Inside Track: Strong work, mentors propel Wickstrom
President and future CEO of Erhardt Construction credits childhood chores and early field experience for career success.
As Erhardt Construction says goodbye to its longtime chairman and CEO, Joe Erhardt, the company welcomes a familiar face. Ben Wickstrom has served as president since 2011, and as the future owner of the company he’s been a team member of since 1998, he remains committed to teamwork and quality service.
Wickstrom always knew he enjoyed working with his hands. Born and raised in Menomonie, Wisconsin, he developed a strong work ethic living on his grandparents’ farm.
“If something needed to be done, we just did it,” he said.
Wickstrom spent most of his childhood doing small chores around the farm. His first paying job was running a paper route when he was 11 years old. He also trimmed Christmas trees during the summer.
After his senior year of high school, Wickstrom started looking for a summer job to help him pay his way through college. Through a family friend, who was a foreman at Menomonie Builders, the town’s local construction firm, he secured a job as a general laborer.
The first construction company Wickstrom worked for was a small commercial and residential builder. Through his work, he became familiar with working on housing, gas stations, doctors offices, vet clinics and other small-to-medium-sized projects.
“I did a little bit of everything that first summer,” Wickstrom said. “Mostly, I became intimate with the wheelbarrow.”
Being the “young kid” on the crew, Wickstrom often was tasked with the heavy-lifting jobs, but he faced it with hard work and perseverance.
“It was that summer that I fell in love with construction,” he said.
Wickstrom came back to Menomonie Builders the next two summers afterward. He worked on almost every crew, from concrete to masonry. He loved it so much, he said, that he would spend his Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks off from college working with the company.
The company did almost all of its own labor with its own crews, minus plumbing, mechanical and electrical work. Wickstrom gained experience in concrete, masonry, drywall, steel and framing, as well as how all the different crews work together.
“That field experience, I think, has been really valuable to me and my career,” he said.
Between periods of acquiring field knowledge, Wickstrom spent his college career studying civil engineering with an emphasis in structural engineering at Michigan Technological University. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1998.
Coming out of college, Wickstrom had two choices. He could go the route that he said a lot of civil engineering graduates take, which is to work in design, but he knew he always wanted to go back to construction.
Shortly after graduation, he applied to Erhardt Construction. Based on his research on the company, he knew it was somewhere he wanted to work. The company had completed Van Andel Arena shortly before Wickstrom graduated from Michigan Tech.
“What attracted me to the company was that we were a big enough company to do pretty much any project in West Michigan,” he said.
Wickstrom said he was attracted to what he called the unique combination of a small-company feel with large company capabilities. He started his career as an assistant project manager and was promoted to senior project manager in 2002.
Wickstrom managed mostly senior living and wastewater projects, including wastewater projects for the city of Grand Rapids and the city of Wyoming.
His career eventually propelled him to higher positions of leadership within the company. Wickstrom attributed his success partly to two people he identified as great mentors who invested and believed in him.
“I wouldn’t have done it on my own,” he said.
Wickstrom’s first mentor was Dale Bramer, who was senior vice president at the time. Wickstrom attributed everything he knows about leading projects and serving customers and clients to Bramer’s mentorship.
Erhardt became Wickstrom’s second mentor when he moved into the executive sphere.
“Joe taught me how to run a business the right way,” Wickstrom explained.
Beyond mentorship, Wickstrom said he also invested in himself. He always set the goal to be the best at whatever he did.
“When I was an assistant project manager, I wanted to be the best assistant project manager that I could be, and it was the same at every step along the way,” he said.
A believer in lifelong learning, Wickstrom said he always made sure he was learning from others around him — other people, elders and people who came before him.
“I just try to soak up all that knowledge and information like a sponge,” he said.
In 2006, Wickstrom moved up into the executive world when he was promoted to vice president of construction operations. In that position, he was responsible for every project within the company. In 2011, he was promoted to president.
Wickstrom emphasized the importance of his company’s team atmosphere. He said there’s no single project he views as his personal accomplishment but rather an accomplishment of Erhardt Construction. The company has built many signature downtown projects going back to the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
“We have a proud history of downtown projects but also we have a list of projects in the industrial sector,” he said. “We do a lot of churches, higher ed — colleges and universities — that’s an important market for us.”
Wickstrom soon will ascend to CEO of Erhardt Construction. Erhardt recently announced his plan for retirement, effective Dec. 31, after 42 years with the company. Wickstrom assured there would be no sudden changes with the company, as Erhardt’s retirement is the culmination of an eight-year process of transferring leadership.
“We have growth plans, so strategically, my vision has been in place for a few years now, and that’s to continue to build on our solid reputation for quality work and professionalism and remarkable customer service, and that’s what this company was built on,” Wickstrom said.
The company’s plans involve growing its presence primarily in the West Michigan market. Wickstrom wants to keep business close to home, so the company can maintain strong relationships with its clients and so that it doesn’t overstretch its workers. He said his first thoughts every morning are about providing work opportunities for them, so they can go home and provide for their families.
“I like to get our people sleeping in their own beds and at home with their own families at night,” he emphasized.
Wickstrom also views the company as an extended family. He gave a lot of credit to his leadership team. As he completes his transition to CEO, he still will rely on his vice president, Taggart Town, senior estimator, Stan Elenbaas, and director of project development, Ryan Formsma, as they move forward with future plans.
He is particularly grateful for the opportunity to lead “a great company with great people.”
“I firmly believe that I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us,” Wickstrom said, “and it’s just a great honor to be involved with so many great people… and to have this opportunity to carry the flag going forward.”
Possibly the greatest inspiration for Wickstrom, he said, is his mother, who worked as a schoolteacher. Knowing the effort she put into teaching children and giving them the tools to succeed left an impression on him to be the best at whatever he did.
“I think I learned my work ethic from my mom,” he said. “The passion that she put into teaching kids — I remember that to this day. Not just the hours, but the thoroughness in preparation.”