Builders Exchange of Michigan: How did you earn your first dollar?
Jodi van Haren: When I was 11 years old, I created fliers and passed them out in my neighborhood to offer my services of dog walking or babysitting. I was beyond excited to get some neighborhood customers! I also started selling candy out of my 6th grade school locker around the same time
BX: What drew you to the construction industry?
JV: My first job out of high school was working in the office of a mechanical contracting business, so I got my feet wet there. I began my first start-up company at 22 (not in the construction industry), and four years later found myself in the role of General Contractor while building my home. I learned about other trades and really enjoyed the role of GC. I contemplated starting up a GC business at the time, but ended up starting Advantage Mechanical Refrigeration with my (former) husband.
BX: What does a typical day look like on the job for you?
JV: A typical day starts before I can get out of my house. Emails and phone calls start coming in and my house transforms into my office until I leave for the shop. Most days are spent in my office with a steady stream of phone calls, emails, and discussions and meetings. At some point I jot down my priority to-do’s. I’ve learned to determine what can be delegated from that list, and keep that list short, because of the many unplanned things that come up throughout the day. This involves strategizing, planning, coordinating, improving processes, solving problems, responding to opportunities, reviewing bids and bid documents, analyzing jobs and financial statements, and business development.
BX: What’s an exciting project you’ve completed recently?
JV: We completed a project for the General Services Administration for a much-needed generator replacement for the Department of Homeland Security in Detroit. They needed their huge old generator on the roof of the 27-story building they’re in broken down and removed, and a new one installed. Safety was a big factor as hundreds of feet of electrical conduit had to be installed in the elevator shaft, and getting the new generator onto the roof took quite a bit of thought and planning. We self-performed all of the demo, piping, and other HVAC related work and managed subcontractors from around the state to complete the rest of the scope of work. I couldn’t be happier with how well this high-profile project was completed.
“Make sure you’re not ‘such a big business’ where clients feel like they’re not well taken care of.”
BX: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever heard?
JV: I read it in a business book in 2011, when we started AMR. It explained when you are just starting out and are a very small company, ‘Act like a big company,’ meaning make sure your customers don’t feel like you are so small that you can’t handle their needs or are lacking the ability to give great service because you’re small. However, as your company grows, be sure your customers feel like they’re still dealing with a small company. Make sure you’re not ‘such a big business’ where clients feel like they’re not well taken care of.
BX: What makes AMR special?
JV: That business advice struck a chord with me all those years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. We’ve created a highly customer focused culture here at AMR as we’ve grown, always striving to make each customer feel like they’re our favorite (because they are!).
BX: If you could master one new skill right now, what would it be?
JV: I’d love to be able to do all the fancy, cool formulas and reports in Excel. I get by, but would love to have a more advanced knowledge of it.
BX: What were your goals when you began AMR? How have you achieved them?
JV: Truthfully, the first goal was to make the business last past the first five years. And then make it past ten years. At about 15 years, I realized it was safe to say we were pretty secure, and I could define my goals a little better. Now, at almost 20 years, I have several short and long term goals for the business. These have been achieved by persistence and a capable team.
BX: What advice would you give to other women who would like to go into the same career field you’ve chosen?
JV: Believe in yourself, stick to your values no matter what! To have confidence in yourself and your abilities. To be difficult to offend. To always do the right thing and know that you will be problem solving almost all of the time. And it would be helpful to have a degree in psychology.
BX: What can other members of the construction community do to encourage more women to participate in the construction industry?
JV: I think encouraging girls should start in high school when they typically start seriously thinking of what they want to do to support themselves. The trades in general should be presented, discussed, and showcased as a great option for a career to students at that age and absolutely marketed towards both boys and girls with more examples and images of women in construction. I can attest that it is rare for me to see women in my position in the construction industry – as a colleague or even a customer – but the ones that I have had the pleasure to work with are totally awesome and I think there could definitely be more of us.
BX: What challenges have you overcome and what experiences have you had to get to where you are today?
JV: Wow, good question…I can’t begin to list them all. A few… 1) Starting up a company from nothing but past experience, knowledge, and enough money to make it work in 90 days “or else”, 2) Being a female owner of a construction company in a male dominated industry (this means you definitely have to be comfortable in your own skin), 3) The experiences of opportunities presenting themselves that looked good, but didn’t work out so well and being able to survive them, 4) In 2012, buying out my former business partner and becoming the sole owner of AMR. There was quite a bit of debt left over from the 2008-2009 recession and it was scary to continue at all, let alone on my own. Having faith in God that this is what I was supposed to do and believing in myself and my team along with a lot of hard work has gotten me to where I am today.
“I am grateful for all of the failures and successes that have taught me and brought me to where I am today.”
BX: Where is AMR now, and where are you headed next?
JV: Today, AMR has customers and contracts across the state of Michigan and has performed projects in six states. Sales have steadily increased over the years. The highest revenue since the start of the company was in 2019, 5,000% higher revenue from the first year. We have been nominated the last two years for Michigan’s 50 Companies to Watch, we just added and filled three full-time positions and plan to hire more. The future looks bright and I am grateful for all of the failures and successes that have taught me and brought me to where I am today.
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