Inside Track: Jonker puts pieces together
Wolverine co-owner’s engineering background translates well to the construction industry.
When Aaron Jonker first interviewed to work for Wolverine Building Group in 2006, his boss at the time asked him where he saw himself in 15 years.
“I guess the right answer is to say I want to be in your chair,” Jonker told him.
Although becoming the fifth owner of Wolverine — alongside co-owner Curt Mulder who first inspired him to join the company — wasn’t on his horizon, Jonker’s ambitious nature and constant desire to learn and be better propelled him to his current leadership role.
Jonker was first introduced to the construction world through civil engineering; he achieved his civil engineering degree from Calvin College. Although he knew for a long time he wanted to get into engineering, he said he wasn’t sure what type.
“I found civil to be the most interesting because there was something tangible to it,” Jonker said. “It was big things you could walk in and touch — building roads, bridges, whatever — versus doing electrical or mechanical.”
He cut his teeth in civil engineering, performing land development work for residential and commercial projects, until around 2003 when he received an offer to join Holwerda Builders’ construction team.
“As the homebuilding market changed a little bit — the market tailed off after ’05 or so — I got more into the construction side of it because we weren’t doing so much land development stuff,” Jonker said.
When the housing market dried up in 2007, Jonker knew it was time to make a career shift. A conversation with one of his longtime acquaintances, Curt Mulder, inspired him to join the company the two of them now lead.
“He was actually a year behind me in high school and college,” Jonker said. “We weren’t great friends, but we ran into each other from time to time, so we kept in touch.”
Mulder tried to convince Jonker to join Wolverine, but Jonker was a little hesitant at first because, although he knew how to build houses, he didn’t know anything about large-scale projects like apartment buildings.
“What he said to me was, ‘You don’t really need to know how to build buildings, but you need to know how to hire the people to build them and get them all to work together,’” Jonker said.
As a new project manager with an engineering background, Jonker’s innate problem-solving ability and attention to detail made him a welcomed addition. He said Wolverine intentionally looks for people who are able to view clients not as business partners but as partners on a project and are able to communicate with them to meet their specific needs.
“We work really hard on their behalf to try to help them solve issues that come up,” Jonker said. “And some of those issues come up on the front end, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this conceptual design, but we don’t have the budget to actually build it. We need to figure out how we can do something similar that fits within our budget.’”
Jonker wouldn’t call himself unique in that sense, and Wolverine often hires engineers as construction managers, but he added Wolverine finds engineers tend to be problem-solvers by virtue of their jobs.
“Just because they’re curious, they might do their own research into the six types of mechanical systems that would go into a building and make recommendations to an owner that they might not otherwise get from a team member,” he said.
Another aspect of Jonker’s engineering pedigree, understanding how different parts work together, has helped him complement Wolverine’s culture. Now that he’s in a leadership role, many times in the hiring process, he’s heard the usual story of how people grew up fixing things with their dads or taking apart the family lawn mower and putting it back together.
Jonker said the ability to understand how pieces go together in a lawn mower translates well into construction projects where about two dozen separate contractors are on-site trying to make the client’s concept a reality.
“Having the understanding of how each of those trades affects the others, what each of them is going to add to the project and how it’s all going to go together in the end, I think, is one of the critical things in what we do,” Jonker said.
“We aren’t plumbers … but we hope we have enough understanding of what those folks need to do that we can help plan a job so that they can be successful in it,” he added. “You at least understand a little bit about what the plumber’s doing.”
Jonker also said it’s important to manage personalities. As a project manager, he would butt heads with a few people, but a lot of his builders were patient and willing to teach him the nuances of their respective trades and apartment building, where previously, he only had experience in building houses.
Complementary to Jonker’s desire to learn was his desire for continuous improvement. He said he was wired to think nothing is perfect and everything can be improved upon, although sometimes, it can be a detriment because he’s never satisfied with his work.
“That doesn’t mean it’s bad the way it is, but in a professional sense, I always think, ‘OK, that was good.’ Now the challenge for me and what’s exciting to me is how can we make it better next time?” he said.
Jonker said Wolverine encourages its construction managers and project managers to proactively bring new work in the door, whether it’s nurturing existing client relationships or actively pursuing new projects that might need the construction company’s services.
Because of Jonker’s ambitious nature, he was able to develop a large enough workload for him to develop a team underneath him.
“I can’t remember the name of one of the strengths finders, but I’m a ‘maximizer,’” Jonker said, “so I’m constantly looking to move on to the next thing, and I’ve never been somebody who’s interested in becoming an expert at anything.”
Jonker was promoted to vice president of Wolverine’s multifamily team, alongside Mulder, in 2010, which Jonker said was their initial set up to eventually take over the company from the previous owners, Mike Kelly and Dick VanderZyden.
Three years prior to selling the company, Kelly and VanderZyden worked closely with Jonker and Mulder to engage them in the leadership process and prepare them for their eventual ownership.
Jonker and Mulder assumed ownership of Wolverine earlier this year in January.
Jonker speculated his drive might have come from a small engineering firm in Ann Arbor he worked for before coming to Wolverine. He said the firm had a “high-energy game,” constantly looking for the next client and trying to “take over the world” in terms of their portfolio.
Prior to that, he worked for a small family-owned engineering firm in Grand Rapids that comparatively was not so ambitious. He said they were comfortable with the customers they had and weren’t interested in growing their presence.
“They were pretty satisfied with the way things were, and then moving to Ann Arbor and working for a group of very high-energy, younger dynamic, hard-driving people was a very different atmosphere,” Jonker said. “I think taking some of those aspects — and I own some of those — I was like, ‘Yeah, this is good.’”
As co-owner of Wolverine, Jonker wants the same atmosphere for his company. He believes a culture that promotes continuous self-improvement will bring out the highest potential in his staff.
“I think that job satisfaction is many things, but one of them certainly is feeling like I’m the best version of myself that I can be, and the people around me are making me better every single day,” he said.
Consistent with his nature, Jonker said he thinks Wolverine already is a great place for his employees to work, but he always thinks about how it can be better and how the company can be a better steward of each community where it has a presence.
“Most of us live and work here in West Michigan, but we’ve got a strong team of people over on the east side of the state now, and what are we doing over there? How are we giving back to our community?” Jonker said.