Triangle Associates Celebrates 90 Years

April 28, 2008
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Craig S. Datema, CEO and president of Triangle Associates, sits across the table smiling. To his left sits Mitchell G. Watt, vice president and chief business development officer, wearing the same smile — the kind of smile that makes every day feel like casual-dress Friday. With the company coming off its most successful year in its history, smiles have been contagious.

“We’ve been doing our associates’ reviews over the last month or so,” said Datema. “I stopped in on one of our coordinators, a woman who’s been with us for a number of years — she’s a very hard worker, very quiet. She’s got piles and piles of paper on her desk. I said, ‘Hey, are how things going?’ She said, ‘You know what, this has been the most fun year since I’ve been here. I’m working with some great people and I’m really just enjoying it.’”

Triangle Associates is currently celebrating its 90th year of business, and the firm projects that this year it will top last year’s numbers of more than $100 million in annual sales — a long way from the small company that started in 1918.

George Datema founded the construction company, then called George Datema & Sons, with the thought of creating a workplace for his son, Roy. The company’s first commercial building went up in 1925 at 2160 Plainfield Ave. The Great Depression forced George and Roy to move the business to Roy’s home. In 1934, the company built the first Meijer’s store in Greenville. Twenty years later, the third generation of Datemas joined the company, when Roy Datema’s son, Roy Datema Jr., signed on. Some notable projects in the following years were Hall Street Elementary School and Central Reformed Church.

In 1960, Roy Jr. created Triangle Associates with his brothers-in-law Kenneth Ripma and Charles Miller Jr., in order to expand into the commercial and industrial sectors. Triangle was a non-union shop independent from George Datema & Sons. In 1972, George Datema & Sons completed its final project: the Towers Medical Office Building. The original company was absorbed by Triangle Associates at that time. The Towers project led to other health facilities, giving Triangle an expertise in medical construction. It then diversified into education facilities and built much of Grand Valley State University’s original campus structures in Allendale.

Initially, Roy Jr.’s son, Craig Datema, worked independently of Triangle Associates as an architect, including being part of the Grand Rapids Fish Ladder sculpture project. Construction of that project was awarded to his father and Triangle Associates.

When Craig Datema joined Triangle Associates in 1984, he said, “They didn’t know what to do with me.” As he had an MBA in addition to his architect degree, he was put in the company’s business development department. Datema reflected that neither he nor the company really knew what that meant, and it took him about 10 to 15 years to understand the industry and how to guide the company in it.

“It’s a long learning curve in this business because it is so dynamic,” said Datema.

The company further diversified by adding construction-management and design/build services to its general contracting roots in the early ’90s. Triangle still does work for schools and is currently set to construct student housing for Calvin College and a few other academic buildings, but Datema noted that not many school districts are growing at this time.

Mitchell Watt, who became part of Triangle Associates just last year, chimed in that, except for medical, all areas have been affected by the poor economy, although Triangle has kept busy, in part by putting more effort into its marketing.

“It’s been a nice treat to have that because everyone is fighting for the same market share,” said Watt.

Watt met Craig Datema in 1987 when both were working on the restoration of the historic Ledyard Building. Watt was aiding with design, but with another company that worked alongside Triangle on the project. Watt and Datema maintained the friendship that eventually led Watt to join Triangle. Watt said he was intrigued by the ability of Triangle to work directly with clients and move quickly on decisions and by its great reputation.

Datema believes the company’s reputation is a strong component in what has garnered the firm continuous work.

“The market is not necessarily expanding here in Michigan, but the competition is,” said Datema.

Even with stronger competition, Triangle has secured roughly $200 million in funded backlogged projects. Datema said the company plans to expand outside the state — but very cautiously, assisting current clients with projects they might have in nearby states. Still, Triangle stays devoted to West Michigan.

“The focus of the company for many years has been West Michigan, and that’s really where the heart of the company lies,” said Watt.

Because of the company’s dedication to the area, Datema feels the success of the company is tied to the success of the community. In order for the community to be successful, Datema believes it is essential to look at the issues of diversity and racism in order to create a social and work environment that will attract young talent. These convictions have driven Datema to actively support the West Michigan Minority Contractors Association with both public and private work. Triangle serves as a mentor to minority-owned contracting companies and also holds seminars on how to grow and market a company. Datema and others from the company also have attended the Institute for Healing Racism program, an initiative of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

According to Datema, Triangle holds to the three pillars of family, community and environment. The company’s focus has earned it a spot as one of West Michigan’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For, for five consecutive years. It’s all a part of the firm’s overall philosophy, which Datema says, is to do the right thing.

“And its fun,” he said, leaning back from the table with his contagious smile. “It’s fun to do the right thing.” CQX

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