Inside Track: Colvin won’t back down from a challenge

Rockford Construction electrician-turned-superintendent learned from many mentors along the way.
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George Colvin lists reconstruction of Houseman Field as one of his most difficult projects. Courtesy Rockford Construction

If someone gave George Colvin a simple straightforward project, he would get bored very quickly. Now a senior project superintendent for Rockford Construction, Colvin worked his way up in the company for nearly two decades by never backing down from a challenge.

Colvin said he was originally inspired to get into construction by his uncle, who owned a successful commercial electrical company in Grand Rapids. At the same time, the young Colvin was working at a factory while taking night classes at Grand Rapids Community College for electrical trades.

“Seeing how he was successful and how he was able to establish himself in life motivated me to be an electrician,” Colvin said “When I wanted to become an electrician, I already learned some hard lessons as far as hiring family (laughs). He said, ‘I’m not going to hire family, but I will tell you what steps to take.’”

Colvin’s first job as an electrician was with Circuit Electric. At the time, he had no aspirations to be a leader in the field, he said, but the jump from tradesperson to superintendent is not unheard of in the industry.

“Some of our best superintendents actually come from the field and the trades,” Colvin said. “You know how to read blueprints, you understand construction.”

When on a project for East Kentwood High School’s football stadium, Colvin met the project superintendent for Triangle Construction, the project’s general contractor. He said he was impressed by the manner in which the superintendent controlled the project and maintained the schedule.

“Back then we used to call superintendents ‘generals,’” Colvin said. “With the title of a general, you assume leadership … I was pretty impressed that one person had all that in his mind.”

GEORGE COLVIN
Organization:
Rockford Construction
Position: Senior Superintendent
Age: 48
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Troy
Biggest Career Break: Houseman Field reconstruction project

By coincidence, a friend of Colvin’s who was recruiting for Rockford Construction gave him a call and asked him if he was interested in being a superintendent. Colvin said he wasn’t quite sure and was happy still being an electrician. He developed a pretty strong reputation as an electrician and felt secure working for Circuit Electric.

“It’s just hard work ethic, I guess,” Colvin said. “I’m just driven to be the best at what I do. I never wanted to feel as if there was something I couldn’t do. If there was ever a problem, I wanted to conquer it. If there’s something about my job that I hate doing, I find ways to love it, just to better myself.”

Colvin approached his boss at Circuit Electric and told him he wasn’t sure if he wanted to make the jump to superintendent, but his boss encouraged him to check it out and said he would always have a home a Circuit Electric.

“That gave me, I guess, the bravado to even take the shot at it,” he said.

Colvin got his feet wet doing some smaller projects for Rockford, but his first major project with his new employer was as an assistant superintendent for the construction of a new Meijer store in Illinois.

“On a project that size, that moves that fast, you must sink or swim,” Colvin said. “I had to learn a lot of things on the fly and develop my managing style. I learned a lot on that project. Fortunately, I didn’t make a ton of mistakes (laughs).”

A good superintendent has to have the ability to recognize different characteristics in each person tied to the project, Colvin said. Once can’t deal with every foreman the same way, for example.

Early in his career, Colvin would react to tense situations with the same energy, which he realized wasn’t helpful.

“You’ve got to learn to communicate with the guys. You’ve got to understand their psychology, recognize what’s important to them, and you’ve got to recognize that you don’t know everything about everything. You’re going to learn from everyone,” he said. “You’ve got to empower the people who work under you, and you can actually become a pretty efficient superintendent.”

Additionally, having experience in the field enabled Colvin to determine whether someone was making excuses for why something couldn’t be done according to the project specifications or couldn’t be completed on schedule, he said.

“If it was a legitimate reason, I was able to understand that, because I did come from the field,” he said.

Colvin worked his way through Rockford’s ranks for 16 years, leading a myriad of high-profile projects like Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Housman Field, Davenport University’s College of Business and even Rockford’s own headquarters. He attributed much his rise through the company to having great mentors.

“Rockford was wise enough to put me with people who can help me grow my career and patient enough to understand that I needed to learn as I was growing, which is how they pretty much structure it,” Colvin said.

Again, Colvin applied the same principles he had as an electrician: not wanting anyone to work harder than him and not wanting to feel like there was anything he couldn’t do. He said he wasn’t afraid to ask questions or take on responsibility, and he was confident that there was not a project he couldn’t deliver on time, under budget and with high quality.

“Those were the three things. If anybody could build it, I felt like I could build it. I just need to dig into it and understand it,” Colvin said.

Much of Colvin’s experience is in the K-12 and higher education sector of construction, but he said he was open to building anything. On a project for Grand Rapids Christian Schools, Colvin worked under a superintendent, Chris Meek, who he said helped shape him for the rest of his career.

“The way Rockford is structured, once you get into one market, and you do well, and it gets on your resume, and there’s other opportunities in that market, they try to present you, because you have experience building in that market, but I don’t think there’s a project I’m afraid to build,” Colvin said.

Probably Colvin’s most challenging project was the reconstruction Houseman Field for GRPS, because of schedule and budget constraints, he said.

Houseman Field was originally donated to the GRPS Board of Education in 1907, but the facility was in need of renovation before the 2009 football season. Rockford was one of three firms that bid on the project, and every other construction firm told GRPS it would have to schedule its first three home games away, because there was no way it could be built in six months.

“Me, not being as wise as I should have been (laughs), I go in and I said, ‘Yeah, no problem. I can get it done, and here’s how I can do it,’” Colvin said.

The Houseman Field project also ran into difficulties when Colvin’s team discovered a buried school and a buried road on site, but Colvin’s team ended up fast-tracking the project and completing it in five-and-a-half months and under budget.

The $5.2-million renovation featured the installation of an artificial turf playing field, renovations to the locker rooms, concession stands, new press box, track/field event surfaces and bleacher repairs. The project also won the People’s Choice Award from the Grand Rapids Neighborhood Business Alliance.

“I like when it’s a tough project, and all my peers and everyone around me understands that … where they don’t have any idea how to get it done within the schedule constraints, and I deliver on it,” Colvin said. “I think that speaks volumes for what I can do as a superintendent.”

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