At age 31, he oversees the largest contracting firm in West Michigan, Pioneer Inc., a company offering general contracting, construction management and design/build services.
Schowalter, the company’s president, got a taste of the construction business in high school, working on crews constructing houses for a Kalamazoo-based builder.
While pursuing a degree in civil engineering at Michigan State University, he interned for Granger Construction Co. in Lansing, where he was exposed to the commercial construction market. Upon graduating from MSU in 1995, he joined Pioneer Construction as a job cost accountant and an assistant project manager.
He subsequently became a project manager and started routing projects for Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College, both of which were among his first clients.
From there, he was promoted to vice president of project administration, which entailed oversight of all Pioneer’s construction management projects and a lot of coordination with job site superintendents and other project managers at Pioneer. He went on to serve as senior vice president for 18 months and was promoted to president in August of last year.
Schowalter says his day-to-day activities — in addition to generating new business — involve a lot of contact with clients concerning their projects. On the front end, he’s heavily involved with planning, as well as developing budgets and realistic construction schedules. From there, he’s responsible for making sure projects start and stay on schedule.
He said one of the highlights of his tenure with Pioneer was working with a safety committee a few years ago to restructure the company’s safety program.
“Construction is an inherently risky business and we wanted to take additional steps to protect our employees, so we put an incentive-based safety program in place that has resulted in a safety culture within the company.
“We completed more than a half-million labor hours last year with zero lost-time accidents, which is unheard of in the construction industry.”
By and large, about 90 percent of Pioneer’s business is in West Michigan, but the company does serve all of Michigan and has undertaken out of state construction projects, as well.
“We have typically gone outside the state with owners from West Michigan that know us and take us with them so that they have a trusted, construction arm of their team working in what may be unknown territory for them,” he explained.
Schowalter said Pioneer Construction will take on just about any size or type of project.
“People sometimes associate a big construction company with only being interested in the big, landmark projects you see off the highway. Those are great, and they’re challenging projects. But by and large, the majority of our business involves projects of $2 million and under.
“That small project market is something that we still strive to market ourselves in.”
Currently, Pioneer’s business mix runs about 40 percent commercial construction and 40 percent institutional, which includes educational and health-care projects.
Industrial construction accounts for the remaining 20 percent.
“We’re trying to focus on the areas that are growing and have been doing really well even in a down economy, and that’s been the medical and retail businesses.”
He said the company also has done a lot of work in the higher education market, health-care market and commercial market, and prides itself on being able to tackle any type of project that comes along.
“When a special project comes along that has a big price tag and is a high risk for the client, they want to deal with somebody who is financially secure and has the bonding capability to bond a project anywhere from $50 million to $100 million. Only so many contractors in the area are able to do that.”
Part of the company’s strength is its in-house resources, Schowalter said.
Pioneer has 300 full-time, skilled workers, 25 fully staffed crews and a fleet of cranes, heavy equipment and support vehicles.
“We have to make promises every single day about costs and budgets, and it’s nice to know we can keep our promises because we have the resources behind us to live up to our word.
“If you ask a client what stands out about Pioneer, I think, by and large, they’ll say we’re the company that has the resources to get the job done.”
Pioneer has its own concrete crews and steel crews that pour the foundations and put up the steel. He estimates that subcontractors perform about 75 percent of a contract’s total dollar value.
“That part of the project is very critical to being able to meet a schedule, so we control those aspects of the job,” Schowalter explained. “On the tail end of the project, we also have our own finish carpenters and that’s how we control the quality expectations.
“That’s pretty unique in the business to have those three areas covered in the size we have them covered.”
From a size and design perspective, Grand Valley State University’s Richard M. DeVos Center was among the most challenging projects Pioneer has undertaken, he said.
DeVos Center had a complex design and a lot of unique characteristics, from a tower with 48 bells imported from France to a glass atrium plaza, he recalled, adding that Pioneer “is extremely proud” to have been the builder of that project.
Most of the company’s high profile construction projects are clustered in the downtown Grand Rapids area, including Bridgewater Place and GVSU’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences. The biggest challenge with downtown projects is that there is little land on which to build a building, he said. But delivery schedules, road closures, pedestrian traffic and maintaining a safe area around a job site also create challenges, he added.
Just about every Pioneer project — excepting those running six weeks or less — is featured on the company’s Web site to keep clients and subcontractors abreast of the progress.
Pioneer has also been involved in two major historical renovations over the past five years. One was the Boardwalk apartments in the former Berkey & Gay buildings on north Monroe Avenue and a similar project west of the river in the American Seating park that includes 80 apartment units for college students in one wing and commercial space in the other.
One of the larger projects Pioneer has going right now is construction of a new 110,000-square-foot surgery center on Lake Drive and East Paris Avenue and a new, 950-space, five-level parking structure downtown for GVSU.
Schowalter’s goal is to grow Pioneer “conservatively.”
“I want to pick up solid, long-term clients that we can develop relationships with and work with through the years.
“The clients that we’re most interested in,” he said, “are the clients that have an aggressive growth plan and challenging projects. I do want Pioneer to be known as the company you go to for challenging projects.”