Inside Track: Working from the ground up
Drive and experience have built a career for minority business leader Michael Verhulst.
The first time Michael Verhulst realized he was part of a racial minority group was in sixth grade.
Verhulst, Wolverine Building Group’s vice president of business development, had just moved to Grand Rapids from out west. His parents, who were natives of Grand Rapids, had adopted him when he was a baby. They had spent the last several years travelling through states like New Mexico and Montana, working with the Christian Reformed Church’s World Missions. Now they had returned to their roots.
Living in the West, Verhulst had been surrounded by Hispanic and Native American communities. In Michigan, however, he was one of the very few children attending Oakdale Christian School who had darker skin.
“During that process, I had a unique advantage because I was really able to be friends with all the CRC world, and then I was also able to relate and be really good friends with the minority community, too. I was kind of in the middle. I had the best of both worlds and I had some unique advantages other kids didn’t have,” he said.
“When I was younger, it was easier to go to someone’s house, or date this girl, or go to an event because I had the last name ‘Verhulst.’ On a small scale, that name is very beneficial.”
Over the course of his successful career, Verhulst has made an impact on local minority communities.
The former owner of Summit Landscape Management Inc., which won the Minority Small Business of the Year Award in 2005, Verhulst has served in numerous groups dedicated to helping minorities. He currently chairs the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association, facilitates a roundtable group called the Minority Business Enterprise and is the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce vice chairperson at large.
He is convinced West Michigan’s construction industry is ripe for incorporating more diversity.
“I think the message is totally different than it was 20 years ago. I think everybody knows it’s imperative for them to change that process in their businesses, whether it’s through hiring or giving back in the community,” he said.
“I think people are just doing things differently than they did 20 years ago.”
Verhulst got his first job in the landscaping business when he was about 13. He started — quite literally — at ground level, pulling weeds for Herm Witte, owner of Wyoming-based Witte Lawn Maintenance Inc. Witte would pick him up from school every day and take him to a work site until about 5:30 p.m.
Verhulst enjoyed the hands-on experience, and said he wishes more kids, particularly troubled youth, would be given opportunities to get into the construction industry at an early age like he did.
“There’s a lot of kids who don’t have the opportunity to go to college, so it’d be nice for them to not get discouraged and think they can’t be a success in life because they can’t go to college due to whatever hardships they have at home,” he said.
“But if they can get into the working world at an earlier age, you’d probably fix a lot of people on the streets. You’d create a different mentality in the urban core.”
He continued to work for Witte until graduating from Grand Rapids Christian High School in 1985, when he entered the military, joining the 2nd Cavalry Airborne Squadron. He spent two years serving in the army before leaving as E3 Private First Class in 1988.
Verhulst said being in the military gave him the drive to want to start his own business.
“It taught me a lot of drive, actually, because when you’re in the military, everything goes by seniority. So you really have people who are quite unintelligent who are your seniors — you know what I mean?” he said.
“You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re all going to die. If people like this are above me, I never want to do this again. I want to go run my own business.’ So that was really instrumental for me — learning patience, learning to make the right moves and being assertive, too.”
After his military service, Verhulst enrolled at what was then Davenport College, but after a year he returned to working for Witte Lawn full time. He worked his way up over the next eight years, and eventually came to the point where he realized it was time to start his own business.
“Dick Lacks Jr. (CEO of Lacks Enterprises) was a client of mine. He basically called me one night at home and said, ‘You need to do something. You’re very talented at what you do, you’re good with people. … You need to get on your own. ... I’ll be your first customer; I’ll be loyal.’”
In 1998, Verhulst and Bill Vander Velde formed Grand Rapids-based Summit Landscape Management, a full-service landscape company. Verhulst remembers it as his “first experience with not having access to capital” because some banks generally see minority business owners as financial risks, he said.
“The first bank I went to when I started my business said, ‘No, you need 60 percent down.’ And I had, I want to say, $150,000 to $200,000 in signed contracts … by significant companies. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
When asked why he believes the bank didn’t give him the loan, Verhulst responded, “Why do you think?
“In the minority community, one bad apple spoils the lot and you don’t get a second chance. In the white community, it seems one bad apple will get thrown out of the bucket, but everyone else still gets a chance,” he said.
“One bad apple can ruin a lot for people like me — people of color. And that still goes on a little bit today, too. It’s not as prevalent, but there are still challenges for minority businesses.”
Verhulst has proved he was no “bad apple.” He and Vander Velde “doubled that business every year for I don’t even know how many years,” he said.
In 2004, the two started Summit Tree Service, a full-service tree company, and in 2008, they started i4 Group Inc., a low-impact development company.
He credits much of his business success to values he learned from Witte.
“Witte taught you your core values: integrity, quality, excellence, community. And for me it would also be vision because I knew what I wanted to do when I left there,” he said. “Herm was really good at teaching me that.”
Last year, Verhulst decided that, at age 47, it was time to take on a new challenge. He joined Wolverine Building Group, for which he had done projects in the past.
“You get to be close to 50 years old, and you’re like, I’ve seen so many friends who get to 52 or 53 and they say, “Crap, I missed the cutoff date to go do something else or have a new challenge.’ Once you’re past that stage, you’re in a rut. You’re stuck. So I took a chance,” he said.
As for his future plans, Verhulst is committed to continue trying to make an economic difference for the minority community of West Michigan.
“At what point are we going to have a minority be a DeVos or a Wege? … In the minority community, it’d be great to see a minority be able to scale, whether it’s as a business or as an individual, to get to that point,” he said. “I hope I’d get to see that someday.”