120 candles on the OAK cake

September 2, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., a Grand Rapids construction company founded here in 1891, is marking its 120th anniversary with a year-long celebration that will benefit the community each month, plus “an extreme office makeover” at its downtown headquarters at 300 Ionia Ave. NW.

O-A-K has built some of the most recognizable landmarks in the Furniture City, including the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, Van Andel Institute – Phase II, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and the Kent County Courthouse.

The company has always been headquartered in downtown Grand Rapids, and its current building at 300 Ionia Ave. NW has not undergone remodeling since the mid-’80s.

O-A-K management decided that the building’s maroon decor and entryways that are not considered fully accessible to the handicapped were no longer acceptable. The options were relocation or renovation. Relocation “could have been far less expensive,” but renovating the existing headquarters “made more sense for the future” and helps underscore the firm’s commitment to downtown.

"I'd like to say the renovation was a no-brainer,” said Bill Schoonveld, O-A-K president. “The truth is, a lot of urban offices have gone suburban over the past few decades, and for appealing reasons. But at the end of the day, that's not the kind of message we wanted to send. We love this city and we plan to remain downtown for decades to come."

As part of its anniversary celebration, O-A-K is demonstrating a commitment to its employees and to the city of Grand Rapids with an “extreme office makeover, complete with state-of-the-art technology, collaborative workspace design and a welcoming glass entryway,” according to a company announcement.

“As an employee-owned corporation, we feel a genuine commitment to the communities where we build, and we’re fortunate to be able to demonstrate that commitment every day in a number of ways," said Frank Stanek, director of operations and equal opportunity employment.

In addition to revamping its corporate office, O-A-K is launching a program for the benefit of the community called GIVE 120. Each month throughout 2011, O-A-K is donating much-needed resources to local organizations, with those contributions involving the number 120. For example, in February the firm donated 120 books to Brookside Elementary School in Grand Rapids. O-A-K also donated 120 white pine trees to the school in April for Earth Day. In June, it created a $120 scholarship, allowing two children to attend the Civic School of Theatre Arts’ Kidsplay Kamp, and then sponsored the musical “Hairspray.”

O-A-K employees also are encouraged to help support the community outside of work, and most are actively involved with local organizations that range from youth league baseball coaching to serving on nonprofit boards.

O-A-K, ranked second among the Top Area General Contractors in the Grand Rapids Business Journal Book of Lists this year, has annual revenue of about $216 million, averaged over the past five years, and about 170 to 180 full-time employees, according to Schoonveld.

He said O-A-K reduced its fulltime employee headcount when the full impact of the recession began being felt in 2009, but “on a positive note, this year I think we’ve added about six to 10 positions.”

Those new hires included a project manager, an architect, two assistant on-site superintendents and some skilled trades workers and laborers.

The median tenure for employees in O-A-K’s Michigan operations is 16 years, which the company said is almost 12 years longer than the average employee tenure in the U.S. construction industry, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"The majority of the people we hire end up retiring from our company decades later,” which makes O-A-K more like a family, said Schoonveld, who has been with the company for 33 years.

When O-A-K completed the $25 million Steelcase Wood Furniture Plant in 2001, “it was the biggest LEED-certified manufacturing facility in the world,” said Schoonveld. The company also played an integral role in the Herman Miller “GreenHouse” project, and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, with a number of LEED-accredited professionals on staff.

The company is primarily focused on West Michigan, although it has worked on projects in about three dozen states, including showrooms for Herman Miller. O-A-K has worked on projects in Alaska and other states for the National Weather Service.

“We don’t actively pursue work out of the (West Michigan) area, but for our clients, we will travel,” said Schoonveld.

He said the boom time for the construction industry in West Michigan was the late 1990s, after which it slowed down somewhat. However, the numerous major medical facility projects on the Grand Rapids Medical Mile “had a positive impact” well into the 2000s. When those were completed and the economy plunged in 2008, “money dried up for projects.”

“For us, we probably didn’t notice as much until 2009” because O-A-K also does a lot of municipal and K-12 school construction.

“We don’t focus a whole lot” on retail facilities construction, Schoonveld said, adding that means O-A-K may miss out on some of the action in boom times when retail construction is fast and furious — but it’s a good thing when retail projects are dead in the water, as they are now.

“We’ve been fortunate. So far we’ve weathered it well,” said Schoonveld.

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