Mike Novakoski joined Elzinga & Volkers out of college and was tasked as a field engineer for the construction of a Target store in Jenison. Courtesy West Coast Chamber of Commerce
With a “right-brain” style of leadership and an employee-centric approach to business, Elzinga & Volkers President and CEO Mike Novakoski is on a mission to make the Holland-based construction firm “unmistakable.”
Novakoski is about to celebrate 30 years in the construction business, all of which have been spent at E&V, but even before he joined the small general contractor, he said he always has had a passion for working with his hands.
During his high school years, he enrolled in the Kent Skill Center, where they had a residential construction program. He was inspired by a teacher who was a senior-level carpenter and saw he had a passion, not only for building but also for leading.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You know, you should consider going to school for construction management,’” Novakoski said. “So, he kind of pointed me in the direction of Ferris State University.”
Novakoski went in for the technical aspect of construction management but also developed his personal and leadership skills along the way.
When he graduated, he said he had a goal of leading a million-dollar project, but he broke it within six months when he was charged to lead a $3-million build.
“It was a little understated goal,” he said.
Diving into the industry headfirst, Novakoski joined Elzinga & Volkers out of college and was tasked as a field engineer for the construction of a Target store in Jenison, which has since closed. But at the time, the company had a joint venture with Target that involved building three more stores in Toledo, Ohio.
Novakoski was chosen to lead that portion of the venture as a project manager after the original project manager left to take on a different job.
“At 22-23 years old, I was in charge of three new Target stores getting built,” he said.
Two years into his career, Novakoski decided to head back to school to pursue a graduate degree through Grand Valley State University. Even with strong leadership and technical skills under his belt, he wanted to make himself stand out more as a businessman.
“When you’re on the job site, and you’re the … project manager, and you’re in your 20s, there are a lot of 50-year-old veterans who are looking at this young naïve child in their mind … and the reality is the M.B.A. gave me a wider, broader picture of the business world,” he said.
As Novakoski climbed into E&V’s executive sphere, the company underwent a “huge shift” in the business culture. He said before he became president, and later CEO, the company was very client-focused.
“I was able to put emphasis on making an employee-centric company, creating a place where people wanted to come to work, where their neighbors and their children would aspire to come to work here,” he said.
Over the years, Novakoski and his team landed on a concept he called the “six-pack abs” company, or being “culturally ripped,” in his terms.
The “abs” reference also is an acronym for artifacts, beliefs and stories.
Some of the artifacts can be seen scattered throughout Novakoski’s office and the E&V building, including books he has authored and numerous trophies the company has won under his leadership, including Michigan Contractor of the Year for 2012 and 2016, and West Michigan’s Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in 2017.
“Over the last, say, 15 years, we’ve had this transformation to where this company has become highly regarded and award-winning,” he said. “That was a very intentional act to get to that point.”
Most recently, E&V was awarded the Medium Business Best of the Best for 2018, the highest honor given to a medium-sized business by West Michigan’s Best and Brightest. Novakoski revealed it was the culmination of a seven-year companywide strategy to win that specific recognition.
“We aspire to be best of the best in this program, and we just got it,” he said.
Novakoski also boasted, since adopting an employee-centric business model, the company is going on almost 11 years with no lost-time accidents and was subsequently awarded the Associated Builders and Contractors National Safety Excellence Award at the ABC Excellence in Construction Gala in Long Beach, California, in March
“We feel the project would be a failure if there was any injury whatsoever,” Novakoski said. “We received a top honor with this trade organization of 21,000 members, and little old Elzinga & Volkers in Holland, Michigan, wins the top award.”
About 10 years before E&V had all these accolades, the company was renovating the lobby for a hospital and found an old, empty trophy case. One of the project managers asked Novakoski if he wanted to bring it back to the office.
For a long time, the case stood empty, and staff members were confused as to why Novakoski had an empty trophy case in the lobby.
“If we want to be an award-worthy company, we should be prepared to have a place to put it,” Novakoski said. “The goal is to behave in a way that allows us to fill this up. Whether we get the award or not, we’re getting better.”
Now, the 6-foot-by-2-foot trophy case is stuffed with awards, and the awards that didn’t fit are scattered throughout the building.
Novakoski is not subtle about his intent for E&V to be the best. Reiterating his company’s slogan, “Unmistakably E&V,” he said it’s important the company sets itself apart from others in the industry by how it operates.
That “unmistakable” attitude has resulted in the type of work environment Novakoski aspired to when he first sat in the president’s seat, to be a place where people want to work.
And in an industry currently suffering a crunch for skilled labor, such an environment gives them an edge.
“Last year, we had zero voluntary turnover,” Novakoski said. “No one left because they had a better opportunity, and this is a market where people are poached all the time.”
Under Novakoski’s leadership, the company also has grown from being a Michigan-only firm to serving between 20-30 states, and from $20 million in yearly revenue to roughly $100 million regionally and $200 million nationally.
Novakoski attributed the last 15 years of success to “right-brain” leadership. To him, it’s more valuable to be driven by creativity, and developing relationships with employees and clients than just crunching numbers.
He likened his approach to E&V to the opening scenes in “The Wizard of Oz,” when Dorothy is caught in a twister and is transported from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz.
“When I likened business to that story, I said what if the front door to Elzinga & Volkers was like the front door to Dorothy’s house, and when you opened it going to work, you’re no longer going into the black-and-white dustbowl of Kansas, you were opening it going to this Technicolor filled world of Oz where you’re meeting all this cast of characters,” Novakoski said.
As a leader, he said it’s important to be open with his managers and, by extent, setting the tone for those under him to be open, as well.
“It’s not just news, sports and weather. It’s really getting deeper with each other,” he said. “When I go to a leadership retreat and I share something deep and personal about myself … and they, in turn, share something deep about themselves, the next day we’re a completely different group.”
The deep level of trust and vulnerability Novakoski strives for among his employees translates to the relationship between the builder and client, in the hopes that projects turn into long-term friendships.
“I need to perform in an unmistakable way, and at the end of the day … the client is going to say, ‘We’ve never been treated this way by a contractor before, and I can’t imagine bringing anybody else on-site,’” he said.
One example he gave was working for clients who had ongoing business operations during construction. He said he was proud to complete a project for them without interrupting their business in any way.
“That usually meant a win,” he said. “When people were having a party when you were done, and you were still invited, that was a big compliment; versus, ‘good riddance.’”