Construction and Small Business & Startups

Construction firm is on the rise

Jeff DeVries overcomes lull in business 10 years ago, happy to be living ‘the American Dream.’

March 24, 2017
| By Pat Evans |
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Jeff DeVries thinks his company, J.B. Builders of Grand Rapids, is gaining momentum.

The framing and general trade contracting firm generated $2 million in labor sales last year, with early estimations at $3 million this year. But 10 years ago, DeVries was left wondering what he was doing with his life.

He had initially launched the business in 2005 framing houses, but as the residential building market bottom fell out from underneath the United States, he shifted to commercial projects. He started with tiny projects, from caulking windows to building shelves, before Bazzani Building Co. gave him a shot with Full Circle Lofts in Allendale.

In 2007, he had four guys working for him.

“Then things got worse — a lot worse — and I had to let them all off and it was back to square one,” DeVries said. “It was terrible, we really felt we were gaining momentum and then there was this lull where I felt like I couldn’t give it away. It was really painful.”

He wasn’t sure if the economy was fully to blame, as he watched his wife and most of his friends head to work.

Now, the lull is over, and J.B. Builders currently is working on 16 projects and about to set out on the framing of Diamond Place, the $42-million mixed-use apartment complex on Michigan Street. The project will include approximately 150,000 square feet of rough framing.

J.B. Builders now has 30 employees and is seeing a more positive outlook in the near future in West Michigan. DeVries said the firm works with multiple general contractors, including Pioneer Construction, CD Barnes, Orion Construction and First Companies.

Many of J.B Builders’ projects aren’t nearly as large as Diamond Place, however, and the company’s projects can last between a few weeks for a restaurant build out to a year for larger developments.

Wood framing has been surging as well, DeVries said, as steel costs continue to climb.

“It’s cheaper,” he said. “Plus, it’s easier to remodel, is easier and quicker.”

To help set his framing company apart from others, DeVries said he has made a firm commitment to safety. J.B. Builders’ general tradesmen wear full safety gear, even when working next to painters, he said. The firm has a full-time safety director and performs daily safety reports, weekly safety meetings and on-site training.

In the firm’s 11 years, it’s had no recordable accidents and no missed workdays.

DeVries’ commitment to safety came early in his career, when he went on a steep-sloping roof on his third or fourth day on the job and felt very unsafe. He wants his employees to feel safe, and he wants to know he doesn’t have to worry about them on a job.

“We want to separate ourselves from some of the bad habits this industry has a tendency to have,” he said. “When it’s you, you don’t think something bad will happen to you, but it’s a split second for something bad to happen if you’re not prepared.”

With a strong relationship forged with many of the area general contractors, DeVries doesn’t feel like the West Michigan economy will slow down any time soon. He said he expects there to be at least four more years of strong building activity, as the region continues to grow its population and major anchor projects beget small ancillary projects, such as coffee shops and dentist offices.

“It’s tough in this economy, but we don’t over commit and underperform,” he said. “It’s a wild ride.”

Despite his optimism, DeVries remembers the times he had nearly nothing.

“We do our best to keep a good eye on what’s coming and not overspend,” he said. “I remember what it was to not have anything, so it’s easy for me to pull back and say, ‘What do we need to do the work safely and correctly?’”

For a business owner who didn’t pursue a college degree following high school because of dyslexia and ADD, DeVries said he couldn’t be happier.

“Without a formal college education, this is the American Dream,” DeVries said. “We just try to take things slow, be thankful and do the right thing.”

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