John Wheeler, the former CEO and co-founder of Rockford Construction Company Inc., joined Orion Construction Inc. late last year after a three-year hiatus from the industry. In 2009, he sold his shares in Rockford to 17 members of the firm and sold off 36 other real estate holdings, but he said he maintains a working relationship with his former colleagues as they collectively still own real estate partnerships together.
Now Wheeler, the fourth partner and VP of business development and communication at Orion, is back inbusiness along with former employees, this time as a contemporary.
Perhaps a further signal of what's to come for Orion, the company will move its offices to downtown Grand Rapids. The firm will occupy the second and third floors at 32 Market Avenue near Van Andel Arena, the same building that once housed Rockford Construction years ago.
Wheeler said moving downtown signifies a major step in getting the business to the next level and continuing to define itself among an industry group of highly skilled contractors.
Despite a challenging construction market, Wheeler told MiBiz that he hopes to bring even more depth to the growing construction company.
"When times are good you coast, but when times are bad you get really good," he said. "I've been through three recessions in a 36-year career. That's when you flourish."
While he obviously wants Orion to succeed, his expectations fall short of helping create another company the size of Rockford.
"When you get that big and all you're doing is managing people, it sucks all the creative juices out of the job," Wheeler said of his last few years with Rockford. "That's not me. That's not how I like to work. I'm kind of a deal junkie."
Gary Postma and John Boonstra, both former employees of Wheeler's while at Rockford, started Orion in 2000. Since then, the company has taken on several notable projects including the Flat Iron Building downtown, Brewery Vivant, and Gazelle Sports in Kentwood.
"(Orion) has a stellar reputation: Banks love them and clients love them," Wheeler said. "My quest is to really take Orion to the next level of being the go-to construction company in Grand Rapids, and in the state of Michigan, really."
Quality, not quantity
Wheeler said he achieved the goals he had outlined for Rockford, but found that when the company got as large as it did, he felt like he was in a constant pursuit of deal volume. He wants to avoid that issue at Orion.
"We don't want to be the biggest. We want to be the best," he said. "There are a lot of guys who do what we do, but what makes Orion unique is that my partners are in charge of the jobs they sell."
One of Orion's partners will have some contact in every project, Wheeler said.
Orion is a debt-free company, and that has its advantages, Wheeler said. Because the partners had been successful in the past and made good personal investments, the company didn't start with people having to make huge salaries, he said. That way, Orion can operate with very low overhead, he said.
"To be debt-free in this economy is a major gift," he said. "When you have that, it's easy to get out there with confidence and sell a good job."
Looking back, Wheeler said he is focused on not repeating past mistakes. In particular, he said he wants to ensure that projects stay within a manageable distance from headquarters so that everyone in the company can maintain a stable home life.
"Our focus is Michigan. That's not to say we won't go to Indiana, Ohio or Wisconsin, but when you start doing jobs far away, it puts tremendous stress on families," he said. "Quite frankly, (when) you send guys away for a long time, it breaks up families, and I'm not into that at all. I watched it happen before and I should have been more vocal."
Wheeler remains focused on developing business and building Orion's reputation in Michigan before looking elsewhere.
"My business strategy for Orion is we're going to develop in the state of Michigan and we're going to do a great job, specifically in urban renewal in downtown Grand Rapids. I want to continue that quest," he said.
Focus on construction only
Unlike other construction firms that also have development offshoots, Orion is strictly a general contractor and won't be getting into the development business.
"We have no desire to compete with our clients," Wheeler said. "There are a lot of developers out there already and we want to build for them."
He said the company wants to focus on client relationships and efficient turnaround on proposals.
"We want to have a quick response team," Wheeler said. "Sometimes we can do a 24-hour turnaround for drawings and pricing for our clients. It's a growing part of our business."
The company isn't turning down smaller projects either. Wheeler said Orion will work on projects from $5,000 on up, including small remodeling jobs and tenant build-outs for developers.
"The whole deal is asking, 'How do we bring value?' We like being a on a bid list where there are 10 or (fewer companies). That gives us a pretty good chance of getting the job," he said.
While the company does pursue smaller jobs, it also uses all its tools to land bigger projects, including a $27 million convention center with a culinary school in Port Huron, Grand Valley State University's new cadaver lab, and a large industrial project in Sarnia, Ontario. Orion also recently wrapped on an expansion and renovation of Blythefield County Club in Belmont.