This construction company has been a part of many buildings, roads and bridges that are a familiar part of our local landscape. President Joel Sjostrom reflects on the company his grandfather began.
Joel Sjostrom talks a lot about building our community, something his family has specialized in for the past century. As president of Sjostrom & Sons Inc., 1129 Harrison Ave., Rockford, he’s the third-generation owner of a company that’s constructed some of the region’s most familiar sites, including the Illinois National Guard Armory, the BMO Harris Bank Center and the IL Route 251 bridge over Spring Creek Road.
A full-service construction company, Sjostrom & Sons manages every aspect of the process, working as a general contractor, construction manager or designer/builder. Its 100 to 200 employees, whose work fluctuates with the seasons, have been involved with many commercial structures and roadway improvements. Most of Sjostrom & Sons’ projects are within 50 miles of Rockford, though the company also has worked in places like Connecticut, Tennessee and Colorado.
This year, Sjostrom & Sons turns 100, and although its industry has changed in many ways since 1914, the Sjostrom family is no less dedicated to serving its hometown.
“We’re excited to hit this milestone, but we’re also thinking: What are we going to do over the next 100 years?” says Sjostrom. “How do we keep things going for another century? The answers aren’t obvious because so many things are changing.”
A Century of Change
Sjostrom & Sons has certainly evolved since Swedish immigrant Richard Adolph Sjostrom started the company in Rockford in 1914. Just a decade earlier, Richard, his wife Esther, and two children had arrived from Angermanland, Sweden. For the first few years in Rockford, Richard worked as a stone mason and focused on building foundations, a task that complemented his early business partner, carpentry contractor Emil Blomberg.
In 1914, Richard bought out his partner and branched out into general contracting and reinforced concrete. Despite the effects of the Great Depression, it was a busy time for the firm, as Richard’s company constructed the National Guard Armory and Washington School in Rockford, as well as a post office annex in Freeport.
“I’m told the Armory was a fascinating job for the company, because it was a hot summer when they built it in 1936,” says Joel, Richard’s grandson. “Those were the days when everything was labor-intensive, when they had water boys.”
By the 1940s, all five of Richard’s sons – Bengt, Conny, Philip, Dick and Bill – were active in the business. With World War II raging in Europe and the Pacific, Sjostrom supported Rockford’s Camp Grant military base. At one point, the company endeavored to raise 90 buildings on the base in 90 days.
The launch of the federal highway program spurred the company to grow again, this time expanding into concrete paving. When Richard died in 1961, the company passed to his sons, and was led by the eldest, Bengt. That decade was a busy time for the company, as it helped to build major headquarters for Woodward and Sundstrand (now part of UTC Aerospace). By the time Joel joined the company in summer 1968, Sjostrom & Sons was busy constructing Rock Valley College.
“Summer work during school was great, because they didn’t hesitate to give us the dirty jobs,” says Joel. “I suppose one of my favorite moments was when the library at Rock Valley College was being built. They have a crawl space that’s maybe four feet high, and I got to carry bags of bentonite in there, which is this clay that we would spread out with buckets and rakes. The bentonite, when it gets wet, gets gooey and doesn’t let water pass through. I had to carry 50-pound bags through this crawl space, and then halfway through the job, the foreman comes in and says, ‘OK, now we have 100-pound bags, so you only have to carry half as many.’”
Joel’s brother, Kris, who is company vice president, similarly experienced active summers after he joined in 1970. Their father, Bill, who was 20 years younger than Bengt, took over the company in 1976 and passed it off to Joel in 1984. Now, Joel’s sons, Grant and Reed, are actively involved.
A Wide Portfolio
Back when labor cost just 35 cents an hour, Sjostrom & Sons was building single-family homes in Rockford. But as the city grew, Sjostrom & Sons grew with it and assumed a role in creating and updating many local landmarks.
Sjostrom & Sons oversaw construction of Rockford’s BMO Harris Bank Center in 1981, and it returned for exterior improvements to the arena in the mid-2000s.
The company has lent its paving experience to many local roadways, including runway updates at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. It helped to lay original stretches of Interstate 39, and has performed bridge and pavement work on Interstate 355, U.S. 20, Harrison Avenue, West State Street, the Whitman Street interchange and even the South Beloit toll plaza.
“When open-road tolling started, we worked at South Beloit, Belvidere and DeKalb,” says Joel. “We did the building with the overhead walkway, the concrete paving and installing the sound wall.”
At Burpee Museum of Natural History, Sjostrom helped to build a massive addition in 1999.
“This one was interesting, especially because it was added onto a 100-year-old mansion,” says Joel. “We had to drive some sheeting next to it, so the existing building wouldn’t fall down, and we had to be careful tying everything together.”
