Roncelli and Operating Engineers 324 – Building For The Future
Rising over seventy feet above the ground at the Operating Engineers 324 Construction Career Center in Howell, the skeletal outline of a massive building is taking shape. While ground was just broken in May, there is already considerable progress – from the concrete footings to the erected steel beams, exterior walls being formed and roofing taking place. A collection of tradespeople work in different areas. Some gather around a crane in discussion. Others work high above on the roof, their tie-offs and hard hats casting silhouettes on the ground below.
This is a massive project, and it represents both a great future and a wonderful past.
This is the new Operating Engineers 324 Indoor Arena, a 90,000+ square foot addition to the already sprawling Construction Career Center. When construction is complete, it will provide the members of OE324 a year-round, indoor space for training for both heavy equipment operators and technicians, as well as four additional classrooms, a mechanical shop training area and a truck wash bay station. It will allow for training when the conditions outside are too cold or too wet to operate equipment safely. It will allow OE324 to instruct in things previously unavailable due to the weather, like paving. It is a massive investment by the membership of Local 324 into training and sustaining their reputation as the safest, most skillful workforce available. It will be the crowning achievement at an already world-class training center.
When the time came to hire a contractor to build this monumental improvement, OE324 knew they needed a company who would meet and exceed the exacting standards, a contractor who would be more than a service provider, but also a partner. A contractor who would help OE324 realize the vision of this new arena, and work side by side to find solutions when questions arose. A contractor who understands OE324 and whom OE324 understands in return.
So it was of little surprise that the project was awarded to one of OE324’s longest tenured signatory contractors – a company with which the union has forged a history almost from their very inception: Roncelli.
Growing Up Together
The company was founded in 1966 as Roncelli Trenching by Raymond “Skip” Roncelli, John Patrico and Nick Ritz in Sterling Heights. Skip Roncelli had been a union bricklayer and graduate of their apprenticeship program.
“Skip was a bricklayer on the east side,” explains Roncelli Manpower Coordinator John Sliwinski. “and he says to himself ‘we (Bricklayers) are always shut down during rain and mud, but everybody doing footings works through! I’m going into that’ and then the rest is history.”
Skip Roncelli had a very good friend in future OE324 Business Manager Ray Poupore, who was still a business representative at the time. Poupore took the time to extoll the virtues of becoming signatory to OE324, and within a year, Roncelli was signed up and in. Roncelli became signatory with Operating Engineers 324 in 1967.
OE324 was growing at that time too. It was just two short years later, in 1969, that the first training classes were provided in Howell. A construction trailer served as a classroom, and there was little equipment, but the seeds for what would become the modern Sam T. Hart Construction Career Center were planted.
That same year, Skip Roncelli welcomed his eldest son, Gary, into the business and immediately began to teach him the skill, dedication, and integrity he would need to one day run the company with a unique boots-on-the-ground style.
Building Up…and Out
The 1970s were a period of growth for Roncelli Trenching and Operating Engineers 324. OE324 staved off the results of an oil crisis, increasing non-union competition and an economic recession while building massive projects like the Renaissance Center, the Pontiac Silverdome, and Interstate Highway construction throughout the state. Roncelli took on more and more projects as both a General Contractor and self-performer.
It was during these years that longtime OE324 member and current Roncelli Operator Don Ashburn first came in contact with the company.
Ashburn first came to construction through his brother in 1972. As a carpenter and laborer for his brother’s company – G&G Excavating – he worked on a number of projects as they partnered with Roncelli. He was always impressed with the Roncelli team.
“I enjoy the people,” says Ashburn. “Then and now. They’re a lot of really nice people to work with.”
In 1995, Ashburn moved into the cab and became an Operating Engineer 324 member, and in 2013, after his brother closed up his company, he headed over to Roncelli.
“I like running machines, ever since my brother first threw me the keys,” says Ashburn. “Here (with Roncelli), I operate excavators, loaders, dozers, skid steers…pretty much a lot of everything.”
Ashburn is standing outside the cab of a backhoe this day, outside of the Ford Engineering Lab (FEL) in Dearborn. Roncelli has been selected by Ford Motor Company to complete a full renovation to the 100-year-old, Albert Kahn designed, 200,000 square foot lab. It is a complete gut from original structure and will include an upgrade to all the mechanical systems. The renovation will provide Ford Employees with a new modern workspace.
Roncelli has a history with the FEL building. At its inception, the FEL structure housed 1,800 engineers. Executive offices were located in what became known as Mahogany Row within a small two-story centralized portion of the building. Henry Ford’s primary office was in Mahogany Row. The building was ultimately closed in 2003. In 2014, Ford decided to utilize the original FEL to create office space for 1,000 employees, along with a new 20,000 square foot automotive research laboratory. Roncelli was hired to complete the historic renovation and restoration by upgrading interior finishes of the former cubicle floor plan and opening up two 40’ x 50’ sky light bays in the center of the original building.
