As the head of Miller Davis Co., Rex Bell oversees the construction of multi-million-dollar buildings, but being a builder wasn’t something he was drawn to as a kid growing up in Peru, Indiana. His childhood passion was his guitar, which he started playing at age 9.
As a grown-up, he’s kept that passion alive as a member of The Bronk Bros., a Kalamazoo-based country music band that has opened for national acts and recorded three CDs of its own work.
With 15 to 20 major construction projects and several dozen smaller efforts in the works at one time in his full-time job, the 61-year-old Bell says that his time playing music is pivotal to keeping him “fresh.”
“I think we need hobbies that get us out of our day-to-day routine and expose us to something completely different,” he says. ‘The older I get, it serves a lot of different purposes — it keeps your mind active, challenges you, and keeps you out in front of people, and it’s fun.”
What was the first building you ever built?
It was an $80,000 telephone switch gear building in Fish Lake, Indiana, and it was a big deal for me because I was just out of college. Juxtapose that with where we are today (at the construction site of Later Elementary in Mattawan), which is a project around $79 million. But the process is the same — there’s just a lot more of it and it takes longer to do it.
What drew you into construction?
You know, only a few years ago did I learn that I had a grandfather who was a contractor. I had an interest in architecture in high school, and, yeah, I think I wanted to build things, but it was mostly that if you were good in math and science in school they guided you toward engineering of some sort. So I went to Purdue University in civil engineering.
How did you get where you are today?
I interviewed with Miller Davis in college and have pretty much worked my entire career here. At the time I hired on we had offices in Chicago, Indiana and the home office in Kalamazoo, and I’ve worked at all of them, coming here in the 1980s. I have also worked in most of the areas of the company — except accounting — which has given me a good basis to manage and to lead from.
Do you have a favorite building you’ve built?
Sangren Hall (at Western Michigan University) is one of my favorites because it is such an important building to the university. We’ve worked on buildings for Notre Dame, Michigan State University, Central Michigan University and UCLA, but Sangren is as well made, designed and equipped as any. Pretty much all WMU students will go through it, and it’s important to have facilities like that to be able to compete.
What keeps you up at night?
The talent question. In our industry we need workers in the skilled trades as well as college-trained management. We need to portray our industry as one that’s exciting so it can compete with bioengineering or whatever the hot thing out there is now. I think about: How can we identify those young people out there that have the same passions we have and get them plugged into the right jobs in our industry?
Also, at this stage of my career — I’m probably more than half done (he laughs) — succession management and equity transfer is also a concern. We are believers in sustained growth and looking at where the next opportunities are, and you have to have the business and the people to execute those. Making sure the company has the services we need to be competitive and the people to carry out those services is really important.
Even though I’ve played the guitar since I was 9, it’s only been a few years since I have come to appreciate the role of the arts in education, the sciences, leadership and problem solving. There’s an undeniable connection there, and so I really believe it’s important for students to be exposed to arts education. It helps you be creative and imaginative. Today’s young people are going to have to solve problems that have never been solved before, and they are going to have to visualize things in different ways than previous generations did. Having exposure to artistic education is foundational to that.
Why did you start playing guitar?
I had an older cousin who looked just like Elvis Presley, with a big, black pompadour, and who was a guitar player in bands, and I wanted to be just like him. I started playing in bars for money when I was 14.
Now I play in the Bronk Bros. band, which is fronted by Keith and Brian Bronkema. I coached soccer with their dad and knew them when they were little kids. We connected again 20 years later at an event. I didn’t know they had a band, and they didn’t know I played guitar. They were looking for a guitar player, so I auditioned for them and have been playing with them now for 10 years.
I have played for thousands and thousands of people all over the country, opening for national acts, learning new styles of music and techniques, and meeting relatively famous musicians — all things I never would have had a chance to do without them.
It helps ground you a bit. It’s good to go out and be part of the hired help and be incognito. I enjoy that. I just get paid like everybody else does at the end of the gig.