Dutton business solid as concrete

April 9, 2012
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Long before the word “entrepreneur” became a popular expression in business parlors, Tom Van Laan was one.

In 1962, Van Laan started Van Laan Concrete Construction in Dutton, and on Sunday, the family-owned-and-operated company will mark its 50th year in business in Gaines Township — the unincorporated community just south of Grand Rapids where the firm began five decades ago.

Twenty-six years after he founded the concrete business, Van Laan opened a retail outlet for builders called Van Laan Construction Supply. That was in 1988 and also in Dutton. Today, Van Laan is chairman of the company and his sons Scott and Steve are president and vice president, respectively, of the businesses. Steve Van Laan runs the supply division, while Scott heads the construction portion of the company. The two firms employ a total of 80.

“I had been working for a small concrete contractor — actually, I had worked for a couple of different ones — and I just decided that I could do this probably better than what this guy is doing,” Van Laan said of why he went into business. He said he chose Dutton as his home base because “I was born and raised on a farm just outside of Dutton.”

Van Laan began the concrete company with Jerry Lucas, who was his business partner for 14 years. They started the operation in a small shop they built on property that Lucas owned. In 1976, Van Laan bought Lucas’ share of the business and moved it to 3240 68th St. in Dutton, the current location for the construction supply store and warehouse.

“We bought that building and remodeled it. That was our original shop, and we incorporated about that same time,” said Van Laan. “Previous to that, it was a partnership.”

The concrete company, which also has an excavation division, and the firm’s business office, where Van Laan still works an average of three days every week, are located at 6875 Dutton Industrial Drive.

Van Laan bought Lucas out because he wanted to move the concrete company into the commercial side of the business where he saw opportunities for growth. Van Laan recognized doing that was risky, and if he failed to successfully make the transition, he didn’t want Lucas to have to pay the price.

“I just felt that the responsibility was going more and more to me, and if I made some mistakes, I didn’t want to have to go to him and tell him he was going to have to put some more money into it,” said Van Laan. “And 1976 was a year that we actually did not make any money, so it was just the right time.”

A dozen years after making the move into the commercial side, Van Laan started the retail business. The products the company sold were limited to items like insulation, wire mesh and rebar. But today, the store offers more than 2,000 products and can special order items that it doesn’t carry. The business was expanded twice following its 1988 debut, with the last expansion occurring in 2000. Van Laan said he actually began the retail business as a way to reduce expenses for his concrete company.

“We were using so many of these products, and paying other suppliers retail. The bottom line was, we started it just to increase our buying power,” he said, crediting an employee who was disabled and unable to work in the field with getting the business off the ground back then.

The retail outlet building has its own story. Van Laan sold the structure in 1981, seven years before he started the business, but then bought it back for the store. “I sold it to Attallah Amash and I was holding the contract on it. I called him up one day and told him I wanted to buy that building back. I know him pretty well — that’s (U.S. Congressman) Justin Amash’s dad,” he said. Attallah Amash owned Amash Imports and had some of his products in the building at the time. Amash agreed to the sale.

When asked whether he ever thought he’d actually be speaking one day with a reporter about being in business for a half century, Van Laan chuckled. “No, it wasn’t even a thought,” he said. “I know that our goal was to simply do a job better than anyone else, make sure our quality and our service was always the very best it could be. We never had a goal to have a certain number of employees or certain jobs.”

As for the next 50 years, Van Laan said his sons are fully capable of leading the family’s business in the appropriate direction. “I have a lot of confidence in both of those boys. Through these last three years, in what has been a really tough time, they’ve made some mistakes but they’ve done more things right than they have done wrong,” he said.

“So who knows what’s going to happen 50 years from now, but they’ve done a great job managing the business. There has been some growth, and right now the future looks quite bright for them, actually.”

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