‘It’s What We’ve Always Done’
With generations of know-how, Clark Brothers Building Contractors, LLC builds solutions for its clients
Some people are fortunate enough to receive lifelong training for the careers they’ll thrive in. Ben Clark, President of Clark Brothers Building Contractors, LLC (Clark Brothers), of Delton, Michigan, and his brothers, Caleb and Luke, are three of those people.
“Our grandpa was a cabinet maker and a farmer,” Ben says. “Our father was a carpenter by trade, and we had eight uncles who were well-established in different trades. There are pictures of us boys building stuff everywhere growing up. It’s what we’ve always done.”
When they became teenagers, Ben and his brothers gained extensive know-how in various aspects of the trades as they spent summers working beside their uncles and father.
“That blessing has expanded our knowledge and made it so we have all had a tremendous amount of experience in almost every aspect of the building trades,” Ben says. “There are very few things we don’t have a competent understanding of when it comes to the building industry—it’s in our blood; it’s what we do.”
Always entrepreneurial, Ben has been self-employed since he was 14 years old, first selling firewood, then trimming trees, cutting grass, building decks and more.
In his early 20s, during the Great Recession, Ben relocated from the Flint area in southeastern Michigan to Delton, about 20 miles north of Kalamazoo, Michigan, after he spent time there hunting on a friend’s farm and ultimately landed his first project in the area, building an addition for a veterinarian. There, he launched Clark Brothers, and recruited his brothers and father to make the couple of hours’ move west to join him.
Prevailing Against the Odds
Ben says Clark Brothers has gained a reputation as the area’s go-to contractor for wood construction on commercial and multiunit projects, as well as specialty construction. But what he’s most proud of is his team’s ability to prevail when obstacles are stacked against them.
“Our strong suit is taking a daunting task and handling it—working through problems and challenges together,” he says.
It’s a trait that pays off for his team, and for the developers and property managers they work with. There have been several instances when Clark Brothers answered the call that other contractors wouldn’t—and succeeded.
In one instance, a general contractor with an incoming Charming Charlie store at The Crossroads mall in Portage, Michigan, called him on a referral from his representative at The Blue Book Network®. Another demolition company had fallen behind, and they needed demo done ASAP. Ben checked out the site that day, gave them a quote, and the store’s contractor asked when they could start.
‘We Took a Vote’
Ben talked to his crew and told them the situation. “I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we all have to work Saturday. Everybody’s going to get double time. But everybody’s got to be in.’ And we took a vote.”
Ben says his team ultimately worked an 18-hour day and it was a good situation all-around as his guys made extra money and the store could have carpenters on site Sunday morning.
Clark Brothers has also beaten the odds with much larger projects.
Its largest general contracting job so far is the $2 million remodel of a former Kmart into an At Home store—from preconstruction to running cash registers in under three months, during what Ben remembers as a harsh Michigan winter.
Along with the time crunch, Ben says there were numerous obstacles along the way that made the Kalamazoo project a challenge—from 500 gallons of the wrong paint delivered to moving the entire storefront three times. But in the end, the cash registers were running ahead of schedule.
“It was high intensity,” he says. “There were a lot of headaches and a lot of frustrations, but I look back on it—even driving by it now—like, that was a great time.” He takes pride in the fact that a small contracting firm like his, with just 10 employees, took on a huge project and succeeded.
To achieve that success, Ben kept in mind the old saying about how the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. He broke the project up into sections—sales floor, loading dock, etc.—and treated each one like its own project. That created challenges in that he needed multiple companies from the same trades there at the same time; but he made it work.
While they filled the general contracting role, Clark Brothers workers also jumped in wherever they could, from picking up debris to painting.
“I think a lot of our success is because we’re diverse, and we have the mentality and flexibility to do so many things,” Ben says.
In addition to his staff’s vast experience, the true teamwork mentality goes a long way. Ben regularly loops them in on potential projects, making clear what their incentives are, as he did with the Charming Charlie demo. He sees that as the only way to go.
“I’m not making a commitment without making sure we can actually handle the challenge,” he explains. But, he says, he also won’t make excessive demands of his guys and opens up discussions to decide whether to do a job when the situation is unique.
In one instance, Clark Brothers had the opportunity to complete the framework on the addition of a KFC in Monroe, Michigan, over two hours away from its home base. The crew would have to stay in a hotel for at least a week shortly before Christmas and during hunting season. Together, the team decided the job was worth it.
“I don’t just look at them and say, ‘We’re going to Monroe for a week,’ ” Ben says.
Relationships are Everything
At Clark Brothers, everything is about people and relationships, including those among team members and with clients, developers, trades, other contractors and the community.
Key tenets of the company are to treat everyone with respect and dignity, work safely, do what is right and pay employees livable wages. Ben is changing the idea of what working in construction can be like.
“My mentality is to take people who are willing to put the work in, to make the sacrifices, to work in the freezing cold and make it where they can enjoy life, where they can buy a truck, buy a house. We try to do our part to make sure that’s what we’re giving our employees,” he says. “I think it helps with morale, too. That will make you want to show up for me."
“I believe in almost all businesses that culture is changing. That conservative, straight-laced, ‘do your job and get a 10% raise every year’ [mentality] is on its way out,” he says. “Where businesses are thriving is where people can thrive within them, knowing what’s going on, feeling like they’re part of it.”
At Clark Brothers, employees get paid time off for paternity leave, and the team accommodates co-workers who need other scheduling considerations when personal circumstances call for it.
When Giving Feels the Best
That goodwill extends to the customers and the community at large. While the company has supported numerous nonprofits and philanthropic endeavors, including Orangeville Township food pantry, American Red Cross, United Way Days of Caring and Crooked Lake flood relief efforts, it’s also scrapped bills for clients in need.
“Some of the team cut firewood for a customer that needed the help, but was too proud to ask for it. A down-on-his-luck man needed a door replaced that was a real hinderance. A veteran had an unexpected surgery and needed a handicap ramp on short notice,” Ben says. “When those folks ask what they owe and you can just say, ‘You’re all set,’ that’s when giving feels the best.”
When people ask why Ben puts such a focus on supporting his employees’ personal well-being and giving to those who need it, he simply answers, “Why not?”
“Some things are just bigger than a job,” he says. And while he considers their business a tool to get through life—“to be treated well and maintained like any other tool” to be sure—it’s also one that reliably completes quality projects and builds dependable relationships.