Inside Track: Novakoski sets himself apart through lifelong learning


Mike Novakoski uses innovative thinking and “best of” leadership skills to keep his employees happy. Photo by Michael Buck

While many construction-related businesses are struggling to find the talent needed to operate in an increasingly good construction climate, Mike Novakoski said his company isn’t among them.

Novakoski credits the culture at Elzinga & Volkers for its ability to attract and retain talent. He is a strong believer in making the workplace one where employees want to come to work every day instead of counting down the days to retirement.

“When somebody is 60 and someone asks, ‘Are you going to retire in five years?’ I want somebody to say, ‘I hadn’t really thought about it. I love what I am doing, I’m enjoying it, I’m having fun. No rush,’” he said.

“If I can create a company like that — where people don’t even think about retirement … that is the essence of why it’s so important to have a phenomenal culture.”

In order to make that a reality, Novakoski has focused a tremendous amount of his time and effort toward creating a culture that values having fun.

Elzinga & Volkers is an eight-time recipient of West Michigan’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For award, including six Elite Awards and one at the national level.

Novakoski said his team takes the extensive Best and Brightest survey very seriously.

“We created committees, did in-depth studies of how we did with recognition, compensation, benefits — all of it, and we changed who we were to make sure we were award worthy,” Novakoski said.

He noted a lot of times the changes can be small and simple, yet can have a huge impact.

“One of our people came up with an annual stakeholders meeting — just to have everybody come together in January and talk about the year in review and give inspiration about where we are heading next year,” Novakoski said.


Elzinga & Volkers
Position: CEO, President & Co-owner
Age: 48
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Grand Haven
Family: Wife, Liz, and four children, Noah, Madison, Faith and KT.
Business/Community Involvement: Recently stepped down from position as chairperson of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Roundtable and completed a term on the Tri-Cities YMCA board.
Biggest Career Break: Joining the Young Presidents’ Organization.


He said the company holds several employee outings throughout the year with the dual purpose of having fun and building camaraderie. He described a couple of his favorite staff excursions he’s put together.

“Last year me and another guy planned a geocaching event,” he said. “Instead of a boring management meeting, I said, ‘Bring comfortable clothes; you are going to be put into groups and we are going to do something different.’ They spent the whole day doing that.”

He also organized 65 members of his staff and their families to participate in the 5K Warrior Dash obstacle course last fall.

“The next Monday when you come in, you’ve totally changed the dynamics of the relationships with the workers when they’ve crawled under barbwire together, laughing, all dirty,” he said.

Novakoski said he gets a lot of his inspiration from training in which he’s participated that has helped him grow his leadership skills. He’s participated in Leadership Holland, Leadership Grand Rapids, Leadership West Michigan and Leadership Connect.

“I love lifelong education,” he said. “I’ve been a big fan of the leadership programs.”

Novakoski said he’s also been offered a tremendous opportunity to learn from other leaders through the Young Presidents’ Organization.

He joined YPO in 2007 and is still a member today.

“I was a youthful leader, president of the company, 40ish — basically taking over the reins, buying the company out and having to learn how to do all these things for the first time,” he said. “It’s a remarkable network of peers who are there to share their experience to help me build my business better.”

He said the training he’s received through the forums provided through YPO and the monthly meetings he attends with other business leaders have had a dramatic impact on his leadership and what he’s done at E&V.

“My eyes have been so widely opened by the leadership of others, and I get to take that back and use that ‘best of’ to create what we have here today,” he said.

Most recently, he participated in the Innovative Methods Certification Program offered through New North Center, in Holland.

“Basically, you are doing 30 all-day Friday sessions on innovative thinking,” he explained. “In the program they talk about your left brain and right brain. It’s given me such a different view on the world.”

He said he values the importance of bringing right-brain thinking into a traditionally left-brain profession and environment.

“A company simply run on left-brain activity is not a fun place to work,” he said. “I’ve been able to bring the right brain into the culture, sales and life of E&V.”

One project that came out of the right-brain/left-brain training was having each employee, including himself, create a “UMap.”

“Every person in our company has one of these,” he said.

The map includes an employee’s logo, personal goals, an inspirational quote, the person’s top five responsibilities and more. Each member of the company was asked to share his or her UMap, which Novakoski said helps keep everyone connected and focused on their place within the company.

Novakoski created his logo using the “E” and “V” from Elzinga & Volkers, surrounded by a happy face and the infinity symbol.

“Which means I want to keep everybody happy all the time,” he explained.

The inspirational quote he chose comes from the wise words of Yoda in “Star Wars”: “Do or do not, there is no try.”

“I love that,” he said.

Another driving force behind the company’s success, he said, is the idea of doing an “unmistakable E&V” job.

“It’s what we are doing that only E&V does — that nobody else does. It’s unmistakable, just us,” he explained.

It can be something as simple as an employee picking up a piece of trash blowing through the parking lot of a worksite to writing a thank-you letter to the building inspectors the company worked with on a project.

“What other contractors do that?” he asked. “It’s unmistakably E&V.”

Novakoski said in addition to helping with recruitment and retention, setting the company apart also builds loyalty with other professionals, including trade contractors, who E&V depends on to get jobs done.

He said in a great market like the current one, “I can’t guarantee I’ll get a mason, drywaller and electrician unless they really want to work for us,” so his goal is to make sure they do.

Novakoski’s commitment to setting his company apart from the competition no doubt comes from his own commitment to set himself apart.

He said after graduating from Ferris State University with a degree in construction management and landing a job at Elzinga & Volkers, he took a look around and realized he was one of 45 guys just like him.

To set himself apart, he decided to go back to school for an MBA degree.

“I remembered reading an article that said the leadership of construction companies is sometimes skewed by somebody who came from the field and has the trades and craftsman skills but not necessarily the business skills,” he explained.

“I was looking at our company, run by the second-generation Elzingas — Paul and Marty. One was an architect and the other was an engineer — neither were trained business managers. They did a great job; we had a thriving company. Yet I said to myself, ‘How do I set myself apart?’ To give myself skills that I needed in the future for life in this business.”

Today, Novakoski is leading a thriving business.

“In my nearly 30 years of doing this, this is the best year I’ve ever seen for our company,” he said. “It’s the highest amount of revenue, the most opportunity. … People are knocking on our door. They are leaving other companies to come work for us because of what they are hearing.”

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