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Sunday, 10 May 2015 22:00

Towner ensures Rockford Construction has the tools, support it needs to navigate growth

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Julie Towner, Rockford Construction Co. Julie Towner, Rockford Construction Co. PHOTO: KATY BATDORFF

As Rockford Construction Co. Inc. has gone through a period of intense growth and change in recent years, it needed to implement various initiatives that would help the general contractor mature with its business model.

That’s where CFO Julie Towner stepped up in a major way, executives said.

With dozens of construction and development projects completed in West Michigan and beyond in the last two years — as well as a move to a new corporate headquarters on Grand Rapids’ west side and the creation of a new property management business unit, Towner has had to juggle diverse needs within the $400 million company.

Key among those needs: Making sure Rockford Construction’s subcontractors are healthy and able to deliver on projects, she said.

“We talk to our subcontractors really on a daily basis. We talk about how much work they have on their plate, making sure they can handle this and what we can do to help them,” said Towner, this year’s winner of the 2015 MiBiz CFO of the Year Award in the Middle-Market category. “The last thing we need is for a subcontractor to fail on our project because that is a reflection on us.”

The way Towner sees it, the subcontractors Rockford partners with are trying to manage their own growth. When the company bids out work, it’s crucial that the selected subcontractors are able to perform as needed, she said. As the industry continues to get busier in West Michigan and beyond, Rockford Construction has to pay close attention so it does not overload its group of subcontractors.

She considers that oversight as one of her most important roles in the company.

“More companies fail during a period of growth than they do in a recessionary period,” Towner said. “That is something we are all really aware of.”

Towner manages the overall finances for Rockford Construction, as well as its two other business units: Rockford Development and Rockford Property Management. As CFO, she’s also in charge of filing 75 different tax returns each year.

The company operates in 44 states and also maintains an office in Bonita Springs, Fla.

INVESTING INTERNALLY

While Rockford has had to pay close attention to its subcontractors in recent years, the company also needed to manage its internal processes to support a period of growth.

An employee for the last 22 years, Towner said the company has changed considerably over that time. It’s a vastly different firm from what was then a small West Michigan construction company that needed help setting up a sophisticated financial management system, she said.

“When I came to Rockford, it was really important for me to, first, set up a financial support (system) here, to create those reporting documents that are necessary for owners to make decisions,” Towner said.

Investing in its technology and reporting practices paid off the most in the Great Recession when construction and development activity all but ground to a halt, Towner said.

At that time, the company decided that rather than implement layoffs, it needed to use its available resources to invest in and grow some of its departments. Most notably, Rockford grew its I.T. department from two people to five, which allowed it to create a real-time financial management platform that feeds all aspects of the company.

TECH PAYS OFF

Rockford found that as it added business groups, it needed one complete system that combined financial reporting, construction management and a dashboard function to inform executives how various projects are progressing.

But in looking for an off-the-shelf product, Rockford determined that the options were lacking, so it made use of its internal technology team to build what it dubbed its Innovative, Real-time, Information Sharing (IRIS) system.

“That whole investment in our I.T. department during those down years really paid off,” Towner said. “Now we have those individuals that were willing and ready and had the capabilities to be able to work with not only myself, but others in the company to bring this real-time reporting to fruition.”

She credits IRIS for giving executives the management tools to grow the company more smoothly than some of its competitors, Towner said.

“When the downturns come, you’re going to come out eventually, it was just a matter of when. We made a decision here to keep the core team intact,” Towner said. “We wanted to come out of the gate ahead of our competitors and ahead of where we were. … I think that is when we started to think about all of the things we do here as a company and how the needs of the world are today. We need (information) faster and more accurate.”

CEO Mike VanGessel agreed and credited Towner for putting robust systems in place to manage the business.

“(Towner) is the key to Rockford’s ability to mitigate risk and make smart financial decisions,” VanGessel said. “She has an uncanny but very educated sense of when best to get involved in a development or when to sell a property, which has been instrumental in creating a successful portfolio for our development group.”

MANAGING THE MOVE

In 2013, Rockford seized the opportunity to move from the suburbs to a blighted part of Grand Rapids’ west side neighborhood. The reasoning behind the move was twofold: With more than 300 employees, the company had simply outgrown its previous headquarters, plus CEO Mike VanGessel wanted Rockford to serve as a catalyst for redevelopment on the city’s long stagnant west side district, where he grew up.

Towner made the move work from a financial standpoint. She oversaw the sale of the former headquarters and obtained the financing needed to turn a former factory into an open-office concept that got all of the employees under one roof for the first time in 12 years.

For her part, Towner has an open-door policy for all employees at Rockford’s new, modern headquarters. By allowing anyone to pop in with an idea or a problem, she said it allows her to keep up on everything happening in the diverse business.

And thus far, the company’s investment in an old neighborhood seems to be paying off as a handful of other developers and entrepreneurs — including Rockford — have continued to invest in new retail, housing, office space and businesses on the west side.

“I think this area was really begging for someone to come in,” Towner said. “People have lived on the west side … for a long, long time. Unfortunately, the retail and business districts kind of went away, and I think Rockford coming here and saying we value the area (will encourage others to) take that risk like we did.”

JULIE TOWNER

  • Organization: Rockford Construction
  • Annual Revenue: More than $400 million in 2014
  • Transformational Moment: Having worked with all departments within Rockford’s organization, she sees her integration and open-door policy for all employees as a lasting legacy she has at the company.
  • Mission Critical: Towner sees working closely with Rockford’s various subcontractors as a key part of her work. She speaks with the companies daily and makes sure that they can handle the workload. Talking openly with them is in everyone’s best interest, she said.
  • Academic Degrees: Bachelor’s degree in health science from Kalamazoo College; attended Wayne State University
  • Community Involvement: Current board positions at Habitat for Humanity, Conductive Learning Center and Mindshare.
  • Personal Details: Married to Jeff; three children
  • Company Advisers
    Legal: Rhoades McKee PC
    Accounting: Crowe Horwath LLP
    Banking: Works with several banks
Read 4865 times Last modified on Sunday, 10 May 2015 21:02
Nick Manes

Staff writer

nmanes@mibiz.com

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