Trained as a wooden boatbuilder in the early 1970’s with one of the pioneers of epoxy and wood boatbuilding in North America, Steve, along with his wife Jean, started Van Dam Custom Boats in 1977. Together they built their first small shop and never looked back. Even though they are stepping back from their operational roles, their energy and passion still pervades every area of the business. While son Ben has taken over responsibility for shop operations, culture and finance, Steve is still focused on keeping their order book full and developing new business ventures around their core of custom boats.
However, everyone knows that Steve is still checking out everything that goes out the door and is constantly challenging the entire team to never give up its pursuit of perfection. Constant improvement has been engrained in the Van Dam Culture since the day it was founded.
Steve and Jean have been married since 1972 and have never lost their love for each other and the enterprise they founded together. They have two children, Ben, who is now president of Van Dam Custom Boats, and Brie who is a scientist in Alaska. When not working, Steve takes great pleasure in helping his children with whatever projects they may have and building fun stuff for their home. He loves to race on his cross country skis in the winter, race his mountain bike and bicycle tour with Jean in the summer, and can usually be found at the front of the starting line for one or two 10k foot races each year.
Growing up in northern Michigan, Jean taught sailing in the summer and skiing in the winters through high school and college. She graduated with a degree in education, but after marrying Steve (and not being able to teach him anything) she decided to pursue a career in the health field to pay the bills while Steve worked at getting their fledgling business in operation and profitable. After the birth of her and Steve’s two children, she made a decision to become more active in the business management of Van Dam Custom Boats. Balancing family life and managing a business has been a challenging and rewarding experience, as every working mother can attest.
Jean still keeps all the finances on track and organized but now spends more time pursuing her volunteer interests and helping to care for her new granddaughter.
Jean has volunteered her time for the local Women’s Resource Center, which offers assistance to women and children who need support. She has served on the board of the local Community Foundation and she currently serves on the board of Raven Hill Discovery Center, whose focus is exposing children and adults to the connections between science, history, and art.
After all that, she can still be seen with Steve riding her bike in the summer and cross country ski racing in the winter. She’s even won her age group in the prestigious American Birkebeiner cross country ski race! The only things she does better than skiing are making killer muffins and spoiling her kids.
From riding on his dad’s back as a small child, to building an 8’ One Day row boat with his dad at 5 years old, to sweeping the shop after school in grade school, Ben was always around the Van Dam shop. These exposures as a child left lasting impressions as he observed skilled craftsmen pursue their trade. Thanks to this, Ben had his first serious talk with his dad about the appropriateness of “shop talk” at a very young age. Ben “officially” started working at the business in his early teens, developing his skills as he grew. In high school, if he wasn’t playing hockey or sailing competitively, Ben was working in the shop.
Somewhere along the way Ben realized that boatbuilding was in his blood, and this led him to the University of Michigan and a degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. While there he continued to sail competitively and worked in the Hydrodynamics laboratory tow tank. Between his junior and senior year, he did an internship in a yacht design office in New Zealand. In Ben’s senior year, he and his two teammates won the International Workboat/Small Craft/Yacht Design Competition awarded by American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) and The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME). However, when he’s asked about the best part of his U of M experience, he declares it was meeting his wife Erika in their last year of school.
After graduation, Ben spent his first few years at Van Dam working under several project managers, until in 2008 he became a project manager himself. Ben’s formal education has added technical depth to his hands-on training, and he is a big contributor to Van Dam’s constant push for perfection in everything.
In January 2016, Ben was named President of Van Dam Custom Boats, bringing new energy and passion to the leadership team as Van Dam charts its course for the future.
In his spare time Ben enjoys training and participating in triathlons, working on the house he and Erika are building and spending time with his daughter, who they welcomed in February 2016.
After college and a short stint in the auto industry, Michel decided to make a career out of his true passion for boats. Michel completed his degree in design from Central Michigan University. He worked several years with a large production boat builder in the design department, but when the economy took a turn the company had to make several cutbacks. Michel then spent a short time designing on his own until he was hired full time by Van Dam in 1994.
