By Mike McKenzie, editor for Business Pulse Magazine
Let’s begin this parable with NOW. It’s upbeat, an inspirational story of success and its moving parts. A pretty picture:
Axiom Construction & Consulting, specializing in architectural metal in Lynden, joins the Top 100 list of privately-owned companies in Whatcom County for the first time. With three operations under the parent organization, they did $40 million in sales last year and they employ about 140 workers.
Tim Koetje started it in 2002 with a partner.
That segues to THEN. The hard-edged phase of this allegorical tale. Not a pretty picture:
Well, at first it was. A back story of rivers of sweat equity as a dairy farm kid and workplace laborer. Of large dreams for a teenager living fast and hard and carefree into his 20s. Of riding high (literally) on quick success and earning big bucks with a startup. “If you asked me,” he said, “I was a big deal.”
…Until the bottom fell out.
Tim Koetje had started his company with a few dollars in the bank and a paycheck from Andgar Corporation, and a partner equally enthusiastic and equally skint. They had no jobs bid out, and only their ambition and their work experience in roofing to go on. They scored $300,000 in bids their first year, and hit $1 million by the next year.
Then, kaboom. It all crumbled: Koetje’s business partnership, his family, his youthful positive spirit. He was ready to fold, and wasn’t sure where to turn or who to turn to. At one point, before a stunning encounter with his grandfather Howard “Squeak” Koetje. Tim was saddled with $600,000 owed on a tax bill and debt, and gross sales of $1.3 million.
Koetje, burdened by demons from alcohol, drugs, divorce, and what he termed an “ugly” breakup of his startup partnership, tells a remarkable story of overcoming those obstacles and building a multifaceted business venture with a goal of reaching $100 million by 2020.
The Axiom umbrella includes a company that manufactures panels, Phoenix, and another that performs flat roofing, Axiom Division 7. Halo, a real-state holding company co-owned with Tim’s business partner at Division 7, Jeremy Parriera, owns the Axiom HQ building.
He learned roofing with Scholten Roofing, and after two years he went to work at Andgar Corporation and learned about commercial metal work.
Along the way he leaned on many people who seemed to wear a halo. Bolstered by mentors, family, close friends, and his grandfather’s command, Koetje turned his life around by, he said, “doing things the right way….(and) getting remarried in 2016 and having our son have grounded me. Sara holds my feet to the fire, drives me to reach my full potential.”
WEARING A CAMO jacket over a T-shirt, seated in a meeting room at Axiom’s new headquarters on the main drag heading toward downtown Lynden, Koetje amiably, comfortably, and frankly spelled out the rocky roads he traveled to get to this moment. “I was a troubled person,” he said of some dark years past.
That was putting it mildly. He revealed details of a mixture of long hours at work by day, and long, short-sleep nights of getting high, or drunk, or some combination of the two. “I somehow knew how to draw the line between never letting the night life spill over and interfere with my work life,” he said. “Somehow, I was always ready to perform good work.”
Koetje’s jarring exploits of addiction (“you name it, I’d try it”) poured out immediately, unexpectedly as startling openers to the conversation. “One thing I’ve found if I share openly, it’s always best to be right up front about what happened back then,” he said.
Following this interview Tim read an article in Business Pulse about Sam Moncrieff, who founded Moncrieff Construction after overcoming addictions. Koetje reaffirmed: “What Sam did makes me proud. And if I can share my story like he did then possibly we can help keep somebody else from falling into the same problems. We were on the road to nowhere, and made life changes – people want to know, ‘How did you do it?’”
Koetje reckoned that his upturn in life hung on steely self-discipline and determination, double-down hard work, and “the help of God and great counsel…(from) some amazing people who helped me.”
This past year underscores his 180-degree makeover: Koetje began family anew with his bride, Sara, their new baby boy, Cassius, and started a new company in real estate development, called Rogue. (“I have six companies registered now.”) They have Paisley, 4, Sara’s daughter by a previous marriage, and Vance, 10, Tim’s son from his first marriage.
The turnaround began in 2004 from a singular aha! moment. “I’d had it, and figured I’d go bankrupt and shut down,” he said. “I went to my Grandfather Squeak for advice. I looked to him to say, ‘Close it.’
