Invested workers are the cornerstone
O-A-K construction reflects on 125 years of building company, Grand Rapids.
When Frank Stanek, president of Owen-Ames-Kimball Co., thinks about the company’s 125 years, he knows he didn’t have much to do with it.
Stanek has been with the company 20 years, less than a sixth of its history. When asked what kind of legacy he wants to leave, he simply replies, “We just don’t want to screw it up for the next 125 years.”
Average business volume for O-A-K the past five years is $150 million.
Founded in 1891, O-A-K has constructed many of the recognizable buildings across downtown Grand Rapids, including The Rowe; The Morton; city, county, state and federal buildings; the Fifth Third Bank building; McKay Tower; Waters Building; Grand Rapids Public Library; and Herpolsheimer’s Department Store, now the Grand Rapids Police Department.
The company means a lot to the rest of the area’s construction industry, said Jen Schottke, director of workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan. O-A-K has been a member since 1985.
“O-A-K’s success is evident in their longevity,” Schottke said. “An employee-owned and focused company, they are deeply committed to their people, their projects, and their community. Each employee who has given their time and service to volunteer with our organization has had a deep impact on our strength and vision.
“It is members like O-A-K that make the commercial construction industry in West Michigan one of the best in the nation.”
They Built That?
The company is steeped in its history. Pictures from the past line the walls at O-A-K headquarters, 300 Ionia Ave. NW.
The pictures remind the staff they’re part of something much bigger than themselves, Stanek said.
Longevity is important to O-A-K. Employees have been with the company an average of 23 years — and that’s including the 23 new hires in 2015.
“I’m going on 20 years, [Director of Operations Bill Ogden] is going on 39 years, and that seems like a long time,” he said. “Compared to 125 years, it’s nothing, and we’re just scratching the surface and that’s pretty neat. We’re packed into a very small portion of all these years and sharing a bit of time with the others.”Ogden said he believes the employee ownership structure the company has operated under since its beginnings has a lot to do with its longevity. After three years and an evaluation, an employee can buy stock in O-A-K. It makes sure the employees are fully invested in the company, he said.
“(The company has) been around because we do it right, we do it fair and treat our subcontractors and workers right,” Ogden said.
At one point in the early 20th century, thousands of O-A-K workers were building Grand Rapids. Ogden said there were so many workers they could put up a multi-story building that might take 18 months now in a just a few months.
Today, the company tries to keep its 160 employees busy.
Ogden said 90 percent of O-A-K’s projects are with repeat clients, ranging from Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park to Herman Miller Inc. to many area school systems.
Six months ago, Ogden received an email from an employee the company had sent to Amway 14 years ago.
“He said, ‘You sent me out here for a three-month job, and I’m still here,’” Ogden said. “He’s out there with a small crew and just keeps working.”
Times have changed in the construction industry, however, and O-A-K has made it through many industry changes, including several rough patches where the future was unknown.
In the 1980s, O-A-K went from 220 workers in the field to 10. During the Great Depression, construction came to a screeching halt and the company began selling furnaces from the company’s Pearl Street offices.
To help offset the poor West Michigan performance in the 1980s, the company opened an office in Florida. The two markets help balance each other when one wavers, Stanek said.
“The biggest thing now is the more you diversify the better you’ll be,” he said. “The workforce is a little more scarce than in the best (times), and there are different ways to approach projects with the way technology has changed, but for the most part the rules are the same as always.”
The way work is obtained has changed, too, even in Ogden’s career. He said in his early career a company would come with a set of plans and call O-A-K to take a look. At most, there was a hard bid process with two or three other bidders.
“Those days are long gone,” Ogden said. “There wasn’t a ton of competition. Now there’s a dozen builders.