Michel enjoys the challenge that comes with one-of-a-kind boat design work. He feels that naval architecture is an ever-evolving art and science, and requires an open mind and continuous training. Being a part of a project from the conceptual sketch to a magnificent mahogany masterpiece is very gratifying to him.
On any given stay you can hear Michel and Steve “discussing” the merits of this way or that way of doing something.
Michel’s passion for boats extends far beyond the design process; he is fascinated by the mechanical systems that drive them. He researches, collects, and reads anything he can about the developmental history of automotive, marine, or aviation engines. Michel also enjoys restoring antique outboards, boating, cooking, photography and working on his Ford Windsor engine project. Michel has two children, Patrick, who is working on his master’s in mechanical engineering, and Arianna, who just started at Michigan State University.
Coming to Van Dam in 1994 as a 14-year-old high school student, Chad is a tale of dedication and determination. Throughout high school and some college Chad worked summers and after school at the shop, and then finally made the decision that he was ready for a career in boat building. In 2003, Chad became the first person to complete the formal apprenticeship program at Van Dam. He has worked in every facet of the building and maintenance processes. Chad is a highly skilled woodworker, but he is also very comfortable with the electrical, mechanical, and electronics installations that are a vital part of the custom boats at Van Dam. In early 2011 Chad became the Shop manager and is responsible for keeping everything running smoothly and efficiently on the shop floor. In addition to this he is also a project manager overseeing the construction of an individual boat.
The constant shift through the various stages of building and accomplishing new things every day are a few of the reasons Chad chose this line of work.
Chad is an outdoorsman, an avid hunter, and enjoys everything from sailing to skiing to fishing. Chad and his wife Amanda have two sons, Porter and Weston, which they love to take boating on the Inland Waterways in the summer. He also enjoys home construction projects and always has one at going at home.
Trevor’s boat building experience began in high school, when he worked for a local boat builder during the summers. After high school Trevor worked for a marina and boat repair facility for 6 years, finally coming to Van Dam in 1993.
Trevor has been an integral part of each Van Dam boat, producing the mirror finishes that the company has come to be known for. Trevor’s ability in the paint shop is unsurpassed, but he also fills in wherever the need arises - whether it be electrical, mechanical, or fitting planks on a new boat.
Trevor grew up near the water, fishing and hunting ducks. He enjoys teaching his daughter, Kyra, how to fly fish and tie flies. Trevor also enjoys gardening and canoeing, but his favorite past time is spending time with his wife, Carla and their daughter.
Shortly after completing the Landing School of Boat Building and Design in 2002, Thor came to Van Dam. Thor is another one that wears many hats in the shop, his abilities include all facets of woodworking, electrical and mechanical installations, and some work in the metal shop. Thor’s electrical work is very impressive, his wire runs and layouts are remarkable to say the least. Thor’s attention to detail is obvious to anyone looking at his work.
Thor grew up on Washington Island, Wisconsin. His family owns the ferry line that runs to the main land. Thor has many hobbies and enjoys getting people to laugh. He is always smiling; customers and co-workers alike enjoy his humor.
Jess completed a one-year boatbuilding course at the Landing School of Boatbuilding and Design in 2002 and then began his career at Van Dam. He very quickly developed an aptitude for metal working, honing his skills on the lathe and mill, as well as developing the impressive ability of being able to TIG weld with either hand. Jess now does the majority of the metal work that you see done at Van Dam, including, but not limited to, the very impressive cutwaters. Jess is the “go to” guy for custom gadgetry and mechanisms in the shop. Jess’s talents are not confined to the metal shop though, in his spare time one of his many interests are vegetable oil powered diesel engines, which he works on regularly. He also enjoys downhill skiing at local resorts. Jess gained some of his artistic abilities from his parents, who are both artists in western Michigan. Jess’s latest challenge is getting the new CNC machine up and running.
Dave’s roots with Van Dam are definitely worthy of mention; Dave began building boats professionally with Steve Van Dam in 1987. Dave was in fact the youngest employee at Van Dam at that time.
