Word of mouth and forming connections in the building industry has contributed greatly to the success of Mark Schaafsma’s contract company. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Mark Schaafsma was having drinks at Bar Divani one day nearly a decade ago and started up a chance conversation with a fellow patron.
The new acquaintance was talking about a bar he was planning to open at the former Sierra Room location a few doors down on Ionia Avenue and asked Schaafsma what he did for a living.
“Well, I’m a contractor,” Schaafsma, the owner of Mark Schaafsma Design Build, recalls saying.
It was a serendipitous moment for Schaafsma, who ended up serving as contractor for HopCat for now-friend and Barfly Ventures founder Mark Sellers, followed by two more Barfly projects in downtown Grand Rapids — Stella’s Lounge and Grand Rapids Brewing Co.
Now, Schaafsma considers breweries, bars and distilleries among the specialties of his firm, and it started with Sellers.
“That was really the start of it, meeting Mark,” he said. “Even though he was just getting into it, we were learning together. It was a great experience, and we both learned how the process works and trusted each other.”
“It’s funny, though, because I don’t drink beer,” he added.
While breweries are a relatively new segment of the local construction industry, the Schaafsma family has a decades-long history in construction. His grandfather started Schaafsma Aluminum Siding back in the 1940s. His father was an executive at Keebler, but took on moonlight siding jobs on off days to help put Schaafsma and his three older sisters through “good Christian education.”
Being the lone son in a family of four children, Schaafsma began helping his dad when he was 8 years old — mostly handing him the tools he needed.
“That introduced me to the construction world,” he said. “It also gave me and my dad good quality time, and it’s something that’s hard to do today. I have two sons, but it’s harder to get them involved. It’s a different era.”
Growing up in Jenison, Schaafsma said many of his friends and classmates had family in the construction industry. Eventually, his youngest sister began dating a boy whose father owned a construction firm, and Schaafsma got a job there. It started off with small tasks such as cleaning the office and trucks on the weekend or organizing supplies.
He moved up in the hierarchy while working summers during high school and finally working full time on job sites. At the time, the firm built a lot of Pizza Huts and completed Ponderosa Steak House remodels.
“I attribute a lot of that to my success because, early on, I learned about (the) franchise business and I liked it,” said Schaafsma, whose clients now include Michigan’s Five Guys Burger and Fries locations. “Five Guys has really brought me back to my roots.”
After about three years, Schaafsma went to work for Pioneer Construction, where he was taught about various building trades.
“I did all sorts of projects with Pioneer. They are a great, very successful, company,” he said.
“I learned a lot in a fast-paced, growth company. They like to train you in all facets of the industry and individual trades as you’re working through the supervision program, and I really enjoyed that,” he said.
Eventually, however, Schaafsma saw that rising through the ranks at a large firm is not guaranteed, and at age 25, he figured he’d take the risk and start his own business in order to make the most of his skills.
“I was young and saw the writing on the wall and said, ‘I think it’s time to try this,’” he said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs in the feast or famine construction world. But it’s been an amazing industry to be a part of.”
Early on, he worked mostly in residential and light commercial, as well as interior remodels.
In the early 2000s, Schaafsma helped build a lot of houses in Cascade Township before launching almost exclusively into commercial work in 2005-2006.
Since meeting Sellers, he said there’s been a steady line of jobs for the company, and much of it has been word of mouth and various connections. Once his Grand Rapids projects with Sellers were finished, he said Sellers’ then “right-hand guy,” Sam Short, was moving on to projects of his own in Lansing, including The Beer Grotto and consulting for Lansing Brewing Co., and Short brought Schaafsma along.
That business relationship led to another with Lansing developer Pat Gillespie.
“Word of mouth has been huge for us,” Schaafsma said. “They usually ask if we want to look at a project and have an opening in our schedule.”
Schaafsma’s company is small; last year at peak times it had six employees. Most of the time it’s just two, and he likes it that way, but it becomes a challenge not to get overbooked.
He largely credits the subcontractors he works with for the success of his company.
“Good subs are the key, and a lot have been with me from the start of this thing,” he said. “They are the bloodline in West Michigan and why we have so many good contractors.”
Last year, Mark Schaafsma Design Build completed five main projects — Beer Grotto, Lansing Brewing Co. and three Five Guys locations. He also helped install milk shake machines at all of the Michigan Five Guys locations across the state — an easy task, but one that had to be done at night.
When Barfly was looking to expand its HopCat concept, Schaafsma said he was asked to provide quotes, but ultimately he decided against pursuing it. HopCat now has formed a relationship with Wolverine Building Group, a company more suited to the task than his small firm, Schaafsma said.
“I was divorced with young kids, and I couldn’t travel,” he said. “I did that for a while working on Pizza Huts and I really didn’t want to do it again. It was a tough choice, but it’s worked out fine.”
Now he travels some to Lansing and Detroit for projects, but his children are a bit older — and he re-married in August.
His travels to Lansing to work on Lansing Brewing Co. helped him launch the design portion of his business.
“They wanted us in on the ground floor and wanted us to help design it from the ground up,” Schaafsma said. “Usually there are plans drawn and you just have to add your flair. But it was nice they wanted us to lend our expertise in the industry to the project.”
Looking ahead to 2016, Schaafsma said it’ll be another busy year for his small firm. He is taking on several small distillery projects in the West Michigan area. Distilleries are the next frontier, he believes, and he is happy to bridge the gap in building and design.
“It’s a funny draw for our company’s specialties, but the projects want a unique character,” he said. “You have to be hands-on, and I think people like that we have the knowledge of how the industry works and what we’ve done and what’s worked.”