Steve, left, and Craig Datema now run the company started by Craig’s great-grandfather, George, in 1918. Courtesy Triangle Associates
One hundred years after a Grand Rapids carpenter and his two sons founded what would become Triangle Associates Inc., the long-standing general contractor still is growing and bracing for a tight project schedule in summer 2018.
George Datema, great-grandfather to current president Craig Datema, founded George Datema and Sons Construction in 1918. His sons, Roy and Claude, joined the company when Roy was just 16.
“It was really my grandfather (Roy) that helped grow the business,” Craig Datema said. “By his mid-20s, he was really the one running the show.”
The company originally began as an exclusively residential developer before branching off into the commercial market in the mid-1920s. Craig’s son, Steve, said a lot of old colonial houses along the Plainfield Avenue corridor were built by George Datema and Sons.
“We recently were contacted by a new owner that was performing some renovations and found a piece of baseboard trim signed George Datema and Claude Datema 1926,” Steve Datema said. “A lot has changed to some of those older projects, but the ‘meat and potatoes’ are still there.”
George Datema and Sons originally was a union shop contractor that did most of its labor in-house, from foundations to masonry and framing.
“The tradesmen back then were more jacks-of-all-trades. They could do all things,” Craig Datema said.
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, George Datema and Sons’ capacity for self-performance was one of the key factors allowing the company to stay in business while other contractors failed.
“The fact that they were able to rely on themselves throughout the Depression and understand the fact that it was on their backs to work harder and get through it; it was up to them to keep the buildings going up and keep the money going in,” Steve Datema said.
The Depression did, however, take its toll on the Datema family, causing both George and Roy to lose their homes. After the Depression, George Datema bought a new home and moved the business there in 1934.
Craig said the company really started to grow during the post-WWII boom. By this time, Roy Datema had become the company’s sole owner. Under his leadership, the company grew to become the largest general contracting firm in the area.
Craig’s father, Roy Datema Jr., started Triangle Associates Inc. as a nonunion company running parallel with George Datema and Sons in 1963.
“Around 1970, the unions went on strike with George Datema and Sons,” Craig said. “(They) did not settle with the unions and decided to shut down George Datema and Sons and continue on as Triangle.”
Craig said he remembered working on the Towers Medical Office Building, where Medical Mile now is located, when the switch happened. The building was completed in 1971 and was the last project completed by George Datema and Sons.
Similar to his grandfather, Craig Datema started working for Triangle when he was 16 years old, working his way up from pushing the broom to tying steel for reinforcing concrete structures.
“Today, we wouldn’t allow a 16-year-old to work on a construction site for safety purposes,” he said.
Craig Datema started working for the company full time as a project manager in 1984 and took over as president in 1993.
In 1987, the company completed restoration of the Ledyard Building, on which Craig Datema served as project manager. He said it was the first significant historical renovation in downtown Grand Rapids.
Two years ago, the building’s new owners, CWD, contracted Triangle to remodel the interiors.
“It was seven independent buildings that we combined into a single structure,” Craig Datema said. “One of the buildings, the floors didn’t match up at all, so we actually created new floor systems to match the adjacent buildings.”
Between, 1993 and 2008, Triangle grew from revenues of $14 million per year to over $125 million. The company grew by expanding into construction management as a delivery system and working with local public school systems to manage their construction needs.
“Today, our public education is still one of our strongest market segments,” Craig Datema said.
During the 1993-2008 growth, Triangle completed Kentwood Public Schools’ $65-million districtwide building program and completed construction on Gerald R. Ford Middle School. In 2008, Portage Public Schools hired the company for a $120-million facility improvement program, which the company said is its largest contract to date.
“Eventually, we got to over $150 million a year as a sustainable revenue, which is where we are today,” Craig Datema said.
Triangle also maintained about one-third of its business as a general contractor, keeping labor in-house and pricing projects with its own work crew. But when the 2008 recession hit, projects became scarce, and specialty contractors became more competitive, impacting the labor pool for Triangle and the construction industry as a whole.
“Today, we see that self-performance coming back as a competitive advantage,” Craig Datema said. “There is a limitation as to qualified workers working for subcontractors, and we are developing our own people internally so we can maintain that competitive advantage.”
“We did a lot of self-performance in concrete for wastewater treatment plants, where we’d have north of 200 guys working for Triangle on a single job site,” Steve Datema said. “That would fluctuate significantly, but we’ve been able to maintain a pretty steady base of carpentry workers — anywhere from 20 to 40 depending on the time of year.”
Currently, Craig Datema estimated the company’s workforce to be about 30 and is looking to grow that workforce to meet demands for the summer job list.
For summer 2018, Triangle is breaking ground on two outpatient surgical centers for Mercy Health in Hudsonville and Muskegon, reconverting Breton Village Mall, remodeling Bill and Paul’s Sporthaus on East Paris Avenue and renovating the Park Place Hotel in Traverse City.
The company also has projects lined up for Spectrum Health, Kool and Fox Motors, Climax-Scotts Schools, Montague Public Schools, Wayland Union Schools and several others in the retail, residential and public school markets.
In recognition of its 100th anniversary, Triangle is hosting “100 Days of Giving,” where the company will give 100 days (800 hours) of total paid leave to its employees to volunteer at various organizations in West Michigan.
Well House is one organization participating in the project. Volunteers can participate in the organization’s residential construction project to renovate old buildings into affordable housing on the southwest side of downtown Grand Rapids.
“We’re donating our labor and expertise to help supplement their workforce,” Steve Datema said, “because they work 100 percent off grants and are only able to move as far as the grants allow them to.”
“Part of my philosophy has always been to get that charitable giving down to the employee level,” Craig Datema said. “We’re all very blessed that we have good jobs in a good industry in a good community. I think people get a lot of empowerment by being able to participate directly with these organizations.”