Diversity, Integrity and a Love for Construction

Spence Brothers
Written by Allison Dempsey

If an organization’s values set the standards for its personnel, Spence Brothers’ values have poured the foundation for its decades of success. Founded in Saginaw, Michigan in 1893 by brothers Matt and Hugh Spence as a start-up construction company, the business has grown and thrived as it has taken on a number of notable projects.

These benchmark projects include Saginaw Valley State University’s Pioneer Hall, the first construction project to acquire LEED Certification in the region; the Dow Chemical Company’s 210,000-square-foot Business Services Center, constructed and occupied in just 11 months and honored with the Build Michigan Award in the Environmental category for its impressive sustainable features; and the company’s largest contract to date, the $72 million Genesee County Water Treatment Plant, delivered three months ahead of schedule. These works and others provide a great tribute to the company’s legacy of exceeding expectations for its clients and project partners.

A true family organization now in its fourth generation, Spence Brothers knows the importance of loyalty, integrity and skilled craftsmanship.

“Myself and the other three Spences that are still in the company, were raised doing construction the right way from when we were little,” says President and COO Ed Spence. “Our fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers worked in the business, and didn’t force it on us. We all grew a sense of honor and leadership through family, and grew a love for construction the right way.”

This included working in the field for years alongside tradesmen to learn the business, he adds.

“We grew [our skill sets] working side-by-side with subs, and we gained respect that way from the workers. We formed bonds with those folks, and now we have second generation laborers and carpenters that work for us as well.”

This commitment and dedication extends to the company’s sense of community, he adds. Spence Brothers has made the Great Lakes Bay region its home going on 130 years, and giving back to the community is vital. “We pride ourselves on repeat customers,” says Spence. “We try and do things the right way with an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. That’s been our mindset for 130 years.”

It’s a mindset that has resulted in a wealth of strong relationships, such as with the University of Michigan, for whom the company has constructed numerous enduring projects.

“The Spence leaders are very humble guys,” says Dorian Banda, Senior Proposal Manager / Technical Writer. “They weren’t just handed positions in management, and as an employee working for Spence, I can tell you that I see the difference it makes in their leadership every day.”

While other companies’ leadership might say they have an open door policy, she adds, there’s a very distinct difference between firms she’s worked for previously who may carry a family name but don’t necessarily have any family working there.

“Here, the Spences in leadership have been brought up through the ranks from the ground up,” says Banda. “When I walk in with an issue or concern or have input about a project pursuit, they’re very open-minded. It’s clear they’ve had to apply their hard work and dedication to get to the roles in leadership they have today. They have a very strong appreciation for hard work, dedication, and the knowledge their employees have to offer, no matter how new you are, no matter what gender you may be.”

The company is also highly community-focused, choosing to remain in the City of Saginaw when other firms have expanded and moved on. “Spence leadership has always been very clear that ‘this is where we were founded, and this is where we’re going to stay,’” says Banda.

That commitment extends not only to the broader community but to employees and work ethic as well. Celebrating 130 years in business is no small feat, and it’s one Spence Brothers takes great pride in.

“The longevity of being a fourth generation [company] speaks volumes to a solid base and anchor in a trustworthy firm that has high levels of integrity,” says Vice President Brian Keeler. “That’s the Spence name on the door. You can call anytime and they’re going to take that phone call. They’re not sitting somewhere that’s unreachable.”

This includes getting involved in projects, he adds, a hands-on approach that ensures projects are dealt with properly and any issues are fixed or corrected. The owners get involved and sit down with project managers on a regular basis to see how projects are going, where the company can improve, and how they can help.

Improvement, of course, also includes an ongoing commitment to going green wherever possible.

“We’re very much involved in the sustainability movement in the construction industry of this region,” says Keeler. “We’re promoting it within our employees, encouraging them to become LEED accredited and to understand Green Building Principles. We’ve hosted workshops locally that encourage Owners and other project partners to be more green and sustainable, as well.”

Projects in pursuit of sustainability are of particular interest to Spence, he adds. “I want Spence to have the kind of identity that sits right up there with green building. So, if Owners in this region are thinking about building anything green or sustainable, Spence is the first place they call to get involved with the project.”

Part of the sustainability movement is rehabbing existing facilities, including the company’s own 9,350-square-foot headquarters in Saginaw. Spence Brothers moved its corporate offices to the SVRC Marketplace as part of its 125th anniversary celebration, carrying out a thorough renovation of the Saginaw News Building, which Spence Brothers had built in 1960. Half of the third story of the structure is occupied by the company’s headquarters, which is a mix of various conference rooms, private offices, semi-private offices, and open concept workspaces.

