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F&V reaches growth milestone

Engineering firm celebrates expansion, plans for new leadership.

September 8, 2017
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Fleis and VandenBrink will celebrate its 25th anniversary in January, and odds are good the company will look quite different in the next 25 years.

Larry Fleis, along with friend and business partner Steve VandenBrink, started the multi-discipline engineering and architectural firm in Grand Rapids in 1993.

“Considering that our company started with just Steve and I and has grown to over 200 (employees) is incredible to me,” Fleis said. “We’ve grown a client base and expanded services in a Michigan market that really hasn’t grown that much since we started.”

F&V now has seven offices in Michigan and two in Indiana, as well as two sister companies, FV Construction, and FV Operations and Resource Management Inc. The company also doubled its revenue in the past four years and, in August, celebrated the hiring of its 200th employee.

In the beginning, the company only offered standard municipal engineering services — water, sewer and road work — but with an expanding client basis, it eventually included environmental work, process, survey, design-build, water and wastewater operations, traffic, architectural, landscape architectural and emergency management services.

“Experienced professionals from other backgrounds have brought new ideas, as well as validated that many of our processes are as good as or better than what they have seen,” said Paul Galdes, F&V president and the first engineer hired by the company. “The growth has also brought in significant young talent and energy.”

Galdes also attributed the firm’s growth to the foundation of trust that it establishes with its clients.

“There is nothing more satisfying to me than when a client says that they trust that we will make recommendations or act in their best interest,” he said. “Our staff knows that doing what’s right for the client only leads to more work in the long term.”

Fleis and VandenBrink had long ago established plans to turn over leadership of the company to their employees. VandenBrink left F&V in 2015, and Fleis announced early in August his own transition away from the company.

The two partners enrolled the company in a principal/associate program in 2006 to promote leadership and help with the ownership transition.

“When Steve and I realized the company was rapidly growing, we also recognized the need to put staff in leadership positions to handle different segments of the business,” Fleis said.

The program encourages new principals and associates to buy stock in the company and develop a leadership mentality. In 2016, the company promoted two associates to the role of senior associate and two additional senior associates were added in 2017. The firm has five principals and 14 associates.

Fleis and VandenBrink also looked for options through which nonleadership staff could buy out the company when it came time for them to leave. The two decided to enroll the company in an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), which allows employees to accumulate stock in the company.

“A lot of companies have to sell to outsiders because the staff can’t afford to buy out the founders,” Fleis explained. “We did a lot of research and decided to proceed with an ESOP program.”

F&V’s ESOP is funded using a 401(k) match. The fund continues to accumulate and is available to buy out shareholders that are leaving the firm.

Fleis and VandenBrink owned about 80 percent of F&V in 2005 and 50 percent in 2013. Now, principals and associates own more than 50 percent of the company, while other staff owns 20 percent.

The firm faced tough years during the recession but was able to not only stay afloat but also continue growing in an industry where most competitors went bankrupt or had to cut their staff. Fleis attributed part of his company’s success to the quality of the people he hired.

“The heart of the matter is transferring leadership,” Fleis said, “when you have people step up to the plate and take over everything. The next questions are where do we go next? How do we keep getting better at what we do?”

The new owners of F&V already are working on answering those questions.

“The future is bright,” Galdes said. “I really believe that our employees can take this company to all new heights if they choose and continue valuing the things F&V has traditionally valued.”

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