This is Ashburn’s last day on this project before he moves to a few others in the hopper. He has been here since the first week of July, primarily bringing materials inside for other trades as they complete the upgrades. It is just the most recent of many notable projects he has worked on for Roncelli.
“I worked on the Ford DPW Maintenance Building, Beaumont Hospitals in Grosse Pointe and out on 26 Mile Road, and the McLaren Hospital in Mt. Clemens. After today, I’m headed to a project in the (New Center) area of Detroit for Henry Ford Hospital.”
But it’s projects like this one at the Ford FEL that really makes Ashburn smile.
“This is actually my second time working on this building,” he says. “Before, we actually did Henry Ford’s office, three or four years ago. We were working at nights, and you would walk down the aisle and see Henry Ford and Henry Clay Ford’s offices, and the safe upstairs.
I like history. It means a lot. You walk outside and look up at the names – Otto and Edison and Tesla – and you look up and see what they did and you get the importance.”
Growing, Changing, and Adapting
In 1980, Roncelli Trenching shortened their name to Roncelli and moved into the construction services industry, becoming a construction manager and building for the big three automotive companies and the manufacturing sector.
Throughout the 1980s, that meant increased work in the automotive industry, and an increased need for skilled professionals.
Rich “Chuck” Soule came to Roncelli in the 80s as the growth was happening. A farmer and mechanic with construction experience, Soule joined Roncelli in 1987, first as a Laborer and then, 10 years later, making the move to Operating Engineer.
“I’ve worked on some big projects, and some big automotive projects,” says Soule.
“Working down at Poletown. That was a nice one – that was a big job down there. Sterling Stamping. We did a massive pit there and that (took) a lot of time. I went from the overhead crane to running an excavator, loader, dozer, backhoe with forks, material handler, and an off-road truck. I did that for probably two months straight, and then went out on the pile on a big dozer and pushed out there.”
Now, Soule is part of the Roncelli team at the Ford Michigan Proving Ground in Romeo, where Roncelli provides engineering, budgeting, and construction support for facility maintenance and new construction.
Currently, he is helping a team of electricians ready what will be a new EV Charging Station by excavating the area it will be built.
Soule, who grew up nearby, loves the fact that he gets to work inside the facility he drove by for so long.
“I used to drive around the outside of this place. And I always thought ‘man, I’d love to be in there someday.’ I always thought the guys worked in here were lucky enough to have a place like this to work every day. Because when you get out into this place (the grounds), it’s like you’re up north somewhere. It’s beautiful.
“I watched an eagle grab a fish from Fisher Lake, while working. You can’t say you see something like that at a lot of places. And that’s not even mentioning the cars!”
Soule also appreciates how Roncelli has been as an employer.
“They’ve always been good to me,” he says. “They’ve kept me employed. They’ve always allowed me to better myself at my job. They’ve given me opportunities that I don’t think a lot of guys get, but I’ve paid it back. You know, I’ve never taken it for granted.
“It’s like a family.”
Meanwhile, Operating Engineers 324 left the trailer for good in the late 80s with the completion of the original training center building. Boasting classrooms and offices to go along with increased equipment and class offerings, it was a huge step forward for the union as it built up its Registered Apprenticeship program and lifelong training for journeypersons. They initiated the Raising Gang partnership with Ironworkers Local 25 in 2001, and gained national recognition for the program’s growth.
In 1989, company patriarch Skip Roncelli passed away. His son, Gary Roncelli, now took the reins fully as President and, along with Treasurer Tom Wickersham, led the company through further unprecedented growth. By 1995, Crains was recognizing Roncelli as one of Detroit’s 10 largest contractors, and their reach had grown well beyond Michigan as well.
By Roncelli’s 40th anniversary in 2006, the firm had tripled in size in a matter of seven years and constructed a 25,000 square-foot, two-story expansion that quadrupled its office area to meet the needs.
Expansion continued for the Operating Engineers 324 training facility as well. New equipment and added acreage meant that OE324 now had one of the largest construction training sites in the country. They began to welcome First Responders, including the Michigan Urban Search and Rescue (MUSAR) to train at the facility, as well as other Federal, State, and Local police, fire, and emergency services. It also began hosting the annual Michigan Construction Career Days, welcoming hundreds and then thousands of high school students to gain a hands-on experience in the skilled trades including the chance to operate heavy equipment.
In 2016, Roncelli celebrated its 50th anniversary by announcing an office in Detroit, and becoming certified as a Detroit-based Business. The certification reflected the firm’s commitment to the revitalization efforts that were taking place in Detroit.
Operating Engineers 324 was part of that revitalization as well. Dozens of projects, from the Q-Line to the building of Little Caesars Arena, construction on I-96, Woodward Avenue, and more to the start of work on the Hudson site and Gordie Howe Bridge, all utilized and utilizing OE324 members’ skills.
