Triangle's leadership team includes, top from left, Anita Rathbun, Josh Szymanski, Jeff Jelke and Nancy Stellini, and bottom from left, Brent Gibson, Craig Datema, Jim Huyser, Mitch Watt and Jeff Scott. Photo by Michael Buck
Woodrow Wilson was president, the Cubs made it to the World Series but lost to the Red Sox, and World War I came to an end the year George Datema started Triangle Associates Inc.
The year was 1918 and, technically, Datema didn’t start the local construction firm. But he was the founder of George Datema & Sons, the small start-up that grew up to become a prolific family-run and employee-owned building company that turns 95 this year.
“I think what’s unique about Triangle and perhaps sets us apart is we’re part of the family business tradition here in West Michigan. The company was started by my great-grandfather, and he wanted a business for his boys to go into,” said Craig Datema, Triangle chairman and CEO, who became the firm’s president in 1993.
“One of the founding principles of the company was to create opportunities for multiple generations. That was a large part of the success and succession for over three generations, with myself now being the fourth,” he added.
Roy Datema Sr. marked the second generation as the firm’s leader; he was followed by his son, Roy Datema Jr.
Now it’s Craig’s turn to steer the ship. But as he pointed out, Triangle differs from some other family-driven businesses because its ownership hasn’t been restricted to those with the Datema surname.
“Over that time, we’ve also had other people in the organization, who are not family members, become part owners. I think what makes us unique is we have the value of a family business, we treat and think of all of our employees here as family members. But we’re really an employee-owned and managed company,” he said.
“That’s so important in construction. It’s part of the relationship commitment that we’re giving to our top customers. They put an awful lot of faith in us to complete their projects to the quality standards that we all expect.”
Datema said he believes the company’s longevity has provided some comfort for customers who have chosen Triangle, along with confidence that they’ve selected a quality performer. He said every employee assigned to a project has a personal stake in doing a good job because as an owner each has a personal investment in every project’s outcome.
Triangle has 105 employees and is continuing to expand its ownership and senior management. Just recently, Josh Szymanski and Brent Gibson were made vice presidents. Szymanski heads the business development side of the firm, while Gibson does the same for operations. Datema said both are seen as future leaders.
“We’re continuing to grow the company with key employees,” he added.
Mitch Watt, formerly of URS, is one of those key senior managers. Watt came to Triangle about six years ago as the chief business development officer and has been the firm’s president for three years. He is also a shareholder. But Watt really didn’t come in as an outsider; he established a bond with Triangle in the late 1980s while he was designing for URS when it still was Daverman Associates.
“Triangle was renovating the Ledyard Building, which is downtown at 125 Ottawa. I was the designer on that project. Craig Datema was the project manager for Triangle and was working with his dad. That was my first relationship with Craig and his dad. They had a great project that turned out fantastic, and our companies continued to work together on a number of K-12 school projects,” said Watt.
“Craig and I actually became friends over that time. So when the company came to me and talked to me about my role at Triangle, it was an easy transition for me to make. I also knew a lot of the other partners and a lot of the staff, having worked with them personally,” he added. “So I had a lot of faith and confidence in the company and have seen over the years where it was going.”
Both Datema and Watt said their favorite Triangle project is the Gallery on Fulton, which the firm built for CWD Real Estate Investment at the southwest corner of Fulton Street and Division Avenue. The company owns a third of the development that includes UICA, an apartment complex and a city-built parking ramp.
“Since we built it, the apartments are fully leased and very successful. UICA is continuing to grow and expand in that facility, and the city of Grand Rapids parking facility is part of that structure. So we really have three sets of customers that we had to keep working with, and everything came together,” said Datema.
“It was a very successful project that I think, architecturally, generated some real interest in the downtown skyline, as well.”
Watt said the business future looks pretty bright from his seat in Triangle’s office. He said the firm made it through a tough period a few years ago, which nearly everyone in the industry experienced, but the company actually came out of it in a better position.
“When the downturn happened we were able to keep our best folks and now we’re building an even stronger team than that. So I couldn’t actually be more positive and more excited about what is out there,” he said.
Now Watt said the firm is excited about its latest project: building the Fox Ford and Lincoln dealership in Chicago. It’s DP Fox Ventures’ first entry and Triangle’s first project in that market. Work is expected to begin in March. Triangle is working with Gensler, a noted architectural firm, on what is likely to become a historical project for the company.
“It’s a 30-million-dollar-plus project — a sizeable job near the north side of downtown. So it’s really exciting to be a part of the Chicago market,” said Watt.
“When I came to the company, we really weren’t doing anything outside of Michigan. Now we’re in Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. We’re starting to branch out to new geographic markets. So this is particularly rewarding to have a great client like Fox Motors take us to Chicago with them.”
Triangle Associates actually surfaced in the early 1960s, and George Datema & Sons transferred all of its business to Triangle in the 1970s. But for Craig Datema, Triangle Associates really came into its own a bit later when it created and adopted a tag line for the business that summarized its philosophy, values and intent in just five words: “a client-centered construction company.”
“That’s how our company is really known, and that has helped us as we’ve expanded in different markets in different states. We can’t always use the name Triangle Associates. We can use the name Triangle Associates Construction Group in a number of states,” said Datema. “But we just call ourselves Triangle, A Client-Centered Construction Company.”