In an era of corporate conglomerates, construction more than most industries is still filled with family-owned businesses. Chicago certainly has its share, boasting long-standing contractors like Pepper, Walsh, McHugh, and Graycor, all of which are still led by members of the founding families. This Fathers’ Day tribute comes from one such grateful heir.
This article was written by Marty Ozinga, President, Ozinga
Throughout the history of the world, storytelling has been an important method to communicate values and reinforce culture from one generation to another. Stories have a unique way of informing us who we are and where we’ve come from. We are designed to desire and enjoy good stories. From the time we are young children and throughout all stages of life, it is a significant part of the human experience.
Some of my fondest memories as a child include spending time with my parents and grandparents, having them tell me stories about their childhoods. My wife and I now have five children of our own. They regularly ask us to tell them stories about our own upbringing.
In our family business, Ozinga Bros, there are all kinds of stories that are told and retold. Being a part of an 87-year-old organization that was started by an immigrant, survived the Great Depression, WWII, and countless other challenges (and opportunities) has given me a deeper appreciation of the privilege of which I am now a steward. There are many days that I sense that I am in the midst of a good story and I am blessed to be playing a role in it. This inspires and motivates me.
The Value of an Entrepreneur
One of the three values we emphasize at Ozinga Bros, is entrepreneurship. An entrepreneur is unafraid to take bold risks, at times in the face of skeptics and doubters. The convictions of an entrepreneur override the potential downsides of bold decisions.
This value is foundational to our story. Without a spirit of entrepreneurialism, our organization would never have been founded or been able to continue through four generations.
A Storied Tradition of Boldness
I am thankful to my dad for so many things, but one of the greatest lessons he has taught us, through his actions and ability to tell a good story, is to think independently and to be unafraid to make big, bold decisions. He has instilled in the next generation a “nothing is impossible” attitude.
There is a pattern throughout the history of Ozinga Bros where bold decisions have been made by the leaders of our organization. These decisions altered the trajectory of the company. At times, they were made in the face of sincere skepticism from others, including sometimes the fathers of those making the decisions. Some of these classic stories were captured in our 75th anniversary video. Here are three:
Bold Move by Gen 1
My great-grandfather’s family immigrated to the United States from The Netherlands when he was a young boy. As an adult, my great-grandfather became a law enforcement officer. He was a motorcycle-riding Cook County Sheriff’s deputy in the 1920’s and he later became chief of police of Evergreen Park.
When he was in his mid-thirties he started what is now Ozinga Bros, as a coal delivery company. He was the first person in his family to go into business. It’s my understanding that his father was a custodian at the local church. I can’t say that he doubted this bold move by his son, but the fact that my great-grandfather started a business from nothing without any family model was in, and of itself, a very bold move.
The timing of him starting the business in 1928 in some respects could not have been worse. Within two years, the Great Depression had set in nationwide and he almost lost everything. But in the end, the business survived, and he enjoyed a nice, profitable run, before handing the business off to the next generation.
Bold Move by Gen 2
My Grandpa and two of his brothers took over the coal business after returning home from WWII. With the post-war building boom underway, it didn’t take long for them to add the delivery of building materials to their business activity.
My Grandpa would tell the story that his own father was very skeptical of this move. He thought the cyclical nature of the building materials industry was much too risky. Apparently to him, at that point in his life, coal was a much safer and more predictable business activity. In his mind, people would always need coal to heat their homes. The need for building materials would come and go with the ebb and flow of the economy.
In the end, though, the bold move paid off generously. The second generation was correct in its instincts, and thankfully so. If they had insisted on staying in the coal business, there likely would not be an Ozinga Bros today, as coal for home heating dwindled down to almost complete obsolescence within 20 years of their decision to pivot the business to building materials.
Bold Move by Gen 3
By the time my dad and his cousins took over the family business, Ozinga Bros was a very reputable supplier of ready-mix concrete with two locations in the south suburbs of Chicago.
In the late 1980s, my Dad made the bold decision to locate a plant right near downtown Chicago. The City of Chicago was known to be a very tough, highly political environment. The idea that a small family business could nose into the market amidst the big boys of the industry was not only gutsy, but highly risky.
My grandfather let my Dad know that he thought he was making a “colossal mistake”. He said the big companies could and would step on us like an ant. In the end, through a series of fortunate events, the bold move paid off. My Dad’s convictions were right, and my grandpa was wrong.
Bold Move by Gen 4?
In the Spring of 2012, my dad officially handed the reins of the family business to the fourth generation. At that time, we produced a video entitled Here to Stay, to commemorate the passing of the torch. Since that time, my dad has very graciously “stayed out of our way” (his words). But he continues to serve as a wonderful mentor in the capacity of Chairman of the Board.
I am very grateful that my dad has prepared us to follow our instincts and to be unafraid to make bold decisions, even to the point of him disagreeing with us, or his thinking that we are making a “colossal mistake”. I’d like to believe in three short years, we have made some bold decisions but to my knowledge, we haven’t made ones that he seriously disagrees with. But even if we did, that would be okay. That is the Ozinga tradition, and we’ve been raised to embrace it.
Honor thy Father, Unconditionally
Although Ozinga sons have made bold business decisions in the face of a father’s skepticism and even disapproval, I never once witnessed the slightest hint of dishonor. In fact, the opposite was true. Our forefathers had the utmost respect for their fathers and their honor for them was unconditional.
This lesson is more important than any business deal. I will be forever grateful that my dad has modeled this for us with his own dad, by how he treated him while he was still living, and the stories of admiration he still tells about him now.
I hope and pray that our generation is modeling the same lessons for our children and that this sacred, timeless Commandment continues to be passed on to the generations to come.
Happy Father’s Day!