Dave remained with Van Dam until 1993, at which time he decided to take a sabbatical from his responsibilities at Van Dam. Dave chose to transfer his skills of handcrafted woodworking to homeowners, whose refined tastes for custom high-end woodworking he could fulfill, a skill that he continues to this day.
Dave made his return to Van Dam in 2013 and now is fond of stating, “When I first started in 1987 I was the youngest member of the crew, and when I returned in 2013, I was the oldest!”
As if Dave’s woodworking skills and demands are not enough to occupy his time, he has been involved in the rescue of abandoned Doberman Pinchers since 1977. Dave and his wife Cheryl volunteer their time with the Exceptional Riders Program, a human service organization for the mentally and physically challenged persons of all ages.
Dave is a graduate of the University of Michigan-Flint, where he earned his B.A. while majoring in Physics with a minor in math.
Justin grew up in central Michigan, studied Archeology at Central Michigan University, and continued these studies at Harvard. After working in his field for some time he was yearning for more adventures, so he and his wife bought their first boat. Living aboard and fixing it up, Justin found great satisfaction in accomplishing a job well done. He feels the problems boats present are always teaching him something new, and after 6 years of living aboard and working on boats he decided it was time to make it a vocation as well as a passion. About the same time that revelation came to him, he and his wife also learned that she was pregnant with their second child. They realized with the growth of their own family that they wanted to be closer to their extended families too. They moved back to Michigan at the same time that Van Dam was advertising for an apprentice, and everything came together like it was meant to be. Justin is fully immersed in the Van Dam apprenticeship program, but has many outside interests as well. He’s a musician with one professionally released album and plans for more to come. He also loves hiking and camping with his family.
Affectionately known as Kimbo, Steve began his boatbuilding career when he stepped through the doors of Van Dam, but started his training years prior to that day.
Kimbo has a degree in construction management from Illinois State University and graduated from the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building with a focus on traditional small craft construction and yacht interior.
Why this career? In Kimbo’s own words “I like that the work we do isn’t repetitive. It’s always changing as you progress through the different stages of the building process. I get great satisfaction in creating something beautiful and functional with my hands.”
Thanks to his father’s decision to emigrate from South Korea to the United States, Kimbo traveled through the United States during family vacations, visiting many national parks and camping. These experiences and Kimbo’s love for the outdoors defined his interests and hobbies, whether it be camping, fishing, canoeing or sailing.
Kimbo lives in Boyne City with his wife, Lindsay and they are happily expecting their first child. Kimbo’s affections toward his mother and father are deep, as they are for his younger brother who serves in the United States Air Force.
Kathleen made her return to northern Michigan, where she was born and raised after spending several years in southern California. Coming back to northern Michigan was a goal, and it seemed like fate that Van Dam was searching for new office help. As the Office Manager, Kathleen is responsible for greeting customers, fielding calls and marketing.
After completing her bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley State University, Kathleen headed out west where she worked in a small law office. Kathleen spent much of her spare time traveling and hiking the west coast. Coming back to northern Michigan and her family, Kathleen loves the active lifestyle. Taking in all four seasons, she enjoys hiking, snowboarding, camping, biking - really anything outdoors.
Dave Van Dam, Steve’s brother, is a friendly face you see in the shop on Tuesdays. Dave comes in to help with the many on-going miscellaneous tasks in the shop. Whatever needs to be done (including recycling) Dave makes sure it gets done. He also fires up the grill for company BBQs.
Receiving his Bachelor’s degree from Hope College in 1963, Dave went on to get his Masters of Divinity from the Western Theological Seminary, becoming ordained in 1967. From 1967-2007 he was the Pastor/Minister for various churches in the Midwest.
Retirement has been anything but slow for Dave. He spends his time volunteering with Hospice of Little Traverse Bay, India Mission Network, and provides worship/resource leadership for local churches. He is also a teacher/administrator for Three Lakes Lay Academy. Dave and his wife, Penny, volunteer host Sonscape Ministries once a year in Divide, CO. He spends any spare time traveling, swimming, sailing, playing tennis, reading or writing. Most of all though, Dave and Penny enjoy the time they spend with their children and seven grandchildren.