And, of course, the projects Roncelli was working on, thanks to the ongoing partnership between organizations.
In 2020, Gino Roncelli, Gary’s son, was named Vice-President. Gino’s passion for innovation, technology and company culture is planned to lead the firm’s expansion into the next decade and beyond, as well as his respect for the skills Operating Engineers 324 members bring to the company.
“We recognize the craftmanship and level of expertise the OE324 bring to the construction industry,” says Gino Roncelli. “OE324 Operators take pride in their work and strive for high-quality outcomes. Their dedication to craftsmanship ensures that construction projects meet or exceed quality standards. The training and certification programs the union undergo ensure they possess the necessary skills and knowledge to be the best in the industry maximizing productivity and minimizing downtime. With safety being one of Roncelli’s core values, it can’t be said enough how the focus aligns with OE324. Their commitment to safety reduces the risk of injuries and property damages.”
“Ultimately, the use of OE324 Operators can lead to greater client satisfaction. Clients benefit from projects that are completed safely, efficiently, on time, and within budget, and these operators play a significant role in achieving these outcomes.”
One of Roncelli’s newest Operating Engineers is Craig Irvine. Irvine had worked non-union residential construction for a while, but wanted to get into the union as soon as he could.
“The benefits are great,” says Irvine, “but it was the opportunity for vertical movement I liked the most. The chance to learn new things, move up, get new opportunities. If you are hardworking, there are more things you can do.”
Irvine laughs. “I was like a project manager for a job, and I would mutter under my breath, at least 10 times a week, I would just say expletive this, I’m going to quit this and join the union. And then by happenstance somebody called me and offered me this job – I would have been silly to say no!”
Irvine is the youngest operator at Roncelli, but he likes being the utility man as he learns more.
“As the junior operator, I hop around a lot, but I don’t mind because it lets me learn a lot and get to see things a lot faster. It’s a benefit for me and my position.”
Irvine also points out he had the chance to learn from a couple of recently retired OE324 members, Dennis O’Leary and Alan Vanlerberghe.
“Those two guys were a pillar for our self-perform division,” says Phil Ballard, Equipment and Facilities Manager. “But they were able to take Craig under their wing a bit and he got to learn some things from them.”
That same year, 2020, Operating Engineers 324 opened the expansion wing of the Construction Career Center. With new classrooms, new technologies, a new lunchroom, and a larger and beautified parking lot and entrance, it exemplified both the organization OE324 has become, and the investment made in itself. But no sooner was it completed than even more space – and new ways to train – were needed thanks to a booming work picture.
Union and Contractor Partnership
“The partnership between Roncelli and OE324 has remained so strong over 55 years because Roncelli and OE 324 share a commitment to safety,” says Gino Roncelli. “We both understand the importance of continuous safety training and education. Both Roncelli and OE are invested in ongoing training allowing our team members to be up-to-date on the latest safety protocols and regulations.”
“We also have open and effective communication with one another. Regular meetings and open channels of communication allow us both to discuss safety concerns, exchange feedback, and collaborate on safety initiatives.”
“Over the five decades we have built a strong foundation of mutual trust and respect,” he continues. “This has allowed us to work together seamlessly even during challenging situations.”
“Finally with the ever evolving construction industry and standard changes Roncelli and the union have been able to adapt. We both welcome incorporating new technologies and techniques while still keeping safety at the forefront.”
Soule attended two events this year at the Construction Career Center in Howell where Roncelli was a sponsor – Construction Career Days in April, and the Big Dig Construction vs Cancer in July. Both times, he volunteered and helped as kids, from the high schoolers to the first event to the toddlers of the second, operated the huge machines in awe.
“I had a girl that got in there (excavator) and she was a natural,” Soule says. “Once I explained what it did, she dug a hole, and then filled it in. I told her ‘when you get out of school, get right in there. You know, get your apprenticeship. You will have a career for life. And I believe that too. It’s a good way to go.”
Into the Future
At the Construction Career Center, Roncelli has worked all summer to get the new Indoor Arena in place. While construction will continue until next year, it is still being raised at an astonishing rate.
As Roncelli works to provide the carpenters, laborers, and other trades, it has been OE324 training site personnel who have been working hand in hand with the Roncelli team to operate the equipment on site. It has been the kind of working arrangement only possible when there is trust and respect between the two partners.
“Working with the Roncelli team has been great,” says Operating Engineers 324 Training Director John Osika. “They are working at a fantastic pace, and have exactly the kind of responsible, collaborative, and safe partners we expected when we awarded them the project.”
The Indoor Arena construction at the OE324 Construction Career Center is one example of the kind of future the partnership between these two organizations can continue to create.
“Given our long history, the partnership between Roncelli and OE324 is likely to remain strong and will continue to adapt to the industry changes together,” says Gino Roncelli. “Our shared commitment to safety, quality and collaboration provides a strong foundation for continued success in the construction industry together.”