High atop the tower crane overlooking the 20 E. Fulton construction site, 616 Development Director of Development Jeff Olsen watched a crew of contractors work.
“Those guys build every building downtown,” Olsen said.
Olsen was referring to the crew from Grand Rapids-based concrete contractor Kent Companies, and while his exclamation was a bit of an exaggeration, the firm has had its share of major work in downtown Grand Rapids.
In late summer, Kent Companies worked under general contractors Pioneer Construction and Orion Construction for construction at 20 E. Fulton and Venue Tower, respectively, two projects that will reach at least eight stories.
The pair of projects will add to the skyline of the city, further leaving an imprint on the projects Kent Companies has worked on during its more than 60 years in business.
“It’s a great feeling, but I don’t like to boast too much,” Kent Companies Vice President Matt Fennema said. “We have great customers. All those great guys we work for, they all have great jobs downtown and love being part of it.
“It’s not about being the biggest or the best, but we make sure to invest in our people and make sure they contribute to the overall success.”
Perhaps the best vantage point in Grand Rapids to see Kent Companies’ work is atop Riverhouse Condominiums. The building is the tallest in Grand Rapids and the second-tallest concrete frame building in Michigan, poured by Kent Companies.
From the 34th floor of Riverhouse, other major Kent Companies projects, such as DeVos Place and Kent County Courthouse, are visible. So too are the projects the firm has worked on in the past year, a year in which more than 27,000 cubic yards of concrete have been poured, such as New Holland’s Knickerbocker and Barley Flats, The Gateway at Belknap, Diamond Place, Fulton Place and multiple expansion projects at Founders Brewing Co.
The firm has more than 900 employees across the country, with 300 calling the Grand Rapids headquarters home, Fennema said.
Kent Companies also has approximately 500 employees at its Dallas office and another 100 between its offices in Detroit; Akron, Ohio; and Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s those 900 employees who help push the concrete company toward success, Fennema said.
Kent Companies is in its third generation of family ownership, but Fennema said there are multiple employee families at the firm also in their second or third generation.
“We pride ourselves on being focused on employees,” Fennema said. “We view concrete as our widget, but we’re in the people business. If we invest in people, we get more out of them, and it’s a quicker job and comes in under budget.”
The pride in employees has led the company’s organic growth throughout the nation, Fennema said, as the firm began its expansion with the Dallas office in 2000 and the rest of the offices falling in line throughout the next 15 years.
As the company continues to change, so too does its seemingly elementary specialty: concrete, a construction material since prehistory.
With technology comes advances in the chemical reaction resulting in the binding properties, Fennema said. Along with a better overall product, technology also improves the way concrete is poured and used in the field, he said.
“It’s really not (a simple product); it’s really fickle. But it keeps getting better,” Fennema said. “It’s more digital, and there’s a quicker pace to everything. Concrete is safer for us, too.”
As concrete construction continues to move toward faster completions and better stability, Fennema said there’s no slowdown on work from clients.
Contractors continue to use concrete in many projects, as it provides advantages over other materials, such as wood and steel, which come with extra steps beyond installation, said Jeff Smigielski, senior project manager with Orion Construction, which has used Kent Companies in “hundreds of projects.”
“Concrete is cleaner and simpler, and you get more space for less,” said Smigielski, the project manager at Venue Tower, where Kent Companies is 95 percent finished with its work. He said Kent Companies is meeting the schedule and exceeded the quality expected in the set concrete.
“You don’t find 10 different concrete contractors,” Smigielski said. “Kent is one of scale, of high quality that understands the scope and the systems needed for large projects.”
The ability to provide work for more than 900 employees keeps the ownership group moving along.
Fennema said Kent Companies regularly seeks the input of its employees to better their work environment. This past year, the company received a 60 percent participation rate in Grand Rapids in a poll on company safety — but also has polled on technology and training, among other subjects.
“We want to focus on what their needs are,” he said. “We can look as management, but we could be way off base, and we want to make sure we focus the efforts on what they need.
“They provide the value we provide to our clients.”