Inside Track: Otis works to ‘enable people to prosper’

Entrepreneur/developer embraces purpose-driven leadership to empower the community.
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Mike Otis started his business to provide stability and life lessons for his eight children, all of whom have worked there. Courtesy Adam Bird

Mike Otis started his company Double O — christened after his last name and his wife’s previous surname, O’Brien — as a way to provide opportunity for his eight children and stepchildren, and now the business has grown into a catalyst for community growth.

Otis founded Double O out of his and his wife’s Byron Center home in 1997, and it is now a sizeable commercial glazing, window and door business with nearly 50 employees based in a 40,000-square-foot facility at 1415 S. Division Ave. in Grand Rapids.

He also is sole proprietor of Double O Development, a real estate development company; and is in two joint ventures with his oldest son: One Enterprise, a development company, and One Property Management, a real estate holding company.

Double O, the commercial glazing business, was mainly designed to provide family income and work experience until 2014, when Otis said he got “serious and intentional about growth,” chasing more and larger projects and building up a staff, at which point the business outgrew its home-based shop.

In search of a new headquarters, Otis looked to where he could make the greatest impact on the community in terms of job creation and architectural improvement. His research led him to the 49507 ZIP code, which he read experienced unemployment rates between 35% and 50%. And that was pre-COVID-19.

Otis bought and refurbished a 37,000-square-foot, late 1800s dilapidated warehouse at 1530 Madison Ave. SE, using 17,000 square feet of the space for his business and leasing the rest to two local community-building nonprofit programs — YouthBuild Grand Rapids, a development program of Bethany Christian Services, and the social enterprise Building Bridges Professional Services. The latter is now part of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT), a collective of nonprofit and for-profit entities founded and directed by Justin Beene with a goal of alleviating poverty.

YouthBuild caught Otis’s interest because it offered GED completion and vocational training in the construction industry, and Double O needed more employees in that very field.

MIKE OTIS
Organization:
Double O
Position: Founder and president
Age: 61
Birthplace: Kalamazoo
Residence: Byron Center
Family: Spouse, Linda; children, Benjamin, Sean, Keith, Craig, Lynelle, Eric, Philip, Kyle
Business/Community Involvement: President, Entrepreneurs Organization West Michigan; chair, Global Bible Initiative; elder, Mars Hill Bible Church (2006-2014); president, Gun Lake Chamber of Commerce (1988-1996)
Biggest Career Break: “Getting fired by my employer soon after finishing college in 1983. It allowed me to discover that I was best suited to work for myself, so I started a company.”

After about four years of occupying the upstairs of the Madison Avenue building with the nonprofits downstairs, Otis began to realize Double O needed more space. He wasn’t willing to boot the nonprofit tenants out because he believed in their mission and knew they were also growing and creating jobs in the neighborhood.

“I just said, ‘Look, one of us needs to leave. And I think it’s got to be me,’” Otis said. “And then an opportunity opened up on Division.”

At press time, Double O Development still owned the 1530 Madison building but was working to transition it to GRCCT’s ownership.

“Real estate ownership creates wealth. We all know that; it’s kind of simple,” Otis said. “It leaves that wealth in that neighborhood. So we’ve done all we can to try to empower the local community there to be able to buy that, own that and then get to win from the wealth that’s developed through that property.”

Otis, a Kalamazoo native, said he was raised in a family where “when something needs (to be) built, you build it.” He learned construction skills from his father, uncle and grandfather, and fulfilled his first construction contract — replacing the roof of a neighbor’s shed — at the age of 14 alongside a teenage friend. He paid for his own tuition at New Tribes Bible Institute and Kalamazoo College by doing custom furniture and home construction projects during the summers.

Otis learned the glass installing and glazing trade from his father, who owned a one-man operation in the Gun Lake area for nearly 25 years before his tragic death in a tree-cutting accident in 1983.

After his dad’s death, Otis carried on the business.

“There were jobs he was in the middle of, and they needed to be finished. There were people in the area who did not realize he had passed away, and when the spring came, they started bringing their broken windows like they always had. They stuck a note on them and leaned them against the wall (of the shop),” Otis said.

“My mom would come home, and there would be another pile of things for my dad to fix, and my dad was gone, so she’d fall apart. A big part of me starting my first company is that I saw those things and I said, ‘Well, I guess I better do that work.’”

Otis used the glass in his dad’s stockpile until it ran out. The day he called the supplier to order more glass for the unfinished projects in front of him was the day he realized it was now his business. 

“I remember being surprised, looking around going, ‘Did I just start a company?’ I’m not sure what that means,” Otis said.

Dubbing it Gun Lake Glass & Screen, Otis operated the enterprise from 1983 to 1996.

Instead of keeping it small like his father had always done, Otis never said ‘No’ to an opportunity. He did $126,000 in sales the first year and doubled the revenue every year after for four years.

After going through a divorce and becoming a single dad of four, Otis said his heart wasn’t in the business anymore, so he sold it in a deal that went badly.

Soon after, he met and married Linda O’Brien, who also had four children. The couple bought a big house in Byron Center for their blended family, and Otis worked the next couple of years at Grand Rapids-based Williams Distributing, selling windows and doors. By 1997, the need to generate more income — while also being able to spend more time with the children — led him to start the family-owned Double O company.

“I knew that with eight kids, I was going to need to work a lot of hours in order to provide for that large of a family, and having gone through what I had just gone through, it’s not like we had a bunch of money in the bank or a big nest egg. And so, I thought, ‘Could we start a company where I could work … with (the kids) instead of away from them?’ And then I could teach them some skills; I could teach them a good work ethic … and I could develop and deepen our relationships.”

All eight of the Otis and O’Brien children worked at Double O at one point or another. Many of them have moved on to other things, while others are still in the business.

Otis describes his leadership style as “collaborative,” citing the folk proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

In the spirit of that, Double O is “putting the finishing touches” on an apprenticeship program that will take entry-level employees, including clients of the nonprofit Next Step of West Michigan, and train them as journeymen glazers. Otis said this will afford opportunities to returning citizens or people experiencing homelessness, to “give people a trade that they can carry for the rest of their lives and not just a job.”

“I’m very passionate about creating an opportunity for people. I have been gifted with a unique set of skills that allows me to see opportunity where others might not see it, and what I love to do is take that opportunity and help others do well with it,” Otis said.

“Our stated purpose (at Double O) is to grow a company where people love to work. It turns into the critical importance of developing people so that people can prosper and succeed. I love being a part of hiring people who are putting their lives back together, who maybe have made some bad choices and are going through some things, and (we’re) helping them put their lives back together in a beautiful way. … What I want to do is help enable people to prosper.”

Otis, recognizing that he is aging, is working on a plan to convert Double O to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) business, in which the employees own the company and make all of the decisions about it.

He said he will most likely continue in his real estate and community redevelopment company after his eventual retirement from Double O.

“As long as I can still do something, I’ll keep doing it.”

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