Another notable rehabilitation project is the Webster Community Center Project in Pontiac, Michigan, a 57,496-square-foot historical elementary school being converted into a community center. Renovation plans include a communal kitchen, event and meeting spaces, youth services, an indoor grow room, community gardens with hoop houses, and an outdoor athletic field on six acres of land. Modifications will be carried out with consideration for maintaining the building’s historical integrity while focusing on offering areas for a culinary hub, physical fitness, an indoor transportation hub, arts and culture, and space for launching small enterprises through co-working facilities that support regional entrepreneurs and innovators.

“It’s very much a feel-good story for the city of Pontiac that’s working toward the development and revitalization of their downtown districts,” says Keeler. “We’ve been involved in many sustainable and historic facility renovations where the goals involved breathing new life into existing buildings.”

When it comes to leading the way in sustainable practices, Spence also embraces a position of mentorship in helping other construction partners, from architects to subcontractors, by offering seminars and learning opportunities in LEED and other sustainability measures. And while Spence is looking to continue growing in all areas, one of the biggest challenges it faces in building is tied to manpower. The Michigan construction market is busy, which is a good thing, but getting qualified tradespeople to perform work is “very difficult” right now, shares Spence.

“We’re trying to step outside the box and do more recruiting through various avenues. It’s a hard sector to grow right now as far as finding tradespeople. We’re turning down opportunities because of manpower shortages across construction, which is unfortunate.” It’s an experience the entire industry shares at present.

Setting the company apart is the fact that it’s big enough to handle $80 million jobs, but is also comfortable with much smaller projects, adds Keeler. Maintaining a family feel is a big part of what contributes to that success as well. “Everybody knows people by name inside the company, which I think is important,” he says. “We’re very in touch with the employees and each other, but we’re big enough to handle some of the coolest and most interesting projects in our region and across the state.”

Understanding the importance of family and home life beyond daily work routines is also key, he adds. “There’s a definite balance. We haven’t pursued work out of state for a couple of reasons, but one of the main reasons stems from our value for a better work-life balance—people being able to sleep in their beds and be home with their families.” When it comes to recruiting, it’s a big draw to know you’ll be working within Michigan and close to home, he adds.

It’s difficult to imagine milestones more impressive than 130 years in business, but hitting 150 would certainly be one of them.

“We want to grow,” says Spence. “Moving forward means increasing diversity across all aspects of construction, which is very important. We want to grow more diverse within our personnel, supporting women in the workforce and welcoming more minorities to our team, which we’ve been working on as well.”

When it comes to construction management, there are many large firms that no longer self-perform, adds Banda, while Spence continues their tradition of performing concrete, carpentry, general trades, and selective demolition.

“I can’t stress enough the hard work and dedication that really speaks to Spence leadership,” she says. “They’ll recognize foremen or laborers with potential out in the field and make an effort to grow that expertise toward a position as superintendent.”

Growth also includes more opportunities to get involved in career fairs and trade shows where students will be visiting and making an effort to have a presence at these events to educate and foster interest in historically underrepresented groups.

“We’re very proud of our roots and the idea of honesty, integrity, and above-board transparency,” says Keeler. “Those are all words we live day in and day out. It’s important in this business and to be around as long as we have, we have to have people trust us.”

That trust is particularly imperative when it comes to telling clients something they may not want to hear. Cutting corners is not in the company’s playbook, so doing a job quickly and cheaply—even at a client’s request—just doesn’t happen.

“That word integrity gets a bit overused in marketing, but this company truly brings it to the table of operations,” says Banda. “Instead of telling Owners what they want to hear simply to win, it might instead be, ‘we’ll always be here if you need us, but it just can’t be done for that price.’ To witness the level of integrity it takes to walk away from a project is truly impressive.”

Michigan’s a tough construction market, but Spence Brothers started out as essentially a general contractor and has experienced great success by maintaining a diverse team and a rich skill set, says Keeler. Regardless of each individual’s background, underpinning it all is an underlying love for construction.

“One of the reasons for our long-term success is the diversity we’ve been able to maintain in the construction business,” Spence says. “We have a love and a respect for the people who work for us. As far as the last name Spence, we are a family, but we’ve brought in people from all backgrounds to help grow our leadership to maintain our edge in the Michigan market. And we’ve diversified that market to remain successful today.”

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