Inside Track: Windsurfer changes tack to get on board with building
Years of on-the-job training chart a course for Veneklasen to follow in his father’s wake
If not for a $100 check from his grandmother, Chris Veneklasen could still be on Nantucket Island teaching windsurfing.
As fate would have it, however, his grandmother believed $100 would get Veneklasen back to Michigan for his grandparents’ anniversary party in the fall of 1995. Had he not ventured back to West Michigan from the Eastern Seaboard, the 43-year-old Veneklasen might not be the president of a.j. Veneklasen Inc., the construction company his father started 40 years ago.
“It didn’t even pay to get my car off the island,” Veneklasen said of the gift. “But I was already thinking whether I wanted to keep doing this resort thing, or did I want to start a career. That check was just the right nudge to get me going in the right direction.”
Veneklasen always had spending cash heading into his college years after a hard summer’s work in construction. But as a college graduate living on Nantucket, money was tight enough that even the slightest bit of cash was an improvement.
When he came back to Grand Rapids in October 1995, he returned to a job he had started during high school.
Aside from fleeting interest in the Air Force Academy — until he realized he’d be too tall for the cockpit — the family business was all he knew.
Veneklasen said it just felt natural.
“When you grow up in a family business, you almost have an assumed path,” he said. “It’s not that it’s destined or forced, but when you’re ingrained in it from such a young age, it’s all you know. Would I have tried something else? Maybe, but I was comfortable and enjoyed it.”
Veneklasen was 3 when his father, A.J., broke off from his grandfather’s concrete business and started building pole barns for farms and eventually began building industrial buildings. Recently, the firm was named the state’s second-largest metal builder and the 24th largest in the nation, as ranked by Metal Construction News.
Following his 16th birthday, Veneklasen began working for his father and helped move a small storage building on an open field where the Holland Home Raybrook Campus is now on the East Beltline.
The summer after, he began work as a steel erector and was the “lowest man on the totem pole,” rotating around the jobs on a site to learn the business as his father hoped. He did that through his first two years at Miami University (Ohio), where he majored in marketing.
While working on the sites, he did get some heckling from the crews because he was the owner’s son, he said.
“Lots of it, and my dad would just always say the easiest way to shut them up is to work harder than them,” Veneklasen said. “I’m not sure I always did that, but I tried to. I’m not sure they respected me, but I at least think they didn’t disrespect me. I don’t think I was just out there as an entitled kid.”
As Veneklasen neared the end of his junior year of college in 1994, he felt he needed to do something else. Veneklasen and a few friends thought about moving out to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the summer.
They couldn’t find a place to live in Wyoming so instead drove to Nantucket — with no place to live.
Living six to a one-bedroom condo, they searched for some time until they found a landlord with a house.
Veneklasen was in “a dream job, working on the beach” as a windsurfing instructor. The pay, however, was not sufficient on the island. At night he was bouncer at a bar.
“I had this ‘I want to go have fun one summer’ feeling, but I still had to work my tail off 65, 70 hours a week to make ends meet,” Veneklasen said. “It was doing something fun, but it was a good lesson. It doesn’t really matter what your job is, you still have to work hard at it either way.
“I liked erecting steel, too. It was just learning as a kid that there’s no easy job. You may love it, but it still takes some effort.”
In fall 1994, he moved back to Ohio and finished school, graduated and moved back to Nantucket to pick up where he left off.
Veneklasen came back when his grandmother sent the check, but aside from an anniversary party, there were no plans for him career-wise. He jumped back into working for his father, who wanted him to spend at least one winter in the field.
“Winter of ’95-96 was a cold one, so I got a good understanding of that,” he said.
Veneklasen was pulled into a sales position in spring 1996. For 10 years, he worked in a variety of positions of business development and project management.
“1996 to 2000 was a great time in construction, and my dad saw that and wanted me learning everything,” he said. “It was an internship of sorts, and I got a lot of experience in all sorts of things over the 10 years after I came back.”
In 2006 he moved into an official management role as the company continued to grow. In 1996, the company had 10 office employees. Today it has more than 50.
As president, Veneklasen said his job still consists largely of business development. Now, instead of cold calling, it’s more about keeping in touch with former clients and people within his network from his earlier sales days.
With three major business units — general contractor, general trades and steel — Veneklasen said the company is in a good spot in terms of diversification and growth. While the divisions often work with one another, they also are able to branch off and do projects of their own.
Having three functioning business units has allowed the firm to do larger projects, including some for Spectrum Health, SpartanNash and FedEx Corp., but also work with the smaller clients that helped get the company started.
“I like to meet with the owners and have them know they can pick up a phone and call me quickly,” Veneklasen said.
His two sons are 11 and 13, so he’s not ready to push them into the family business or tell them they can’t venture off to a beach-bum job for a few summers.
“I encourage them to pursue what they’re interested in. I would love it if they want to come into the business someday, but I’d also be happy if they choose another path,” Veneklasen said.
Until a third generation shows interest, Veneklasen’s father still owns 50 percent of the business.
“My father is still here and has positioned himself as a coach,” he said. “There’s a lot of knowledge in there he’s making sure he shares. Plus, he’s better than anyone else about looking around the corner to what’s next.”