Inside Track: Leading by example
CPOY winner attributes success to personal integrity and respect for team members.
At the 2017 Excellence in Construction Awards, the Associated Builders and Contractors West Michigan Chapter (ABC/WMC) honored Van Dyken Mechanical’s Jeff Dickman with the Craft Professional of the Year (CPOY) award for outstanding craftsmanship and leadership.
Having served at Van Dyken for over 20 years, Dickman said his rise to his current role with the company is a combination of having a strong work ethic and a network of mentors who were willing to invest in him.
Dickman was first exposed to the construction field by his father, Howard Dickman, who owned his own business, Dickman Excavating and Grading. The younger Dickman would help on roadwork projects by running equipment and checking grades throughout and shortly after high school.
“From my earliest memories, I remember accompanying him on different job sites,” he said. “That was my springboard into construction.”
After spending almost a year working for his father’s business full time, Dickman left to pursue a degree in business administration, which he did not finish. He bounced around several colleges, including Grand Rapids Community College, Cornerstone University and Grand Valley State University.
Before he left college, Dickman married his wife Holli and bought a house. Needing employment, he decided to begin work at Van Dyken Mechanical in 1995. His starting role with the company involved apprentice-level work in demolition and sheet metal installation.
“I was very inexperienced,” he said.
The first job he worked on was the renovation of the East Bank building in downtown Grand Rapids, which later became Plaza Towers Condos.
Van Dyken later offered to send Dickman to a four-year pipefitting apprenticeship program through the ABC/WMC, which he accepted.
Dickman said the school gave him a general knowledge of the trade, and then expanded on that general knowledge with detail.
“We learned various aspects of pipe fitting, from some welding to some layout, to blueprint reading,” he explained. “It reinforced some of the stuff that we were learning in the field. I think all that book knowledge can be good, but for me, it needed to be applied in the field, so one built off the other.”
Dickman said a trade-type apprenticeship program was useful to him because of the hands-on type learning it provides, as opposed to an academic setting, like a college or university. He said most of the people who work for Van Dyken have a hands-on style of learning.
After graduating the program as a journeyman pipefitter, Dickman went on to work on HVAC, piping and welding projects for big-name companies including Amway, Steelcase and Perrigo.
“I’ve been fortunate,” he said. “That’s one of the cool things about this is that we see so many different unique places. We’re blessed to work for a company that gives us the exposure to work in all those unique places.”
With some of that specialized knowledge under his belt, he also obtained a small measure of leadership, usually running small portions of a job with a few workers underneath him.
As he grew more experienced in his trade, he became responsible for bigger portions of the projects. As a project foreman, he oversaw various projects at Perrigo, which has been the main company with which he was involved for the past 10 years.
As a leader, Dickman said he does his best to lead by example. He also emphasized the importance of the leaders in his life who invested in him and imparted their knowledge on him.
“To get to that, it’s not just what I do or have done,” he said. “It comes back to having people who have taught you what you know. The people who have invested in me at Van Dyken that have imparted some of their knowledge.”
Dickman said he also has a responsibility of teaching others. In a leadership position, it’s important for him to have strong workers under him, as well as to be able to communicate well with them.
“A title doesn’t necessarily equate whether that’s what you are or not,” he said. “We get lots of our young guys that get certified to weld, and we usually tell them, ‘OK, you passed the test to be a certified welder, but you’re not a welder until you can actually do it on your own.’”
Dickman boasts of a “core group” of repeat customers. While the company is pursuing other customers outside of its regulars, about 80 percent of its contracts come from repeat clients, according to company data.
Now serving as project supervisor for the past four years, Dickman said his role as a leader also has challenged him to develop his organizational and people skills.
“Your BS detector starts to get honed in on this,” he said, “from the jobs you’re working on to the people you’re working with. Sometimes, you can be expecting an equipment delivery, and you’ll get five excuses, but no reason for it (being late). Then there’s some of the reasons you get for why people aren’t at work, on time or at all.”
Dickman added he also is fortunate to have had a father who instilled a quality work ethic in him since he was young. He said he is grateful to have been given the experience that propelled him into his career as well as the personal values, such as honesty and integrity.
“That’s just the power of our word. If we say we’re going to do it, that’s what we need to do,” he said. “It’s not, ‘If it works out, we’re going to do it.’ We follow through.”
Joe VanDenBerg, sales and marketing manager for Van Dyken, said Dickman’s level of integrity and dedication is widely recognized by the people who have worked with him.
“He makes everybody around him a better person with how humble he is and how he goes about business in general and in life,” VanDenBerg said. “He does what he says he’s going to do.”
When Dickman was honored at the Excellence in Construction Awards in September, VanDenBerg said he had high-level executives from other companies congratulating him just for having Dickman as a part of the team.
“It feels good because of the way Jeff is with the team because he grows your team, and you have a model for how you want your employees to act with different people,” VanDenBerg said. “I’ve had people say, ‘I do this now because Jeff does it — the way he treats people, the way he say’s what he’s going to do.”
Dickman added it’s important for him to treat people with respect whether it’s their first day on the job or if they’re about to retire.
“It’s a firm respect,” Dickman said. “We don’t let people walk over us.”
“He goes the extra mile to make sure the person at the bottom is getting trained as much as the guy at the top,” VanDenBerg said, “because everybody learns every day — the guy who’s been here 40 years can learn something from a new kid even — that’s what we need more of, and that’s how I feel Jeff is.”
Going forward, Dickman said his goals are to continue to fine tune his skills and prepare for movement into more of an executive position. Not content to “ride out” where he’s at, he said he’s open for whatever opportunities his company has for him.