Inside the Wolverine Building Group machine

Ann Zimmer, LEED AP, Wolverine Construction

Industrial. Multi-unit residential. Healthcare. Office. Retail. Restaurant. You name it and the Wolverine Building Group has a hand in bringing the concept to life. When Brann’s Steakhouse & Grille, a Michigan chain of restaurants was looking to do a little renovation on one of its units on Leonard Street in Grand Rapids, the Wolverine team jumped into action.

Brann’s was looking to add some enhancements to the restaurant, which has long been a historical landmark. The location serves as a tribute to fallen law enforcement and military members. The Wolverine team was looking to open the look and feel of the place.

A nationally recognized construction leader, Wolverine is committed to seeking the balance of simultaneously “doing good” in its community, while “doing well” in its business, by delivering high quality product to its clients—a mantra its team takes to heart.

Commercial Kitchens sat down with Ann Zimmer, LEED AP, Wolverine’s Senior Project Manager, to get an inside look at the job Wolverine did for Brann’s and what the future holds as the industry moves back toward some normalcy.

Give us a snapshot of the construction market today? What are you seeing out there?
Retail, restaurant and hospitality companies have placed many projects on hold or cancelled them for 2020 due to COVID-19. The new contracts we have received since the virus hit are typically through developers and/or franchisees, not corporate.

When it comes to restaurant facilities, what are today’s consumers looking for?
Clean, upbeat, outdoor seating areas, open air and advanced technology.

What were some of the special features of the Brann’s project?
Open ceilings, two fireplaces—one on the exterior wall and the other two-sided. The restaurant offers an area for meeting/large group reservations. It also has a fireplace and technology for presentations on large screen TVs.

The restaurant is a historical building that has been a landmark for many years. Brann’s has several locations throughout Michigan. This particular one on Leonard Street in Grand Rapids’ (Michigan) west side honors and displays memorabilia from fallen law enforcement and military members. They are very instrumental in fundraising and honoring those of the thin blue line and military, and proudly display it through photos, flags and honor boards.

Walk us through the how and why of the project?
The building is very old and has been in business for decades. There have been additions to it in the past and walls/floors were at different elevations. There were four areas to the restaurant and they were all very separate, so if in one area, you never felt like you were experiencing all of the restaurant/bar and entertainment. The design intent was to open the space up so when you walked it you have visibility of the entire restaurant.

We created a feeling of being involved and a part of the entire facility, no matter where you are. The new bar is slightly smaller than they would have wanted it to be so the upper seating area, which is just a few steps up, was opened up by the elimination of obstacles in the dividing wall and installing wire racks dividing the space, which the TVs are installed on. This allows everyone seated in the upper seating area to see and hear the activities in the sports bar and act as an overflow area.

Take us through the construction and design strategy.
Construction was accomplished in what was planned to be three different stages to maintain operations while remodeling. The first phase to relocate the bar to the west side, which was completed and turned over on schedule. Phase II was to demolish the previous bar and build new restaurant seating.

At approximately 70% completion of that area, COVID-19 hit. Our construction team was still able to work for a week. We decided to demo the rest of the building and re-build it, planning that we could have the demo and rebuild completed before the COVID restrictions were loosened. But a week after we began total demo, the construction industry was also shut down. We were shut down from 3/34/20 through 5/7/20.

On 5/8/20, the construction team began to rebuild. We completed the project in perfect timing to the lift of restrictions for restaurants in Michigan on June 8.

How closely did your team work with the Brann’s team?
Very closely. We were working with them on an ongoing basis. Even during the COVID shutdown time frame, the restaurant maintained take-out service operations.

Wolverine is committed to balancing “doing good” in our community, while also “doing well” in our business.

What is the most important part of the relationship between you and your customers?
Providing a quality project, for the least amount of out of pocket costs, to our customers. I have completed previous projects for the Brann’s family—Kitchen 67 Remodel—and have worked well with them on the past, providing estimating and design/construction services.

The most important thing to me personally is to maintain a good relationship with a great client, while at the same time giving them a beautiful new venue to do business out of. We are very proud of the new Brann’s on Leonard.

What is the biggest issue today related to the construction side of the business?
Trying to accomplish the fast pace schedules we have been accustomed to while maintaining safe work spaces and social distancing. Working with a mask on is very difficult while on jobsites, but it can be done. It just means we have to distance ourselves from one another.

Talk about sustainability. What are your clients looking for?
Ways to build green without spending additional funds to accomplish that. A lot of the building products are now standard in low VOC and other sustainability ingredients. We also find that many AHJs require low light level/air pollution in their zoning now, so sustainability has become more of a normal over the past years than when LEED certification was introduced to the industry.

How do you think the construction market will start shaping up heading toward the fall?
I am not so sure we will see construction projects on the rise until we get through our next virus season winter of 2020/2021. I am hoping we see an incline in construction projects for our industry in early quarter of 2021.

What will your customers be looking for from you?
Thinking outside of the box so projects are well prepared for, if and when, another possibility of a pandemic occurs. We have maintained our safe work places and can respond quickly to the mandated changes in the community so their projects can continue to move forward in a safe environment. As always, value for their investment and a design that makes people want to be visit.

