Every Year Gets Better


    John Wheeler
    Started Small And Has Watched Rockford Companies Grow By Leaps And Bounds

    For a man with an eye on the big picture, Rockford Companies Chairman and CEO John Wheeler doesn’t let the details escape him.

    “The first cardinal of the year — cool!” he exclaimed, as the red bird settled into a tree at the edge of an avian delight, the protected wetlands behind the Rockford Companies headquarters in Cascade Township.

    In the big picture, Wheeler was so convinced of his hometown’s potential that he acquired more than 2 million square feet of space in downtown Grand Rapids. Determined that the 20-year-old company he built with his brother-in-law, Rockford Companies President Mike VanGessel, survive the 21st century, Wheeler is guiding a plan to sell minority stockholder positions to a small group of employees.

    “We’re trying to build a perpetual company here that can service the construction community forever. As long as there’s a need, we want to be here,” Wheeler said.

    Rockford Construction, the company’s original division, is celebrating two decades since Wheeler, 52, started out by designing and remodeling cottages. He was soon joined by VanGessel, and together they’ve witnessed an annual growth rate of 12 percent to 20 percent, Wheeler said. From the pair working in Wheeler’s basement in a cottage on Brower Lake, the company has grown to 200-plus employees and $280 million in revenue, and works in 18 states.

    Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Wheeler, a West Catholic High School alum, studied architectural technology at Ferris State College, graduating in 1976. Four years later, he moved to Indianapolis, where he witnessed the beginning of that city’s downtown resurgence.

    After his father died in 1986 — the pair were so close, they graduated together from Ferris State University in 1976 — Wheeler returned to Grand Rapids, bringing along sons Jason, Ryan and Stephen and his high school sweetheart wife, Chris, then expecting their fourth son, John.

    “I decided it was time to try something on my own. … The job prospects were bleak. It was not a good time in the economy in 1987,” Wheeler said. “And so I thought, ‘Well, OK, we’ll give it a try.’ So we started in the basement of the house.

    “It was a little tenuous. As God has planned, it just worked out.”

    Wheeler is a pony-tailed, motorcycle-riding, generous executive. He’s known for spending time and money on causes he supports, such as the July 28 Rally for Hope and Hunger to raise money for God’s Kitchen and the Van Andel Institute. Wheeler and his company adopted an elementary school in Grand Rapids. He and Rockford Construction combined to donate $600,000 in cash and services toward the renovation of Ferris State’s football stadium. Support for nonprofits is built right into the company.

    “We have our nonprofit group that goes around and works with all the different nonprofits, like our job at Camp O’Malley and YMCAs and Grand Rapids Youth Commonwealth. That division is a subsidized division where you don’t charge a profit and you work inside of the parameters to help people. You cover your overhead. We can only do one or two of those a year, because you’ve got to do a lot of fundraising through subcontractors and supply markets, too. But if you’re in business long enough — 20 years — we’ve probably done 30 or 40 of them, and they leave an indelible mark on the community.”

    Wheeler said the same customer-focused philosophy that was on board at the company’s launch is “through and true to the company today: We just try harder. We work to eliminate our clients’ risks, or at least minimize them. We try lots of innovative ways to do things.”

    To that end, Wheeler said the company has invested $1 million in technology over the past few years.

    The company is divided into groups that specialize in particular areas. For example, Rockford Construction is wholeheartedly in the business of roll-outs. The company recently finished its 375th Family Video store and has built many Wendy’s Restaurants, Walgreens Drug Stores, Meijer stores and various banks. Other divisions concentrate on education, health care, big box retail, small retail, medical and specialty projects, such as partnering with Pepper Construction of Chicago to build the JW Marriott and the Grand Rapids Art Museum in downtown Grand Rapids, the company’s biggest jobs to date.

    “We have diversified a lot, and we’re going to continue to do that,” Wheeler said. “We feel that if we can be an expert in 10 or 15 divisions, then we have an opportunity even if several markets go soft. Our retail guys don’t build high-rise hotels, but for us to survive in this economy and to grow this company in the way we have visions for it to grow, we needed to become experts in many different fields, and that’s been our focus.”

    Wheeler said the company is always looking for ways to build more efficiently for retail customers, who are sensitive to timing issues. The first Wendy’s that Restaurant Rockford built took 96 days, he said. After the company had built 20 of them, the time was reduced to 60 days. “And when we built our 40th one, it took us 47 days, start to finish,” he said.

    Rockford Development was created to serve customers who prefer not to own their buildings. It also is the unit that has poured resources into downtown development.

    After watching the resurgence of the downtown district in Indianapolis, Wheeler said he was determined to invest in Grand Rapids.

    “I think the ultimate for me, personally, is blending both the development group and the construction group into the revitalization of our downtown,” Wheeler said. “We took a lot of risk on a lot of those buildings down there. We bought over 2.4 million square feet of dead empty buildings over the last 16 years — projects like Cherry Street Landing, Monroe Center (and) several other neighborhoods. I take more pleasure in that, seeing all these new things coming back to life — Cooley (Law School) and Western Michigan (University) and all the bars and restaurants down on Ionia (Avenue), Design Plus’ headquarters building down there — just all the things that we were able to take out of the dust and ashes, and dust them off and put them back into life.

    “I just love the resurgence of downtown. I think it’s the future for our kids.”

    It was that interest in reviving the city center that brought Wheeler into the orbit of former ambassador to Italy Peter Secchia, a Grand Rapids businessman and active Republican.

    “We were both looking to buy a building downtown, and I had heard he was looking at the same building, so I called him out of the blue and said, ‘I’d like to come and see you,’ and he said, ‘All right, you’ve got five minutes to come and see me.’

    “I said, ‘I’m thinking about buying this building’ and he said, ‘So am I,’ and he told me what he was going to do with it, and so I backed off on it. The five minutes was up and over and I said, ‘OK, fine, I’m out of here,’ and I thought I’d never hear from him again.

    “And maybe a couple weeks went by and he called me on the phone said, ‘What else are you going to be doing downtown?’ So I told him about the Peck Building and a few other things and he said, ‘Come down and talk to me about them,’ so I did.

    “We structured a partnership and he provided the financial wherewithal for us to start buying up all of Monroe Center and Cherry Street Landing and some other things.

    “Whether he would admit it or not, he took on quite a mentor role for me, and for many years he and I would get together and we would talk about everything from business (and) certainly about family and about integrity, and running a business with ethics and morals instead of rules and regulations.

    “He took a liking to a kind of a wild, little company like mine. He really has a passion for downtown. He’d never get involved in the design or how we were going to do it or manage it — never. He would just open the path and say, ‘If you want to do it, I’ll back you. I trust you.’

    “And that’s how that whole thing worked.”

    Wheeler also credits former Mayor John Logie, the City Commission and the Grand Action Committee for bringing the vision of downtown to fruition.

    Now another generation of Wheelers is investing in downtown Grand Rapids: sons Jason, 26, and Ryan, 24, have opened Grand Central Market, and their proud papa reports that they’re thinking of making another investment. “They’re really committed to downtown, which I really like,” Wheeler said.

    Son Stephen, 22, divides his time between missionary work in Africa and making and selling jewelry and artwork. The youngest, John, 18, plans to study environmental science at the University of Hawaii next fall. The family homestead and “motorcycle ranch” is a 10-acre spread near Cannonsburg Ski Area.

    “It has been better every year than it was the year before,” Wheeler said. “My job, my industry, everything that we do, I enjoy more every year. Nothing’s going backwards as far as I’m concerned. It’s always getting better.” CQ

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