The Beukema family’s focus on business basics has set up Suburban Inns for intergenerational success
By Adam Burroughs
That’s how Peter R. Beukema’s answer begins when asked what he’s learned over several decades of building and operating a family-owned hotel business. It’s unexpected, lacking the platitudes some successful business leaders adopt. Instead, the matter-of-fact answer reveals what could be considered the secret to the success of his family’s business, Suburban Inns.
Peter R. and Carol Beukema launched their business with the Georgian House, a single hotel in St. Ignace, Michigan. Since then, they have built—sometimes literally from the ground up—what is soon to be a seven-hotel group with eight restaurants, with their son, Peter D. Beukema, serving as the company’s CEO.
The success of Suburban Inns, the banner under which the branded hotel and restaurant franchises operate, is predicated on getting the basics right. It’s about common-sense locations for light switches in the rooms, the tidiness not just of the sheets covering the queen beds but also of the flower beds surrounding the properties and thermostats that operate the same way as those found in homes.
Launching a business
Interest rates were around 24 percent when Peter R. and Carol bought their first hotel, Georgian House, on Jan. 5, 1979.
“The energy crisis had started, and in big cities, a lot of gas stations were closing on Sundays,” Carol says. “In the Upper Peninsula, St. Ignace area, they never closed on Sundays. But if a traveler was listening to the radio, they were saying, ‘If you’re going to Northern Michigan, make sure you take gasoline with you.’ That was scary for us, especially because it was our first year.”
The resort property, with 800 feet of Lake Huron frontage, was a convenient location from which people could take day trips to Mackinac Island, Tahquamenon Falls, The Soo Locks and Sault Ste. Marie. It needed a lot of work, but Peter R. says it had good bones.
“We had good property, and we could really do something with the building,” he says.
The couple, with help from knowledgeable housekeepers, rented rooms while gradually making improvements.
“By the time we opened it the second season, it was right with the best,” Peter R. says. “By the next year, we were by far the best.”
Raised behind the front desk
With their initial property a success, the couple added another franchise property in Grandville, targeting year-round corporate business. They managed the two properties until 1997, when they sold the upgraded Georgian House, kicking off a rapid expansion that saw them opening properties under a variety of franchise brands in Holland, Midland and, eventually, Grand Rapids. The opening of their newest facility in downtown Grand Rapids brings their hotel total to seven.
As the number of hotels expands, Peter R. and Carol have begun to step back. Peter D. now manages the company’s 525 (soon to be 725) team members and oversees operations.
“I’ve been involved with the family business really since day one,” says Peter D. “I was basically born and raised behind the front desk of the hotel, helping dad build boardwalks and other things from basically the age that I could walk, mowing the lawn and helping plow snow, and helping out wherever I could. So I think it was kind of in the blood.”
He took the reins as director of operations when he was 23.“We observed the natural leadership abilities of Peter and how much respect he commanded, demanded and received from our employees as we were watching him grow and mature in the industry, and we knew he was going to be an absolutely wonderful fit for the operations side of the company,” Carol says.
Efficiencies and collaboration
But it takes more than respect to make a difference at a company; it also takes strategic chops. Those were on display when Peter D. consolidated Suburban Inns’ administrative offices about a year-and-a-half ago into an 8,262-square-foot building that replaced its offices in Rockford, Grandville and Holland.
“As we emerge, we still consider ourselves small, but the reality is we’re getting bigger by the year,” says Peter D. “As my parents really took a step back, I was on the road all the time because the construction team was based in their home office in Rockford and the operations team, which I was leading, was based in Holland. And our finance team was based in Grandville. As we’ve grown, we’ve all just adapted. I was going a little crazy driving from store to store to meet with people, and I felt like there was a huge collaboration piece that we were missing. By bringing everybody under one roof, we can pick up on efficiencies and collaboration. And I think it’s worked out pretty well.”
The move also meant there were fewer chances to get sidetracked.
“You’re going from Holland to Grandville to work with the accounting office, and you stop at another property, and there’s something they bring up that they have a need for or they’re having a problem with. And yes, you should deal with it, but that doesn’t get done what you started out to do,” Peter R. says. “By bringing the offices together, you stay more focused on what the immediate need is.”
Sunday dinner and business
While Peter R. and Carol have stepped back a bit from the business, they’re still involved and regularly communicate with Peter D.
“I think it will always be that way,” Peter R. says. “We have a huge love for the whole business, so I think we’ll always have an interest in it.”
Having a company they’ve built for at least half a lifetime means that passion for the business can creep in to their everyday family lives.
“We probably could have done better at separating church and state, if you will—Sunday dinner and business,” Peter D. says. “But we did pretty good. I don’t think we had any true ground rules. If we talked about business on Sunday, we tried to go into the office after dinner. But when you’re this invested and this passionate about what we do, it’s kind of hard not to talk about it when a topic comes up. That’s created stress over the years, but it’s also part of the natural connection of the family.”
Peter R. believes that passion is the critical factor that will ensure the business is there for future generations of Beukemas to grow.
“Family businesses that succeed are only those where there’s a passion,” Peter R. says. “If the next generation does not have the passion, it won’t succeed.”
All in the family
Carol Beukema says Suburban Inns’ relationship with Huntington is excellent, almost as if it were another Beukema son or daughter.
“We really feel they are a very big part of our team, a very important part of our team,” Carol says. “They are very accessible any time we need them, and we just so appreciate our Huntington family.”
Peter R. Beukema says the bank has been a great contributor to the company’s business endeavors.
“They’ve done a great job,” says Peter R. “The people that we’ve been working with over the past six years have been extraordinary.”
“As you look at the banking relationship, commercial lending is a big part of it,” says CEO Peter D. “We really value that relationship, and we’re excited to continue to grow it.”
Peter D. calls Suburban Inns’ relationship with Huntington “the total package.”
“It’s the tools of working with a big bank, but with the connections of working with a small bank,” he says. “We use all their tools to help us be successful, and the team is committed to the end goal of allowing us to be our best. We can’t be No. 1 if our vendors aren’t No. 1. And that’s part of why we value this relationship so much, because it’s a holistic commitment to success.”
For more information, visit suburbaninns.com.