Wolverine planning for the next 70 years

August 18, 2009
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Longevity in the commercial construction business can be rare. The market can be fickle and the reasons some builders last and others don’t can be hard to pin down.

But Mike Kelly, who owns Wolverine Building Group with Richard VanderZyden, knows why their company has lasted for 70 years. He said it is largely because Wolverine has always adapted to the changing times and the changing technology, and has done some very good work for a very good group of clients.

Wolverine Building Group was founded in 1939 — not as a construction firm but as the Wolverine Tile Co., which specialized in installing tiles for auto-service stations and the 1940’s version of fast-food restaurants.

The company became Wolverine Building Products in 1957 and Wolverine Building Group 41 years later in 1998. Today, Wolverine is a large construction corporation with four divisions and more than $100 million in annual sales volume.

“For construction companies, it is quite a feat,” said Kelly of the firm turning 70 this year.

“Construction companies can come and go. It’s family generations that usually keep them going, but that’s really not the case here. It’s people within the company buying out their predecessors.”

Kelly, who joined Wolverine in 1980 after graduating from Ferris State University with a drafting degree, said a key word for him as to the company’s long life was “adaptability” — a going with the flow, if you will, as the nation and the industry changed.

How the firm accomplished that became readily apparent when Kelly explained its evolution. He said after starting as a tile company, Wolverine moved into putting up pre-engineered buildings. Then it became a general contractor and followed that by starting a construction management company. Then Wolverine purchased Fryling Construction and, just this year, bought Houseman Construction and merged it into Wolverine North America — the company’s national division.

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Because of work Wolverine has done for Spectrum Health, Metro Health and for Saint Mary’s Health Center, including the Hauenstein Center, the firm has become known as an expert in medical construction.

“These are all kind of strategic moves based on where the market was at and where we thought it was going to end up in five, 10, 15 years out,” said Kelly.

As for clients that contributed the most to the company’s successful and lengthy track record, Kelly said the first was Prince Corp.

“We did an awful lot of work for the Prince Corp. We learned a lot and got to do some pretty neat projects for them — everything from office space to large manufacturing plants,” he said.

“From there, Bob Grooters sure was instrumental for us being successful. Over the years, we’ve done a ton of projects for Bob Grooters.”

Included is the River House at Bridgewater Place, an $80 million luxury downtown condominium tower on a west bank of the Grand River. Wolverine managed that project for Grooters. Kelly said it was his personal favorite.

“Being able to say that you built the tallest building in West Michigan and the second-tallest residential building in the state of Michigan are kind of nice accolades to have,” he said. “But then to be able to say you did it safely without a serious injury to anybody is probably the most important aspect of it all.”

The 34-story structure was built on an extremely small footprint for such a large project, which nestles up to the Bridgewater Place office tower — also a building Grooters put up.

River House rose 412 feet above Bridge Street, and Wolverine leased a 440-foot tower crane for the project. The crane consisted of 20 20-foot sections, the largest ever to be assembled and dismantled in Grand Rapids.

When the project’s dimensions are added to the fact that work went on almost every day regardless of weather conditions, tragedy could easily have been the result for workers and for the firm.

“As the owner of the company, the first thing you think of is you’re excited to do the project. That lasts for about a day, and for the next three years you’re sleepless at night, hoping that you don’t lose anybody in the process. To me as an owner, that’s probably the scariest thing … making certain that everybody goes home safe that night,” said Kelly.

Kelly also said Spectrum Health has been a good client, helping the company become a player in medical construction. Wolverine also has built and managed projects for Saint Mary’s Health Care and Metro Health. Because of those clients, Kelly said his firm has become known throughout the Midwest as an expert in that field.

So what about the next 70 years? Kelly quickly replied that Wolverine needs to continue to think creatively to stay outside of the customary box. And much of that thought process, at least for the immediate future, seems to revolve around the firm’s newest division, Wolverine North America.

In April, Kelly announced that Houseman Construction Co. had joined the Wolverine Building Group. Mike Houseman was tabbed to lead Wolverine North America, the firm’s out-state construction arm, because his company had established a reputation for successful retail projects, a market that is different from Wolverine’s, and had done so in 11 states.

“We’re already expanding our roots, like a lot of companies, outside of the state’s boundaries. I just think we have to do that. And I think growth beyond that will probably be out of the boundaries of the United States, because it’s like we’re quickly becoming a smaller and smaller global community. I think some of the technical things available certainly have helped make it feasible to work nationally and certainly to work globally, too,” said Kelly.

“And I think from an industry standpoint, you’ve got to stay tuned to the cutting-edge technologies and materials that are out there. Because I think the trend that has been set over the past five years is going to continue: That’s products that require fewer man hours to put in place — lighter, strong materials.”

Kelly actually seemed to be looking forward to taking it all on.

“That’s what makes it fun, because it’s an ever-changing venue. Just when you think you’re starting to understand it, it changes: The customer base changes, the economy changes, and where the hot spots are nationally changes,” he said.

“It’s a moving target, so you have to be a pretty good field general to survey the battle each day and change the battle plan according to what is going on in front of you.”

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