How a strong foundation, entrepreneurial spirit and faith help a local business owner succeed

Rapid Growth: Tell us a little bit about you, your background, and why you joined the construction industry?

Jodi van Haren: I was born and raised in West Michigan, the youngest of five kids and the only one not born and raised in the Detroit area. My grandmother moved from tribal lands in the Upper Peninsula to the east side of Michigan in the early 1930s for better work opportunities. Both my father, who has since passed away, and my mother were very hard workers, teaching me the value of honesty, being a good steward of what God has provided and working hard and smart.

My first job out of high school was working in the office of a mechanical contracting company. When I was 27, I was the general contractor (GC) on my house that I built with my ex-husband. I considered starting a business being a GC at that time.

Courtesy Advantage Mechanical RefrigerationRG: How did Advantage Mechanical Refrigeration (AMR) come about? Are any of your family members involved?

JVH: Just before I turned 30, I started Advantage Mechanical Refrigeration. My former partner and I started it from scratch with $1,000 in the bank in March 2001. Our first month, we had two service calls with a revenue of $955.29. The first year, a partial year, ended with $119,318.42 in revenue. We ran it out of our house, garage and shed for four years until we moved to a shop and offices on West River Drive. In 2012, I bought out my partner and became the sole owner of AMR.

I have a son and a daughter and three stepdaughters. My son has worked for me for the last 11 years and was recently made vice president.

RG: Have you always been entrepreneurial?

JVH: Looking back, I can see that I had an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age. I have volunteered since I was about 14 years old at the library, hospital, church and various nonprofits. I started my first company when I was 22 years old. From 2006-2009, I owned a Aire Serv Heating and Air Conditioning franchise and was voted Aire Serv Woman of the Year in 2008.

I’m now the president of the Builders Exchange of Grand Rapids, a steering committee member of Construction Allies in Action, [and have been] on the board of the West Michigan Mechanical Contractors Association since 2006.

RG: As an underrepresented business owner in a traditionally male-dominated industry, what steps have you taken to set yourself and your company apart?

JVH: Leadership is everything in business. You can attract customers and employees and have a great, needed product or service to sell, but without good, confident leadership, you can spin your wheels for years. I have worked on the internals of my company and myself, targeting a continual improvement in processes, highlighting our core values — we hire, fire and review by them — designating a leadership team, laying out expectations [and] coaching [people]. [This is] all so that I can look up and out, looking for more opportunities, growth, technology improvements, [and more]. 

There are individuals that treat me like an equal and with mutual respect and then there are ones that clearly act uneasy and don’t quite know what to think of me in the position I am in. I cannot say the latter group has never gotten to me but dusting that off is pretty easy for me. One of our company’s core values applies — Be Difficult to Offend.

As a successful owner of a construction and service trades company, who has never worked in the field as a plumber or HVACR technician, I know firsthand that one doesn't have to be schooled in those trades to successfully own and run a business. If there were to be any doubt of that in my mind, then I would not have lasted long in the role I am in. Believing in yourself is key.

RG: You're celebrating a huge milestone this year — 20 years in business. Congratulations! What lessons have you learned along the way?

JVH: It sounds so cliché, but the lesson of believing in yourself and what you bring to the table in life —your passions, interests, talents, abilities. So many people cut themselves short or feel anxious about every decision they make because of doubting themselves. Maybe it’s my age, maybe all the lessons I’ve gotten from just trying things out and they actually work great, maybe just the faith I have knowing I am doing what I am supposed to be doing, but I’ve never felt more confident and I wish I could instill this in young people, especially women and underrepresented people. Be honest, be fair, care about people, be difficult to offend, be courageous and bold, work hard and do the right thing. Success will come! 

Your greatest strengths can also be your greatest weaknesses. Be honest with yourself and work on those weaknesses — always! Be your biggest critic, but don’t be so hard on yourself that you give up.

I learned that if I wanted to keep growing, you can’t let any one team member “hold you hostage.” No one gets that much power in your company. You have to keep your eyes on your goals and make sure your team understands where it is you’re planning on going. 

I’ve learned to pray about an opportunity — a bid, an employee I’d like to hire, any opportunity I think I want. I then go after that opportunity, but if the door closes on it, I don’t waste my time letting it get me down. Move on to the next opportunity, quickly.

RG: What call-to-action would you give to other underrepresented business owners as they continue to navigate the changing times and reach their own milestones?

JVH: Some practical advice? Being very transparent, and ironically, being a Native American — think about that — I have found the most level playing field and have experienced the largest business development from being a prime contractor for the federal government. They are a buyer of almost everything sold. Find out how to sell to them in your business or trade! 

Get your foundations set. Create a set of core values that you not only put up on your wall, but that you yourself live by. Do not hire or keep anyone around unless they also exemplify your values. 

Decide what you really want. Do you want employees? Do you want to be a one-man or woman-show? Where do you want your business to come from? Who do you want to do business with? There is no wrong answer, but if you don’t establish goals, you have nothing to measure yourself against and may feel like you’re being tossed around with the wind or spinning your wheels while the years pass by.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at [email protected]!
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