By Terri Hughes-Lazzell
College was not the first thing on Dan Behm’s mind when he graduated from high school. In fact, stepping into what he calls a good job in his hometown of Grand Haven, Mich., made him think he might not need college at all.
Besides, he came from a family of entrepreneurs—his father and uncles owned medium-sized businesses—and none of them had gone to college.
It was his boss who talked him into reconsidering college.
Behm listened, and today he remains grateful for that advice. Once he decided to go to college, it was Michigan State University that grabbed his attention.
“I was the first generation to go to college, so the thought of going to Michigan State was scary,” he said. “But I fell in love with the campus.”
Behm said he always loved the Michigan State–Michigan rivalry, even though he didn’t understand the intensity and fun of it until he was a part of it on campus, he said.
Knowing he wanted to major in business, Behm (’83 BA in materials and logistics management-purchasing) sought out MSU’s College of Business, from which he graduated with honors.
“Since my family were all entrepreneurs, it seemed natural to go into business,” Behm said.
He said when he came out of college in 1983, jobs were scarce, but he “went to the No. 1 place in the nation”—MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business—and ended up with a coveted position at IBM.
“I was really lucky. I had offers from two IBM locations and took the offer in Poughkeepsie, New York,” Behm said. He started in purchasing, moved to senior buyer, manufacturing engineer, and systems engineer, and even specialized in negotiations.
He stayed with IBM for about 10 years, eventually returning to West Michigan with IBM in Grand Rapids where he became a market representative. That move meant he would spend one year at IBM’s world-renowned marketing school for sales reps and systems engineers. He said that was a huge learning experience for him that he would use later when he built his own team.
But something kept nagging at him. He had inherited the entrepreneurial spirit, and he knew he wanted to start his own company.
He joined GS Leasing Inc. in Grand Rapids, where he worked for about four years while starting two technology-based companies on the side, and eventually he founded Open Systems Technologies (OST) with Jim VanderMey in January 1997. OST provides IT and tech services and today has offices in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Minneapolis, and London, in addition to its headquarters in the old Drueke Toys building in Grand Rapids.
Today, Behm serves on the board of directors for OST, having stepped down from CEO in March 2015 after leaving the position of president the year before. He had set his succession from the $100 million-a-year business far in advance to ensure a smooth transition so he could pursue other interests. He now is managing partner with River East Developers LLC (RED) in Grand Rapids.
“When we started OST 18 years ago, it was all about survival,” Behm said. After getting past the first few years, then there was time to build the culture. He knew he wanted to establish more than just a company—he wanted to develop a business where people wanted to work, one that had a culture that would help them to develop their careers while supporting their family life.
“We’re in business for people and their families, and we take pride in our people,” he said. “We want to be flexible where our employees can grow personally, professionally, and be more marketable. We are there for each other and encourage and help each other.”
He points to two people who he said he learned from—Meredith Bronk, who has been with the company for 17 years and is his successor as CEO, and Brent Sundberg, an account executive.
“They educated me when we were still relatively small,” Behm said. “They emphasized people, and I was excited about what they were teaching me.”
The culture works because the company has experienced continuous growth and now employs about 185 people full time and another 70 full-time consultants in its five locations.
That passion Behm has for business continues in other areas of his life. For one, he is passionate about MSU and is always looking for ways to celebrate being a Spartan. He has been meeting with other business people in West Michigan trying to find ways to assist other Spartans in business and just connecting. And he loves Spartan sports.
Behm also is passionate about his community and looks for ways to serve others in the area, as well. He serves on the board of directors of the Metro Health Foundation, the board of directors for the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, and as a mentor for the Jandernoa Entrepreneurial Mentoring program.