What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities?
We have the opportunity to step up and be a leader in our industry by coming up with better ways of doing things and partnering with suppliers and vendors who are on the leading edge of those devices or products. Everything is about learning our new normal right now and overcoming the obstacles that it presents us without putting a lot of additional costs back on our customers. That will be our approach.

We have the opportunity to step up and be a leader in our industry by coming up with better ways of doing things and partnering with supplier and vendors who are on the leading edge of those devices or products.

What is your optimism level?
I am personally optimistic that when the flu season is upon us once again, we will have a vaccine that, at the least, minimizes the effect on the majority of people. Even if our scientists are not able to accomplish that great feat by then, I believe we have all learned how we can continue to build in an environment where viruses are spreading. We know how to be safe now, we just need to continue to enforce that. I am sure COVID-19 will not be the last virus or pandemic we have to deal with in our lifetime, but I certainly hope it will be.

What trends are you seeing?
In Michigan, it is how to create the open air atmosphere in a climate that only has five to six months of outdoor comfortable seating. Although we do a large amount of restaurants and retail throughout the United States, that is the one you see all over the US. Everyone loves to be outdoors.

What is the secret to creating a “must visit” restaurant environment in today’s competitive landscape?
Taking the time to design the project and not just cookie-cutting it from one location to another. Each location can have its own feel and meaning, and being able to incorporate that into corporate standard restaurants and one-offs is so important. It creates an at home feeling for your clientele.

What is the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
To continue to become more efficient at working virtually and accomplishing the most I can with the technology we have, as well as understanding what new technology will bring the best value to our projects. Being able to function in our business over the past three months and continue to progress is an incredible feeling.

Many of our projects were able to continue—especially if they were in the pre-construction or just beginning construction phases. I spent the first six weeks doing submittals, finishing up contracts and writing scopes for a new hotel project. Granted the brick and mortar does not go vertical while sitting at home, but the planning stages of projects and bidding/pre-construction was able to progress.

On 5/8/20, the construction team began to rebuild. We completed the project in perfect timing to the lift of restrictions for restaurants in Michigan on June 8.

It has always amazes me when I look back on the work we would accomplish in a given day or week when I started in project management many years ago. Seems like the dinosaur ages when you really think about it. Computers were just developing, pagers were used or bag phones, and get this, you had to go to a pay phone to respond to a pager while traveling from project to project. Who would have thought we could build our building without printing documents or, as a PM, being on site?

I remember once I created a video of me and my team for remodel projects and sent it out to all the store directors. We selected a time and day for our conference call, and had them watch the video while we were on the line to address any questions, comments or changes to the planned sequencing of the remodel. Now it is just a virtual meeting. It is that easy.

Describe a typical day.
Addressing emails to start the day so requests and responses can go out to others before I begin meetings or jobsite visits. I am currently working from my home office. We are trying to minimize the amount of time project managers spend on jobsites or, more importantly, limit the amount of on-site meetings we have with large groups of people. I have quickly become accustomed to using virtual meetings and realizing that we can do even more than we ever imagined before thanks to technology.

Tell us what makes the Wolverine Group so unique?
Within the first year I came to Wolverine, we had new ownership. I was so pleased to see that they not only say they care, but they truly do. We can feel that. There are many times that the company could have made decisions based solely on its profit or revenue, but it chose to do the right thing.

Wolverine is committed to balancing “doing good” in our community, while also “doing well” in our business and delivering a high quality product to our clients. Our goal is to grow the business, but not so quickly that we step over anyone or any of our clients. They appreciate our clientele and employees.

To the effect, one of the first questions they look at when considering to be a part of a project is if the superintendent and project manager who are in the field handling the project on a day-to-day basis will have enjoyment from the project or will it reduce their quality of life. They are a company that cares.

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One-on-One with…
Ann Zimmer, LEED AP
Senior Project Manager
Wolverine Construction

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Completion of a project and a happy client.

What was the best advice you ever received?
Don’t ever be afraid to ask a question—no question is a dumb question. I have been in PM for more than 30 years and I still learn every day. Our industry is a never-ending change.

What is the best thing a client ever said to you?
Thank you, at the end of the project. Just plain appreciation is so heartwarming.

Name the three strongest traits any leader should have and why.
Multi-tasking, communication, empathy, attention to detail, a take charge attitude. My boss thinks accounting should be one of these things, but I say leave that to the CPAs.

What is the first thing you are going to do when we get some normalcy back?
Plan a group vacation.

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The Client — Brann’s Steakhouse & Grille
With more than 10 locations across Michigan, Brann’s Steakhouse & Grille has been serving up great food since 1960, when John Brann Sr. opened his first location in Grand Rapids. That first sizzling steak became the start of something special. Today, adhering to the same core values it established in that first restaurant, the Brann’s name is synonymous with great food at a great price with great people.

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Story by Michael J. Pallerino, editor of Commercial Construction & Renovation magazine. Over the past 30-plus years, he has won numerous awards, including the “Jesse H. Neal Editorial Achievement Award,” recognized as the Pulitzer Prize for business-to-business magazines. He can be reached at mikep@ccr-mag.com.

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