Inside Track: Mathis ministers through construction

Rockford’s community development and inclusion officer learned about giving back while working in health care.
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Earlier in his career, Brad Mathis and his wife, Andola, developed a dozen high quality, affordable homes on Madison Avenue SE. Courtesy Rockford Construction

Whether by managing physicians’ offices for Mercy Health, or in his current role as vice president of community development and inclusion for Rockford Construction, Brad Mathis believes his work truly is a ministry.

Mathis comes from a family of health care providers and naturally was drawn to the health care industry. His father was a physician, his mother was a medical librarian, and he also worked in his father’s office throughout middle school and high school.

Although Mathis wasn’t necessarily interested in being a physician, working for his father’s practice taught him the business side of health care.

“I think any business, whether it’s manufacturing or automotive, it has the opportunity to help people,” he said. “I always found health care was a little bit more direct in that area of service.”

The young Mathis also had a unique spiritual upbringing. While his family was Baptist, he went to Catholic schools for elementary and high school. His father, who graduated from Aquinas College and also was the first Black resident physician for Butterworth Hospital, was doing well enough to move his family out of their small home to Forest Hills in 1975. But Mathis’ older brother came home from school crying every day because the other kids in Forest Hills bullied him for the color of his skin.

“My parents said, ‘Well, this isn’t working out really well,’” Mathis said. “So, my dad decided, even though he was Baptist just like my mom … he said, ‘The Catholics over at Aquinas were good to me, and they gave me an academic scholarship, and I got some good Catholic friends, let’s try the Catholic school system.”

Mathis broke into the health care industry working in strategic planning and managing outpatient physician offices for Mercy Health Saint Mary’s. He was the first manager for Saint Mary’s Browning Claytor office, which served low-income and at-risk populations, he said.

BRAD MATHIS
Organization:
Rockford Construction
Position: Vice president, community development and inclusion
Age: 50
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Rapids Township
Family: Wife, Andola, and daughter Chamberlain
Business/Community Involvement: Talent 2025; City of GR Racial Equity; Guiding Light Ministries; Catholic Charities West Michigan; Lake Michigan Credit Union-Community Advisory Committee
Biggest Career Break: Working for Saint Mary’s as manager for Browning Claytor Health Center

“I was particularly attracted to that, because again, with my father’s practice, the majority of his patients were people of color — African Americans — and about 25-30% were on Medicaid, so there was always that value of giving back to the community and serving lower-income patients as well,” he said. “So when I was at Browning Claytor, it was essentially that same value and mission.”

Around 1997, when Browning Claytor was first being built, the practice was just a trailer on the west side of Madison Avenue, opposite to where its permanent location would be. Once Browning Claytor moved to the east side, the property the trailer sat on became vacant. There also were about four abandoned homes adjacent to the vacant property, wherein Mathis found the opportunity to address the housing needs of the population.

“We were certainly seeing patients every day and addressing their medical needs, but at the same time I was certainly recognizing that health care is probably only about 25-30% addressing what other people’s needs are,” Mathis said. “Their other needs are education, employment and good quality housing. Through the health center at Saint Mary’s I was already trying to hire as many people as possible from the neighborhood, the whole educational system I found was a little bit daunting, but with housing I felt, ‘Well, that might be something I’d be able to do.’”

At the time, Mathis also was on the board for Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF) and Jonathan Bradford, who was president and CEO at the time, gave him some tips to get started on his venture.

“Truth be told, I didn’t 100% know what I was doing,” Mathis said. “But I did have my real estate license, because a couple years before that … my wife and I were going to buy a house, and I wanted to know as much about purchasing a home as possible.”

With the Madison Avenue properties, Mathis and his wife were able to make use of his real estate license. Once they’d bought the property, Mathis connected with some architects to draw up plans for affordable residencies.

After scouring his network, Mathis brought on board a partner with a banking background to help him figure out the finances of getting the project off the ground. They were then able to build 12 high-quality, affordable homes.

At the time, health care was not as progressive as it is now in terms of looking at all the social dynamics — housing, education, employment, etc. — that impact people’s health. For a while, health care professionals have been in tune to environmental issues like lead, but now health care-led housing is coming more into play, Mathis said.

Spirituality also is a major part of Mathis’ work. One of his supervisors during his time at Mercy Health was a nun, Sister Myra Bergman, which made him reflect on his time at Catholic schools.

“When I graduated Catholic, there was a nun there, Sister Robert Ann, everyone who’s Catholic in Grand Rapids knows her,” Mathis said. “She was an amazing math teacher, but she was tough! I got good at math because of her, but when I left Catholic Central I said, ‘I’m not dealing with any more nuns.’ Lo and behold, I find myself reporting to the only nun at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s!”

Bergman started sharing with him the Catholic perspectives about social justice and caring for the poor. Even as a Baptist, Mathis was inspired to learn more and ended up receiving his master’s degree in theology and health care from the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis, Missouri.

Mathis started getting away from the medical practice management and more into orienting new hires about the Catholic identity and ethics of Mercy Health. He also facilitated the hospital ethics committee and was responsible for the chaplaincy and spiritual care at Mercy Health.

“Whether you’re working for a faith-based hospital or a secular hospital, I truly believe health care is a ministry, and I believe really there’s three ministries out there: health care being one of them, education being the second and construction actually being third. Even Jesus was a builder,” Mathis said. “I’ve had the blessing to be involved in two of those.”

Mathis joined Rockford Construction as vice president for community development and inclusion in 2016, where he works to position the company as a servant to the community at large.

For Rockford, community falls into three different arenas, Mathis said. One is the community at Rockford Construction, among its construction, property management and real estate development teams. Second is the trade contractor community Rockford partners with on projects. And third is the broader community, including the West Side neighborhood where Rockford’s Grand Rapids headquarters is and its office location in Detroit.

The inclusion part of Mathis’ role focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), something Rockford has been intentional about for the past four years, Mathis said. Three years ago, Rockford launched a program called Dimensions, which was meant to connect with as many minority contractors as the company could find at the time.

Dimensions is an opportunity for Rockford to formally introduce itself to the minority subcontractor community, as well as discuss the most effective ways they could bid and work with Rockford on various projects.

“In construction sometimes you might do the work, but you might not get paid for 60 days, which is very difficult for some of the companies that are starting off. We had a line of credit — still do — with Mercantile (Bank), so Dimensions participants, these minority- and women-owned companies, can tap into that line of credit so they can pay their team,” Mathis said.

Dimensions participants are not expected to only work for Rockford, and the program is set up for minority contractors to succeed with any general contractor they may work for in the future, Mathis added.

“Ultimately, the better our entrepreneurs do in Grand Rapids, the better we all do,” Mathis said.

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