Inside Track: Military service becomes basic training for life, career
Universal Mind’s Brad Ruiter gains confidence to blaze a tech trail.
It was in Brad Ruiter’s blood to go into the military.
His father, grandfather and various male family members had all served. And now in 1991, just as the Gulf War was winding down, it was his turn — and not his alone.
“My twin brother and I joined the military at the same time, same day, same unit, same (Military Occupational Specialty), same basic training facility, same company,” he said.
The Ruiters joined the military police branch of the Army National Guard. Brad Ruiter was promoted to the role of specialist before leaving the military after he put in his four years.
Those four years became the foundation for his professional years in the technology industry.
“I realized I could do anything I wanted to do. In terms of career-defining moments, that episode caused me to think, ‘I can go anywhere and do anything,’” he said. “I think it was maybe more a confidence thing than anything else. I felt undaunted by anything, which is a cool feeling.”
Ruiter is vice president of user experience at digital agency Universal Mind in Grand Rapids.
“We kind of try to solve experience problems, friction points with organizations either trying to reach internal people or external people,” Ruiter said. “My role is to lead this studio — (plus) Dallas and Denver — of experience design people. My job is to orchestrate all those folks.”
Ruiter was born in Holland and graduated from Holland High School in 1988. As a kid, he’d wanted to become a cop but grew more interested in behavioral science in high school. He attended Spring Arbor University, leaving after two years of studying communications. His big takeaway from those years was his experience studying radio.
“The biggest rule in radio is ‘if you make a mistake, never acknowledge the mistake because it tends to amplify it.’ And I think in my business life, I still acknowledge the mistake — hindsight is 20/20 — but I never dwell on it,” he said.
“I keep pushing forward, and in radio I think you do the same. You stutter-step, but then you keep pushing.”
After leaving Spring Arbor, he came home and got a job working for an energy-efficient-lighting company called Pro Light. Six months into working in the factory there, Ruiter felt “I can’t do this.
“I watched everybody just drone in,” he said. “I pulled the ripcord and joined the military.”
After the military, Ruiter returned to Pro Light, this time in the office as a sales rep. His next job was with Double J Molding, a plastic-molding company out of South Haven. Next came what he considers his “big break”: joining Holland-based furniture manufacturer Haworth in about 1998.
“I was extremely under-qualified for the position. But I was always taught ‘go bigger than what you are,’ so I was like, ‘I’m going to roll the dice and see what happens,’” he said.
“That was sort of the start for me in the technology realm especially, where it became the core of what I did. I always had a passion for it, but that’s where it came to fruition.”
Looking back on many jobs, Ruiter reflected that every one of them had a component that helped him discover what he does really well. He’s a “watcher of people,” he said, and his favorite thing to watch and model himself after is good leadership.
The two leaders that stood out to him the most were Rick Perkins, the president of Pro Light, and Jeff English, who had served in a number of roles at Haworth.
“Rick had a profound effect on me early in my career just because he let me ‘roll the dice,’” Ruiter said. “Jeff modeled what a leader really does, so I watched what he did pretty emphatically. He was with Haworth for like 20 years, and his whole goal was ‘you run as fast as you can, and I’ll move stuff out of the way.’”
While at Haworth, Ruiter got picked up by Fuel Interactive, a web and app design agency in Grand Rapids. He stayed there from 1999-2002 and remembers how Sept. 11, 2001, affected technology businesses. Mid-level tech companies struggled hard. If they didn’t already have a long history or a lot of cash in the bank, some went under.
“Homeland Security got developed that same year, and our big break was we provided wireless service when they did Homeland Security interviews, because nobody wanted to drop copper wires in when they did their connected services. They just kept buying and buying from us for access.”
After spending approximately three years working 80-90 hours a week, Ruiter — exhibiting his trademark confidence — sold his stock with Fuel Interactive for one dollar and walked away without looking back. In 2004, he rejoined Haworth, working in advanced customer technologies.
In 2010, Ruiter joined Universal Mind. After six years there, he said he’s content. At other places, he hit walls. At Universal Mind, in all this time he hasn’t hit one yet.
“I’ve said to our CEO, I’ve always been in pursuit of what the dream job is. To me this is the dream. This is everything I kind of hoped for: working with big companies, helping them figure out complicated problems, always reaching for the next thing,” he said. This is the first job that gives him that feeling of continual accomplishment.
“My worst day here has been (better than) some of my best at other companies,” he said.
Ruiter is excited for the growth of Grand Rapids, which he said is “on the up” when it comes to technology jobs and talent.
“When we talk with Fortune 500 companies … they are hearing about Grand Rapids. We have such a design history and legacy, which is a pretty powerful play,” he said. “For all of us that are in this field, whether you’re in marketing, or digital like we do, design is noticed here.”
In a career of solving people’s problems — their technology problems in particular — Ruiter looks back on four years as a training ground for all his problem-solving.
“I think from the moment I came out of the military, I had a perspective that all was possible. I was unshaken by anything,” he said.
“There’ve been a lot of life events in between the military and where I am at today … that should’ve shaken me a little, but I’ve always walked though going, ‘OK, so it’s always assess, pivot, attack.’ The military has allowed me to figure out how to assess a situation, pivot the strategy and always have a Plan B.
“That mentality has made me successful. (There’s) no fear of ‘What do you have to lose?’”