Progressive AE priming for its next 50 years

June 8, 2012
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In 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game; Johnny Carson was named host of the “Tonight Show”; Gene Chandler had a No. 1 hit with “Duke of Earl”; and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” was the year’s top-grossing film. Each one turned out to be a timeless classic.

That same year another timeless classic made its debut: Progressive AE.

Sam Feravich and three other engineers in the mechanical and electrical fields began a small company in 1962, known then as Progressive Engineering. Four years later, Progressive added a civil engineering group to the firm and, interestingly, architects became the majority of the company’s clientele.

One of those key clients was a small architectural firm in Holland called KSV Architects. After working together on quite a few projects, the two firms merged in 1985 to form Progressive Architecture Engineering Planning. In 1999, the company’s name became Progressive AE.

The following year the Grand Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects named Progressive its Firm of the Year. Just two years later, AIA Michigan named it Firm of the Year; Progressive was the first company outside of the Detroit region to capture that honor.

What began a half-century ago as a small engineering company with a staff of four has become a full-service design firm with 130 employees. “We had talked about forming our own company for years. They told us we were crazy for trying. They said we’d be back in 90 days with our hats in hands,” said Feravich, who is retired and one of only three presidents the firm has had over its history.

Fast forward to today: Progressive President Brad Thomas said the firm’s history has had a tremendous impact on its current status. “Often when you’re talking to firms that claim to be full service, one of the questions that I’m asked by clients as an AE firm is: Are you a big A and a little E, or are you a big E, little A? That is more often the case because one is often stronger than the other,” said Thomas.

“What I will tell you is because of our strong engineering heritage, Progressive is a big A and a big E, and that is a little unique in our industry.”

Thomas, who became president in 2004 when Ray Fix retired after 11 years in the post, felt the company’s past has helped Progressive carve out its future. “One thing that I would say continues to be very strong to this date that goes right back to our origin is a very strong entrepreneurial spirit. That is something that the founders had. It’s not as though they were running from anything; they just wanted to start something and build,” said Thomas.

“And to this date, that continues to be the case. There is a culture of ownership and entrepreneurial spirit here that continues to thrive today.”

Just three years ago, Progressive AE became the first firm of its type in North America to earn carbon-neutral status. The same year, its Four Mile Road headquarters earned LEED SB Silver certification status. And just a few months ago, Progressive launched its first mobile technology app to assist project teams in gaining LEED certification.

Later this week, Progressive will hold a small, private get-together to celebrate its first 50 years. But in continuing its celebratory tradition of giving back to a community that has supported it for five decades, the firm has partnered with some of its clients and turned its anniversary focus toward the John Ball Zoo.

“We are sponsoring 50 animals at the John Ball Zoo through the Footsteps to the Future Animal Sponsorship Program. Our donation will support a project to build enclosures for rescued chimpanzees in the Congo,” said Kathleen Ponitz, a principal at Progressive.

“We are donating these ‘sponsored’ animals to five local organizations: Blandford School, John Ball Zoo School, Grand Rapids Public Schools, the Kent Intermediate School District and the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. These organizations will be able to use the information about their animals and the project in the Congo in their curriculums,” she said.

Thomas pointed out that the last few years have been interesting for the industry, causing Progressive to think about where it is going and where its field is headed. That thought process has led the company to see facilities as “strategic contributors rather than static places.”

“That is where the whole performance-based design strategy is feeding in, as it’s not all about the building. Our industry is often plagued with a sense that we’re designing for the sake of design or building monuments. What we’ve really recognized is the facility, the building, is a vehicle through which a client’s business or organization accomplishes its mission. We’re really focusing on how strategically it contributes,” said Thomas.

“We have been investing in bringing what I would consider nontraditional skills into the firm and into the service. We talk about how we’re creative people who think strategically; we’re also bringing in strategic people who think creatively to the table. There is the wonderful opportunity for us to challenge the status quo, and what better way to do that than through new ways of thinking and new ways of working. And that’s what we’re really excited about in moving forward.”

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