, office and medical. Then when the recession of 2000-2001 hit, the industrial market really sagged and our other markets really picked up. But, even though we’ve got a broad base of experience, it comes back to focusing on our customer base,” he said.

“We don’t generally get involved in large, downtown, politically charged, or management-by-committee type of projects. We focus on our customer in that smaller to medium-sized business group. The types of our projects are somewhat diverse, but our clients are somewhat similar.”

Chris Veneklasen said focusing on the smaller client has always been the company’s key strategy, which was established by his father. He said Alan Veneklasen, now company chairman, would meet personally with customers in their living rooms after the dinner dishes were washed. “We’ve always kind of continued that face-to-face, personal touch, where we want a relationship where we know each other and we know each other’s families. There’s a connection there and we try to maintain that,” he said.

Chris Veneklasen has been with the firm since he began sweeping up job sites as a youngster. When he reached high school, he walked steel during summer vacations and other breaks. He started working full time in 1995 after he earned his marketing degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

“I learned the construction side through the school of hard knocks and I learned the business and marketing side in school,” he said.

Even though he has spent the last 16 years at the firm, Veneklasen said it was tough for him to pick one favorite project. “We love them all. I think the reason you’re in construction is you have this pride of completing something, and there is a tangible result there.

“It’s probably not one single project but whenever we’re involved in a project where we really have to roll our sleeves up with a customer — often it’s some kind of a remodel or addition — and try to follow a plan. But because of the nature of a project, that plan changes and you try to adjust accordingly.”

The company is working on one of those projects now. It is remodeling the Family Fare grocery store in Georgetown, which is owned by Spartan Stores Inc., and the supermarket is staying open while the work is being done. To complete the project in an orderly manner, Veneklasen said it requires two crews to work almost around the clock.

“Those kinds of projects are hard on everyone involved. But it’s just so inspirational, I guess, to watch everyone just kind of rise to the challenge and make that sacrifice to make sure the project turns out,” he said.

“It’s great to build a new building in the middle of a brand new site. But when you really have to roll up your sleeves and really deal with logistics and more complex construction, that’s my favorite.”

Veneklasen also is building a new warehouse for Litehouse Foods, putting up a new freight facility for FedEx, constructing new surgical centers in Ohio, California and Nevada, doing a steel-related project for Northwood University, and performing carpentry work at the Spartan YMCA. Many of the firm’s staff are trained, certified and experienced in helping customers achieve LEED certification.

Over the last three years, with the economy largely in the tank for construction companies, Veneklasen said business has been pretty good. He noted that 2008, the year the financial market nearly crashed, was the company’s best year on record, while 2009 was somewhat slower but still turned out to be a good year. He said 2010 was a little rough, but ended up beating expectations. “And this year is shaping up to be a great year,” he added.

“Because we have our own carpentry crews, steel crews and we have a property management department, we’re able to keep busy. That has really helped us from a diversity standpoint to kind of ride through some of these lulls. In the 1990s, the experts all said specialization was the key to success. That might have been when the construction market was super-heated like it was back then, but nowadays I think you really have to have a lot of diverse background to rely on.”

Veneklasen said he is looking forward to the rest of 2011. Trying to forecast what the longer term might look like, though, isn’t as easy as it was just a few years ago.

“It’s hard to speculate very far in advance. It used to be we could say the next year looks great. Because of our project sizes, our backlogs aren’t as long as other contractors. But the next six months look great. This whole economic turmoil that’s occurring makes it a little hard to think much further out than that. There is too much indecision in the stock market and in the fiscal policy. The state certainly has made some great improvements on that, but on the national level, until there is some more stable footing, there is always going to be an uncertainty,” he said.

“For us, we’re really grateful to the community over the last 35 years we’ve been in West Michigan. My dad grew up here. I grew up here. It’s been a great place to work and live.”

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