Hansen Crosses Many Bridges

July 11, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — How does a would-be biologist end up handling the books for one of the city’s larger commercial brokerage and develop-ment firms? The answer is decades long, because that’s how much time it took Howard Hansen to go from being a budding scientist to president and chief financial officer of Blue Bridge Ventures LLC.

Hansen’s remarkable journey started after he graduated from Aquinas College in 1971. Then, the Grand Rapids native was headed to MSU for his post-graduate work and to carve out a career path that would eventually lead him into the medical field. But before he ever arrived in East Lansing, Hansen said he “badgered” his way into a job at Saint Mary’s Hospital.

After three years at Saints, Doug Vaughan asked him to take over as budget director and controller at the hospital, despite the fact that Hansen never studied business or accounting as part of his biology course work. Vaughan told him that his acute knowledge of how the hospital operated was why he wanted Hansen to take the job. Hansen took Vaughan up on his offer and then took accounting classes at night.

“It was a really wonderful experience for me. It really gave me some focus and some direction in my life, one that I never thought I’d be taking,” he said.

Hansen spent about six years at Saints and then became COO and CFO at Anderson Metal Service. He had some ownership in the firm’s building and stayed there for 24 years. Hansen voluntarily left the metal supplier two years ago, but only because the tool and die industry, the company’s customers, had hit on hard economic times.

“We were faced with a dilemma. Nobody was putting any pressure on me at the time, but I sat there one night in the dark thinking about what I was going to do. I knew I had to do layoffs and make some cuts. I thought, I’ve worked with these people for 10 and 15 years, how can I tell them they don’t have a job?” he said.

“Then it dawned on me: The best way to do that is to lead by example. So I decided to take myself out.”

When the news leaked out that Anderson was closing, Hansen got a call from Blue Bridge asking if the building was available, as the firm had some buyers interested in the plant. That was when he met Jack Buchanan, a well-known commercial Realtor who had recently started Blue Bridge as a brokerage and development company. Hansen said he was duly impressed with how Blue Bridge handled the sale, even though the building’s owners weren’t exactly in the best position to negotiate.

“This is what convinced me that I really liked Jack and the way he does things. We were at the closing table and there was a technicality in the contract which really would have saved Jack and that group just under $20,000, money that was due to us,” he said. “It wasn’t in the closing documents and I thought they were going to take advantage of that situation.”

But Hansen said Buchanan didn’t take advantage of anyone. Instead, he personally saw to it that the building’s sellers got all the money they were entitled to.

“He didn’t have to do that. They were perfectly within their rights not to. But they also understood the intention of what we were trying to accomplish in this transaction.”

Hansen was all set to sell houses after the sale, having just earned his real estate license, when Buchanan called and offered him a spot with Blue Bridge as a financial consultant. A short time later, Buchanan hired Hansen as the firm’s president and CFO, a move which gave him a new office, a new title, and a new outlook on life.

“After 50 years of feeling like I had arrived and that I was this font of knowledge, Jack really taught me a whole new way of thinking, and that is to challenge everything,” he said. “I’ve often said to people that I think the only thing that Jack accepts as a rule is gravity.”

Vaughan and Buchanan, however, weren’t the only ones who played major roles in shaping Hansen’s career. His mom and dad can claim a generous slice of that credit, too.

“The things that really guided me were principles that my parents had instilled in us. One was, everybody had to be treated with respect. Just because you dressed differently or lived in a different place didn’t mean that you were better than anybody else,” he said.

“With that tenet in mind, I’ve always had the ability to talk to everybody and not try to classify people as better or less than myself. I think that really helped me tremendously at the hospital especially, because I went downstairs and folded laundry with people and sat in board meetings.

“The other one was about having integrity and never lying, because if you did that you could expect to be treated in the same manner.”

At Blue Bridge, Hansen doesn’t fold any laundry. But he does counsel the young and energetic staff there, who consider him the “dad” of the firm. In turn, Hansen sees the “kids” at Blue Bridge as an extended family. He said the people there are what he likes best about going to work each day.

“That is really what these people, especially Jack, are all about,” he said. “Families are first here, above the job, and I love these people. These people are fun to work with and they work incredible hours. It’s not like I have to direct them.”

As for his immediate family, Hansen has been married to Terri for 28 years and they have a son and a daughter, Ryan and Meghan. Terri handles intellectual property for Bissell Inc. She and Howard are keeping themselves busy nowadays by laying out their plans for a new house they’re building. They also golf, read and just try to relax together, whenever that’s possible. Their favorite relaxation spot is Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, especially in the winter.

So three decades later the would-be biologist has traded in his microscope and slides for a calculator and a set of financial ledgers. But, no scientific regrets here. Not a one. Hansen told the Business Journal that he couldn’t be happier with the way his life has turned out, and that he is eagerly looking forward to his future with Blue Bridge.

“I can’t imagine a nicer place to work. I wish I could package this up for everybody,” he said.

“I want to take the brokerage side of our business to the next level, and I want to stimulate other development projects besides our downtown hotel project,” he added. “Jack pretty much lets everybody take the reins and go with it, and I like to do the same thing. It’s just amazing what these people can do with a little freedom to act.”    

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