Wolverine Owners Are
Perfect Fit For Running
21st Century Company
A little yin and yang at the top has proven to be successful for Wolverine Building Group. Co-owners Michael Kelly and Richard VanderZyden readily admit that each has skills the other lacks, providing a perfect fit for running the 21st century version of what started out 68 years ago as a tile company.
“Dick comes with a business background; he’s a numbers, accounting type,” Kelly said. “With my architectural background, I’m more of a technician — how does it go together, what people do we need in place in the field to get the work done? He has certain things he’s good at, things I would normally not care to do, and vice versa.”
“It’s been a great partnership. We have skills that complement each other,” VanderZyden added.
On The Job
Work on the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital is expected to commence this year. In addition, Wolverine Building Group’s recent projects include:
Fred & Lena Meijer Heart
Saint Mary’s Southwest
River House, condominiums
Icon on Bond, condominiums
Once known for pre-engineered metal buildings, Wolverine now is a design/build firm — with revenues for the current year estimated at $140 million, VanderZyden said — and heavily involved in health care construction. It has worked with local health care giant Spectrum Health to construct many buildings during its 10-year building spree, with the newest project, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, expected to get under way this year.
“I would say in the next two, three years, it (health care construction) will take up more than half our attention,” VanderZyden said.
Wolverine Building Group, headquartered at 4045 Barden Drive SE, employs about 125 people. The roster includes project managers, superintendents, foremen, journeymen, general trades, several architects and computer-aided design specialists, as well as an array of workers engaged in support services such as accounting, Kelly said.
The company was founded in 1939 by Peter Bouwman as a tile installation business. In the 1940s and 1950s, it became a Midwest leader in installing the porcelain tile that faced gasoline stations and eventually began building the stations, as well. Also in the 1950s, under the leadership of the founder’s son, James Bouwman, the company ventured into pre-engineered steel construction and became Wolverine Building Products. In the 1960s, the company acquired a Butler metal building franchise.
“Seventy percent of the buildings that were constructed on Roger B. (Chaffee Boulevard) were constructed by Wolverine, all as design-build projects in the late ’60s or early ’70s,” Kelly said.
“That’s when this concept of design-build came about, was in the mid-’60s. At the time, most people — architectural firms and a lot of construction companies — thought it was a flash in the pan, a fad that would last about three years and then fade off into oblivion. Obviously, it didn’t. Everybody nowadays has the claim to fame that they also have a design-build branch of their company.”
About 20 years ago, the company decided to widen its niche, Kelly said. In the 1970s and ’80s, Wolverine Building was anxious to shed its metal image and become a general commercial contractor.
“We quickly became thought of as ‘Wolverine: the pre-engineered metal building folks,’” Kelly said. “And it was probably in the mid-’80s (when) we wanted to break that stigma and be known as one of the best general contractors in West Michigan. So we purposely went out and took on projects that were not specifically metal building related.”
Kelly, who has been with the company since 1980, and VanderZyden, who was hired in 1988, completed taking ownership of the company from Stan Cheff in 2000.
Wolverine Building Group now has four divisions: Wolverine Building Inc., Wolverine Construction Management, Fryling Construction and Wolverine North America. Each division has its own focus area: commercial, health care, stick-built multi-unit residential. Wolverine North America was established in 2006 to handle the company’s growing number of projects outside of Michigan, Kelly said.
“They all kind of operate on their own, as if they are their own companies, their own profit and loss centers,” Kelly said.
Kelly said that Bob Fryling, before his well-publicized death, approached Wolverine Building about purchasing his construction company. After Fryling died, his widow repeated the request, and Kelly said Wolverine Building purchased the company, with a promise to retain the name.
“A lot of people ask, why do you still keep the Fryling name around? Fryling did have a good name in the construction industry for craftsmanship and Old World carpenters. The name had good name recognition in the marketplace,” Kelly said.
Wolverine Construction Management gives the company the opportunity to work with large-project clients from the beginning of a project, Kelly said.
“We also saw an opportunity, in that construction management was starting to come into vogue,” Kelly said. “Normally, these are large projects that are going to last two years, or sometimes longer. You enter into an agreement with the owner before the drawings are finalized. You become part of their team. That has carved a niche for itself in Michigan as it relates to the health care industry.”
Kelly and VanderZyden took different paths to end up in a similar place. Grand Rapids native VanderZyden’s route briefly stopped at Calvin College before leading him to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. After two years of working in Chicago, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina for an MBA, and remains a big fan of Tar Heel basketball. He joined Wolverine Building as a project manager in 1988.
Kelly grew up in Houghton and wanted to teach architecture and drafting. Part of his Ferris State University degree program required him to spend three months working in the field in which he wanted to teach, so he took a temporary job at Wolverine Building. When he graduated, he fielded three teaching job offers, all in Detroit. As a Yooper, he balked at working in the big city and ended up taking Wolverine Building’s offer for a full-time job.
“I said, ‘I want to teach children, but the teaching market does look pretty lousy. I’ll come back and work for a year to two.’ … Had I been able to get a teaching job in Grand Rapids, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
The father of four sons and a daughter, Kelly has coached football, soccer and hockey. He is a Caledonia Planning Commission member. VanderZyden, who has three daughters, serves on the Bethany Christian Services board and on the East Grand Rapids Planning Commission.
The company’s philosophy revolves around four core values: integrity, enjoyment, quality and improvement. Wolverine Building and its employees support a variety of community projects, including fund-raisers for local hospital foundations, VanderZyden said.
Wolverine Building still occasionally hears about the iconic gas stations it built years ago, Kelly said.
“There’s still some around,” Kelly said. “Every now and then, we get a photo in the mail and it says ‘Here’s an old Marathon station; I heard it had your panels on it.’ Fifty years later, and it’s still standing. It is amazing.” CQX