It’s all about treating people well

Relationships have built Dan Vos Construction since 1951, and there’s no end in sight.

Dan Vos likes to point out the buildings built by Dan Vos Construction.

It’s gotten to the point his wife is getting sick of it, he said.

“I’m proud of all of them — especially the ones I’ve personally been involved in.”

And Vos has been involved in a lot. He’s worked at Dan Vos Construction — a company his grandfather started in 1951 — since he was 14. Vos worked summers and during vacations until he graduated from Ferris State University with a degree in construction management and joined the company full time in 1995.

Since then, he’s worked his way from carpenter to foreman to estimator to project manager, and now, at 40, he is the president. Through all that time, he’s worked on ensuring the foundation Dan Vos Construction was built on will always be there.

The integrity upon which the company is based was a key reason Vos’ grandfather — a one-time celery farmer in Lowell — ended up building such a successful construction company.

“He started building stuff for his friends in the offseason and made money doing it,” Vos said. “His relationships grew and his reputation for honest and high-integrity work grew, and that’s just the way he was.”

Treating employees and clients well is something Vos said will always be part of the business plan.

The way Dan Vos Construction treats its subcontractors isn’t lost on the construction community. The company won its third Michigan Contractor of the Year award from the American Subcontractors Association of Michigan this month. The MCOY awards started six years ago.

Vos said receiving the award is a byproduct of the company’s standards, but when the team didn’t place in the top three MCOY winners last year, he made it a point to figure out why and get better.

“We don’t set out to be an award-winner,” Vos said. “Last year, we tried to figure out where we were weak and what we could improve on. It’s just doing what we do — what we’ve always done.”

Treating people well starts with the company’s employees, something Vos said he focuses on in his day-to-day job. He said he likes to read the anonymous surveys turned in for the 101 Best and Brightest Companies because they often read, “Family, Family, Family.”

He said putting family first is a reason Dan Vos Construction hasn’t grown like some other West Michigan construction firms. Vos said the company has turned down some projects in Iowa and Indiana that were in its “wheelhouse” because they didn’t fit within the firm’s values.

“We try to stay close to home. I like our guys to be home at night with their families,” he said, adding the firm’s territory stretches from Kalamazoo to Big Rapids and from the lakeshore to Lansing.

“Traveling could get us more jobs, but we’re a family-oriented company and travel is not conducive to that.

“It makes people happy and productive at work. The client will get a better product because we have happy people building projects, and that generates better relationships.”

Vos mentioned most construction companies in West Michigan also operate under the “maintaining strong relationships” motto, unlike some East Coast companies that “churn and burn” in survival mode.

“West Michigan is very different,” he said. “We’re very isolated from the rest of the world.”

Vos does envy other firms’ projects from time to time, but then he remembers he has the same opportunities.

“We all have our pet clients we work with,” he said. “But there are some nice projects around that would have been nice to have a shot at. I wouldn’t say it’s jealousy, but it keeps you on your toes and keeps you going.”

For Dan Vos Construction, the strong relationships run through companies such as Gordon Food Service, Bissell, Wolverine World Wide and Hudsonville Ice Cream.

Gordon Food Service’s new headquarters, completed in 2012, is one project the company hangs its hat on. It helped the company double its annual revenue in 2012 and 2013, before it returned to average numbers again last year.

“Those years, we had GFS and two or three other large anchor jobs,” Vos said. “Those don’t come around much for us.

“That was a big morale booster for us. It was our turn to have a big job.”

Every job might not be a big-money opportunity, but each one is important, he said, and with every new project comes a new learning experience.

“That’s one thing I love about this job: Every project we do, we learn a little bit about what other people do,” he said. “We could learn how to process turkeys one day and be at a church committee meeting the next night and a hair studio the next morning.

“It’s the other people’s lives we’re building for.”

Dan Vos Construction’s relationships helped it move through the Great Recession without too much pain, Vos said. He said technology, building techniques and the economy all change, but relationships do not.

“Food and pharmaceutical industries are always pretty strong and they helped us get through when the automotive stuff went away,” he said. “A lot of things we can change to keep up with the times, but the relationships don’t change. That’s the stuff my grandpa founded here, and we’re not going to change.”

Vos said the company recently hired a new employee for business development, but he’s cautious about not ruining what’s helped make Dan Vos Construction special in the eyes of the area’s subcontractors and clients that have chosen to work with it.

He’s OK with not growing too much.

“We’re making a little effort,” he said. “We’re trying to get a few more things through the door, but we want to do that smart, too, because it doesn’t take long to bury everybody. If you get a whole bunch of work, then you can’t do what you said you were going to do.”