Just warming up: Engineering alum reinvests in UAA's future
by Joe Selmont |
At a small, masked ceremony on the third floor of the Engineering and Industry Building in December 2021, UAA’s chancellor, the College of Engineering’s (CoEng) dean and others gathered to rename the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Lab in honor of Jan van den Top, a 1973 Master of Science in engineering alumnus, whose generous endowment will enable UAA’s mechanical engineering program to remain on the cutting edge of teaching and research. In fact, this endowment is the latest in a long line of investments he has made in UAA, and is an example of a philosophy that has been one of van den Top’s guiding principles.
Originally from the Netherlands, van den Top joined the Netherlands Volunteer Organization after finishing his undergraduate degree. The organization brought him to Kenya, where he worked with local coffee farming cooperatives to upgrade infrastructure, improve processes and increase output. This opportunity allowed van den Top to see more of the world and to do work that he found meaningful — work that would maybe do some good. However, he is now unsure whether this work achieved its intended outcomes.
“In the long run, the farmers didn’t gain as much as they hoped for, I think,” he said. “It was a great experience for myself, of course. But it also helped define my philosophy for development work moving forward. It’s important to provide people the tools they need to be successful – the tools they need to sustain success into the future. If you can’t do that, then are you really helping them?”
While in Kenya, van den Top also met his future wife, Jeri Markee, who was serving as headmistress of the Kabare Secondary School in a nearby community as part of a deployment for the U.S. Peace Corps. Van den Top said, “That’s what happens when the government sends these young people outside the country. They fall in love.” With a smile, he added, “Really, I think Jeri liked me because I had a Volkswagen, and she needed rides.”
After their marriage, the young couple decided to take turns living in each other’s homelands. First, in 1969 they moved to Alaska, where Jeri’s parents lived. During the next few years, van den Top earned his master’s degree from UAA while also working for a local engineering firm. “At the time, all of my classes were in West High School, and the professors actually flew down from Fairbanks,” he said. “It’s funny to think about now. The university has grown so much.”
In 1973 they briefly moved to Holland, but they jumped at the opportunity to go to South America when van den Top was offered a two-year job in Suriname, which was then called Dutch Guiana. When that adventure came to an end, they chose to move back to Alaska, determining that it was the right place for them. Shortly after settling down in Anchorage, van den Top set about building a business.
“I saw an opening,” van den Top said. “The mechanical contracting business was changing. In other parts of the world, the design-build process was becoming a major way of doing projects. But nobody was doing it in Alaska.”
Prior to this time, the design and construction of a project were generally carried out by two separate businesses. This process is known as design-bid-build, which created huge inefficiencies. Under the design-build process, the same business handled the entire project. Van den Top approached several contractors around Anchorage to convince them that this new model was the way of the future. Ultimately, he found a company that was interested in his vision: Superior Plumbing and Heating Inc.
“The catch was that the owners were ready to retire,” van den Top said. “They were excited about design-build, but they wanted me to buy the company from them.”
And so he did.
But of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. Van den Top was still a young man with limited capital. Thankfully, the previous owners believed in the design-build concept, and so they worked out a deal that allowed van den Top to buy the company over a number of years. It was a gamble, but it ultimately paid off.
Van den Top was right that design-build would be more efficient and profitable. Over the next 40 years, he grew The Superior Group Inc. (as the company is now known) into one of the most successful mechanical contracting firms in Alaska. His company has been the mechanical contractor for many buildings that are household names in Alaska: the Anchorage Museum, the Alyeska Hotel, the Alaska Sealife Center and Mat-Su Regional Hospital, among many others.
These days, van den Top is retired. He worked with the employees of The Superior Group to enable them to purchase the business, and the company is now fully employee-owned.
“I really like this set up,” van den Top said. “It fits in nicely with my philosophy. Employee ownership gives a company and individual workers many tools for success. It doesn’t automatically make them successful, of course. But it does provide some good tools.”
Since retiring, van den Top has kept busy. He’s gone back to Africa several times to work with a nonprofit in Tanzania doing community development work. And this time, he’s very focused on ensuring that the communities are set up for long-term success. He has also remained involved in the CoEng. In addition to the endowment of the Jan van den Top HVAC Lab, The Superior Group has also endowed a scholarship for engineering students in van den Top’s name.
“When I first came to Alaska, the UAA community was such a great help for me. It was really influential for my career,” van den Top said. “Now, I want to do my part to provide the tools that UAA needs to be successful.”