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Baker holds on to family roots through company’s success


BJ Baker was just 5 years old in 1963 when his father, Bernie, started Baker Mechanical with “a few hundred dollars and a pickup truck.” After climbing his way through the company, Baker took over as president and CEO in 1986 and has turned a 15-person company earning $10 million to $12 million annually into Baker Group, with 315 employees and $50 million in contracted work this year. Away from the office, Baker sees it as his responsibility to be “a good corporate citizen,” and volunteers his time to the Blank Children’s Hospital board of directors, ChildServe and Boys and Girls Club of Iowa, and is the 2005 Central Iowa honorary chair of Variety Club – The Children’s Charity.

Did you always want to take over Baker Mechanical?

I really wanted to be a major-league baseball player. That was my dream. But I went to college with the idea in mind to come back and work for my father, and did so. I had worked for my father from the time I was 10 or 11, either at night or on the weekends. And in high school, I worked construction a lot in the summer.

Did your father start you on that track early with the idea that he was grooming you to take over the company?

That might have been a twinkle in his eye, but we never really talked about it. My dad had a keen sense of wanting to provide an opportunity for his family that he didn’t have. He built something out of nothing and was a self-made man. But you only have so much time on this earth and it takes some time to accomplish what we’ve accomplished.

Aside from construction work during your high school years, what other experience did you have that prepared you to be president and CEO?

I came back from Iowa State University and worked in the field as a foreman and as a superintendent. Then I came into the office as an estimator and then became a project manager. I kind of worked my way through all of the seats in the construction company from the bottom to the top.

Prior to relocating Baker Group in 1998, had it always been your intention to keep it on the East Side?

The reason this location was so attractive was that it was paid for. It was more of a business decision, but there’s no question that our roots are on the East Side. My father was born and raised on the East Side. I was born and raised on the East Side. The Baker family has been on the East Side of Des Moines since the early 1900s, so that more than 100 years of history has been forgotten is probably not true.

Has volunteerism always been important to you?

Anyone who’s not a good corporate citizen is not looking at the big picture. We live and raise our families in Central Iowa, and to not try to make that a better place is shortsighted. Your personal life and your corporate life, I feel, are pretty connected.

What do you enjoy most about being involved in those organizations?

The common thread there is helping kids. Whether they’re physically or mentally challenged or socially or economically challenged, I’ve always had a spot in my heart to help kids, and that’s been the common theme. It’s a pretty easy thing to support.

What are some of your other interests, once the workday is over and there are no meetings to attend?

I have a special-needs child I spend a lot of time with and try to make sure she’s taken care of. I love to golf and spend time boating in the Ozarks. And in the wintertime, I love to go pheasant hunting and duck hunting. There’s not many hours left after that.

Do you continue to keep your father in your mind as you carry out the business of the company?

My father and I spent a lot of time talking about business philosophies and strategies. Every time I veered away from those thoughts and philosophies, I found myself in trouble. So the test of time, if you will, tends to push me back to my father’s core values and his vision.

Is it kind of fun to drive around and see all of the projects that you, your father and the company have been a part of?

Oh, yeah. I used to giggle and laugh at my dad because he would drive around town and say “I remember when we did that job,” or “I remember when we did this project or that building.” It’s kind of fun and neat to be able to point to a project or an entire complex you’ve been involved with and help build something that will be around long after you’re gone. It’s hard to go very far without finding something that we’ve been involved with.

Do you feel like you’ve left your mark?

I’m still working on it. It’s long from over.

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