Sjostrom & Sons has also maintained longstanding relationships with several clients, including Rock Valley College. In addition to constructing the original campus buildings, Sjostrom & Sons has had a hand in several recent projects, including Starlight Theatre. Dedicated to Joel’s uncle Bengt, the outdoor theater presented several challenges. For one, construction took place around the community theater’s summer performance schedule, often during colder winter months. Then, there was the question of how to install the theater’s retractable roof.
“We fabricated the motorized equipment and the roofing frames up in Minnesota,” explains Joel. “We brought them back here in pieces, hooked them together and built the sections in a temporary building on the other side of the college’s creek. We had to reinforce the bridge over the creek just so that we could transport the roof sections across the creek and install them.”
The company returned a few years later to build the Jacobs Center for Science and Math, a LEED-certified building constructed to sustainability standards.
Now, Sjostrom & Sons is putting the final touches on the renovated Prairie Street Brewhouse, and learning that anything can happen when fixing up an historic factory.
“They wanted us to take out a big old freight elevator – that wasn’t too bad,” says Joel. “But they wanted us to replace it with a modern elevator, and in order to do that, we needed to have about four more feet below the floor of the lowest level. So, we had to excavate, but the problem was that the foundation didn’t go that far. As you can imagine, right by the river, we also had to contend with groundwater.”
Beyond construction, Sjostrom & Sons also does millwright work, which involves moving heavy machinery. It has moved many pieces at the Mondelez International gum factory on Forest Hills Road, and it built the millhouse at Midway Village Museum.
“We also put the machinery in, and it’s all old belt drive equipment,” says Joel. “That was water-wheel vintage and there weren’t too many people we knew who have worked on belt-drive water wheels.”
Preparing for the Next Century
Construction has come a long way since 1914. A paving project that once took 20 on-site workers and 20 truck drivers now takes half as many people, or fewer. Newer materials make it possible for buildings to go up faster. New ideas about sustainability are requiring transformational shifts in construction habits.
“When we had the job at Rock Valley College’s physical education center, we remodeled the building and added onto it, but we had to take into account what materials were taken out of the job site,” says Joel. “We had, for example, separate dumpsters for steel, cardboard, wood, concrete and trash. We had to pay attention because materials couldn’t be mixed.”
Following these sustainability standards requires careful paperwork and supply sourcing, in order to find materials that fit low-mileage criteria and product specifications. In general, says Joel, paperwork requirements are steadily increasing.
“There’s a lot more reporting required in everything we do, and we need to be able to keep up with the whole data flow,” he says. “It’s a challenge to keep up with all of those requirements. There are definitely going to be a lot more parts and pieces to watch over time, especially as we keep talking about energy efficiency, LEED, regulations and worksite safety.”
Changes to Rockford’s manufacturing base, and manufacturing-related building needs, are likely to affect future projects, too. In some cases, older buildings have outlived their usefulness.
“A lot of the buildings in our area are functionally obsolete, because people are inventing new ways to manufacture and store things,” says Joel. “Many of those techniques require different spaces than the buildings that are sitting around right now, and that’s why you see a lot of empty buildings. An easy example is warehouse space. People now commonly want to have about 30 feet of floor-to-ceiling height, but 20 feet used to be considered high enough.”
Even as the world changes, some things will stay the same.
“People have to build things,” says Joel. “It’s about forming the relationships that you need in order to be in line when projects come up, and making the partnerships we need with suppliers and subcontractors. They’re changing on a regular basis, too.”
Giving Back to the Community
Sjostrom & Sons is building more than structures and roads. Its Sjostrom Foundation is impacting local nonprofits.
For years, the Sjostrom family has quietly supported charitable initiatives. About 30 years ago, the company formed a foundation to further extend itself into the community.
“Giving back is just what you should do,” says Joel. “The community supports us, so we should be supporting the community. We’ve tried to support organizations related to our industry, like Northern Illinois Building Contractors Association, the American Concrete Pavement Association and other trade groups. We’ve also tried to be helpful with organizations here that support the Rockford area, like the Chamber of Commerce and the Rockford Area Economic Development Corporation, which we’ve been involved with from the start.”
Joel and Kris are grateful for the relationships they and their family’s company have built over the years. But they can’t credit only their family with success – it’s taken dedication from a community of hard workers.
“We’ve produced some quality work through the years, and we remain committed to hard work and quality products,” says Kris. “Our employees believe in this quality, too, and it’s because of their work that we’ve gotten where we are today.”
Sjostrom & Sons has played an important role in shaping Rockford, and Joel is excited to see what the future will bring.
“Every job is different, and we’ll always be working with different people,” says Joel. “It’s up to us to set up the project team and do the coordination necessary to ensure that all team members can complete their work efficiently. When we’re successful, it makes us feel good, because we feel like we’re helping to build the community.”