“Instead, he said with every ounce of stern he could muster, ‘Tim, you promised all those families you were going to help them. You’d better figure it out.’ And he walked away, mad. I still get chills to this day when I think about that moment.”
Tim knew what to do. He’d learned it toiling on the farm, and at Andgar, and in Axiom Year One. “I put my head down and went back to work – 80, 90, even 100 hours a week. I cut myself off from my family and friends and jumped back into the grinder.”
ONLY A YEAR AFTER rededicating himself, Koetje expanded Axiom in 2005 by adding Phoenix, a manufacturing plant in the very barn where he grew up tending dairy cattle. (The phoenix, a bird in Greek mythology, regenerated by rising from the ashes of the one it replaced.) A couple of years later, services expanded with Division 7 flat roofing.
Up on the roof – that’s where Koetje began his journey after all but flunking out of high school. He worked long hours on the farm alongside his parents and grandparents. “Loved the machinery,” he said. “The animals, not so much.”
He foresaw no future in the dairy barn, or in college. “I graduated (Lynden Christian) with a 1.6 grade point average,” he said. “I might still have the school record for D-minuses.”
Scholten Roofing was hiring. “I immediately joined the workforce. Flat roofing – working with hot tar and rubber – and I worked my way up within the industry. I crushed it there.” Not long after leaving to dive headlong into business, life choices nearly crushed him.
In his own words:
“When I decided to start a business, with a partner who was a good friend, I was a troubled young man. I was deep into alcohol and drugs. You name it, I tried it. I had $65 cash, a paycheck for $1,100 coming in, and no work in roofing.
“I knew only one way to deal with that – work more hours than anybody else. We grew way too fast – $300,000 the first year. Within two years we had $1 million in sales, and 40 employees. But my troubles cost me in a big way. I was still partying, hard.
“The split of the business in the second year was an ugly one, really tough because we had been such good friends. When the partnership dissolved I was left with a mountain of debt. We had a million owed in tax and vendor debt with $1.3 million in billings. I started thinking about how to get out.”
Meeting the demons head-on, Tim stopped drinking, using, and losing. His vision for success and helping others become successful became clear again. “It looked like a cinch to me,” he said. “I studied all aspects of our competitors. The industry had become an entirely different beast with technology.”
To keep up, he taught himself computer-aided design (CAD) and 3-D printing; bought a router and a sheet metal break and shear; learned to design and build some of his own equipment, and, he said emphatically “…brought in key people – like Jeremy Parriera as a longtime friend, now president of Axiom Division 7 .”
Profitability rose quickly again. Axiom hit $1 million in sales again in 2005 and numbers climbed for five years before leveling off after 2010. Then another uptick began in 2013 when the comptroller, Megan Kalma, had an idea for taking the firm to next level and beyond.
“She called for a meeting to examine operations,” Koetje said. “I said, ‘Why? I already know how the company works.’ She said, ‘How are we doing?’ and I said, ‘Great. We’re growing.’
“But we didn’t have a clear picture of how. I was in the way of that. “Megan suggested that we use a facilitator to help draw out my vision and provide the company a path to follow that vision. We brought the team into a meeting aimed at strategic alignment to look at the ‘Axiom Way’ of doing things. I started with one employee actually saying about me, ‘You’re a meddler.’
“We looked at every aspect of the company, and from there they pulled it from my brain, and she wrote everything on a white board. Then she organized it, and we reverse-engineered the company.”
Next up, in progress, a company handbook. “Ethics, processes, systems, efficiencies, how to grow organically or through acquisitions, $10 million at a time,” Koetje said. “It’s not a ‘thou shalt and thou shalt not’ handbook.”
Axiom does business on one foundational premise: Do things right for the customer, he said. “You generate confidence through your history lessons. Ours are built on honesty and integrity. In taking on work we have to bid it right. If we can’t, we just won’t do it.”
As the conversation wound toward an end in the Axiom meeting room, Koetje capsulized his story thus: “At 25 I took a look at the world around me. To get to where I wanted to be I had to do something different. It took five years to get my feet under me. Then I planned it out – get married and settled down with kids by 35. Hit 40, step back from the work. Build a $100 million company by 2020.
“Give or take here and there, that’s where I’ve been, and where I am, and where we’re going.”