Progressive AE Turns 40 This Year

July 18, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — If life actually does begin at 40, then Progressive AE of Grand Rapids has an awful lot of living left to do.

One of the region’s most honored architectural and engineering firms turns 40 this year and marks four decades of success, growth and community involvement. Over those years, the highpoint for the company arguably came last year when the Michigan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects awarded Progressive AE the Architecture Firm Award.

It’s the highest praise that AIA Michigan can give a design company, and Progressive AE was the first firm not located in metro Detroit to be accorded that honor.

“It was obvious to us that Progressive has provided a high level of service to their clients for many years, and did it in a way that was consistent with high design ideals,” said Timothy Casai, AIA Michigan president last year.

“We’re not really picking a firm of the year for any one particular design,” he added. “It really is something that develops over a long period of time.”

As Casai pointed out, time may be the most vital element of success. Time allows a firm to mature, learn the ins and outs, adapt to change and even make it happen on occasion. But getting the time to do those things is a challenge in itself.

So how has Progressive AE been able to last so long? The Business Journal asked four members of the company’s leadership team to respond to that question.

CEO and Chairman Raymond Fix said the firm’s ability to adapt and evolve to constantly changing market conditions was a major reason. His most significant market response that Progressive made? Merging Progressive Engineering with KSV Architects back in 1985 to become a full-service design firm.

“At that point in time, our clients were the architects but they were hiring their own engineers, and we could kind of see the handwriting on the wall then,” said Fix, who has been with Progressive AE for 29 years.

“If we didn’t do something, they eventually would be doing their own engineering work and we would be having a much smaller piece of the work that was going on in the community.”

Senior Vice President of Design Phillip Lundwall has been at Progressive since 1985 and said a key to the company’s long and flourishing tenure was the emphasis the company places on excellence, both in its people and its work.

“We have a Council for Excellence that deals with nothing but quality, and I think our high quality is, to me, one of the reasons that we have been able to sustain ourselves here,” he said.

“There aren’t any second-class projects here. We work for excellence in every single one in architecture, engineering and in environmental design. It’s a high priority in our practice.”

Senior Vice President of Facility Design Brian Craig felt the attention that Progressive has paid to its clients was a vital factor. He said that consideration has allowed the firm to help solve clients’ problems in a manner that has surpassed their expectations. He added that the firm has had a lot of great clients over the years.

Craig also felt that the company’s culture has contributed to the firm’s success.

“That extends to our clients when we talk about listening to them. We talk about learning from them and learning together. We talk about the leadership we provide,” said Craig, who has been with Progressive for 17 years. “But I think the external reason is our focus on the client.”

Senior Vice President of Marketing Kathleen Ponitz, who arrived at Progressive the same time Lundwall did, added that the people who have worked there have consistently done so as a team, an aspect she felt also accounted for the firm’s longevity and the repeat business that Progressive has enjoyed.

“I think what we have here is a real teaming and sharing situation. The way the company is structured is that we participate in the sharing of the challenges, as well as the rewards. The fact that everybody is all for one and one for all has made a difference,” she said.

“That has helped with the retention and the loyalty, which helps with clients because clients deal with the same core people year after year.”

How about a favorite Progressive AE project? Fix said it often is the last one he worked on, as it’s always satisfying to become immersed in a project and then see it become a reality. Lundwall and Ponitz agreed that the next project is always their favorite because the anticipation of designing and marketing it is a feeling hard to match. Craig said it’s all of them because each one carried its own personally rewarding moments.

To illustrate how Progressive has grown over the years, Craig recalled when he joined the firm in 1986 his first job was to design the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Grand Haven, a $2.2 million project. Fast-forwarding the Progressive story to 1997 finds the firm being awarded a $212 million project, which later became known as DeVos Place. For the four, being a part of the city’s new convention center ranks right up there with the statewide recognition the firm received from its peer group last year.

“We’ve had a number of high-profile projects that have impacted the community, but we certainly take a lot of satisfaction from the convention center,” said Fix. “It has been a lot of fun to work on.”

Progressive AE has designed DeVos Place in tandem with Ellerbe Becket of Minneapolis. The exhibit space opens in December. And Lundwall is certain that after that space opens its doors in the city, other doors will open for the city.

“It’s a powerful architectural form that relates to the spirit of Grand Rapids,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a real statement for Grand Rapids. It’s going to be a powerful influence for the further development of Grand Rapids.”           

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