Seventy-five years ago, Clifford H. Spicer signed one of the first receipts for work done by his own company.
The work was a survey of two lots in the Village of Chesaning, cost the client $35, and was performed on Dec. 7, 1944. While the paper is slightly faded, the edges a bit worn, and the typeset slightly smudged, there is no mistaking the scrawling signature of Spicer’s founder.
His name rests at the top of the paper, as does the address and four-digit telephone number of his home on Mackinaw Street in Saginaw, Michigan where he started the business.
Born on August 30, 1902, in South Lyon, Michigan, Spicer was the only child in his family of five to go onto college. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1924 and then went on to work in the City of Saginaw’s Engineering Department, before moving to a private firm, called Francis Engineering.
Then, in 1944, while the U.S. was still embroiled in World War II, he struck out on his own.
In a letter from the Michigan Society of Professional Engineers, it was written that “He gained a great deal of practical knowledge that helped him later in his career at these jobs. Spicer’s reputation as a man of integrity and skilled engineer quickly followed him as he began his business.”
Working at first with only a three-man surveying crew, he handled drain projects for Saginaw, Tuscola, Bay, Gratiot, and Midland Counties and by February of 1945, the business had grown and moved into a second-floor office at 404 ½ Court Street.
In 1951, still operating as Cliff H. Spicer Engineering, the business moved less than a mile away to 818 S. Michigan, where it occupied just the first floor. In 1959, the business was incorporated and became known as Spicer Engineering, with five engineers owning stock.
By then, the company had completed many drainage design projects for County Drain Commissioners and had begun working with nearly every township, village, and city in the Great Lakes Bay Region. In many of these municipalities, it was Spicer engineers who designed their first water and/or sanitary sewer system.
Twenty years after he opened the doors, in 1964, Spicer had 24 employees, including two registered engineers and not only worked for municipalities and private contractors, but industrial and commercial entities that were growing in the region, like General Motors.
In a 1964 article published by the Saginaw News, it described Spicer as “a man with snow-white hair, soft voice and a shy smile, who has built a reputation for engineering and consultant advice. He probably knows where more sewer lines, water lines, drains, and weak bridges exist in this part of Michigan than any other person.”
Cliff Spicer was rarely referred to by his first name by those working under him. It was usually “Mr. Spicer,” and by 1971, he had grown the company to a payroll of over 50 people.
When announcing his retirement in 1972, Spicer was quoted as saying that, “We try to give good service by delegating responsibility to qualified persons. And given the chance, I’d do the same thing all over again. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
When Spicer officially retired, the reins of the company were handed over to Otto Schiesswohl, who had been with Spicer since the beginning. Three years later, Charles G. Sessner, who joined the company in 1954, followed in his footsteps as president.
During the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, Spicer worked with many communities and developers to help transform fields and wooded acres to finished subdivision streets complete with measured lots, curbs, gutters, water and sewer hookups. About a quarter of the firm’s business was in the private sector and most of the company’s work was in the Lower Peninsula.
By 1979, the company had added a planning department and employed 35 engineers, a registered planner, two registered land surveyors, and three graduate architects. That year, the company also invested in a $100,000 computer system that produced drawings, analyzed water systems, and eliminated much of the manual work and computations.
In 1981, the engineers began using a water analysis software package, known as Kentucky Pipeworks, and the survey department began using a “total station” in early 1989, which allowed surveyors to input survey data or notes in the field into a handheld computer.
These investments and advances in technology allowed Spicer to continue to grow and expand, becoming recognized experts in stormwater management and environmental issues. As services expanded, so did the staff, with James Curtis taking the helm of the company in 1985.
In 1992, Spicer Engineering moved its headquarters from a converted three-story home, across the Saginaw River to an office building at 1258 S. Washington. A year later, Dale Deibel, who was hired as a design engineer for Spicer in 1974 at $5.25 an hour, became President of the company.
“I started out working on six-foot-long drafting tables. I went from design engineer to a project manager, to vice president, then I became president for 12 years. It was always rewarding to see a project from start to finish, but I enjoyed the people at Spicer. While I was there, we grew to employ 150 people. I worked with so many different people, they stopped being co-workers after awhile and became family.”
Deibel led the company as Spicer celebrated its 50th Anniversary and was honored by then Governor John Engler in 1994. The company’s founder, Cliff Spicer, who was 92, also attended and was honored.
“Cliff Spicer left a great reputation for quality at Spicer,” Jim Curtis said in a 1990 news article. “People throughout the state recognize his name as one that stood for competence, integrity, and quality. I know that our adherence to quality solutions and quality service is what will continue to move us forward successfully. No matter what product we deliver, we cannot survive without quality.”
Over the next decade, Spicer officially changed its name to Spicer Group, Inc. to reflect the business’ commitment to full-range engineering, surveying, and planning services. Several other offices were opened around the state, including a permanent office in St. Johns, and the headquarters moved once again to accommodate growing employee numbers to the current address of 230 S. Washington.
Deibel passed the company’s presidential reins to Don Scherzer, who had been with Spicer for over 20 years, in 2005. He led the company through economic hills and valleys until 2017, when Robert Eggers was named as the new leader.
The story of Spicer Group reads like the American Dream. Spicer began in the spare bedroom of a humble home with less than half a dozen employees and has now grown to employ more than 200 people from offices in Saginaw, St. Johns, Dundee, Lansing, Manistee, Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Atlanta GA. With no signs of slowing down, a commitment to stronger, safer, and smarter quality services, Spicer Group is now celebrating its 75th year in business.
“Our work continues to evolve with technological advances such as mobile LiDAR, laser scanning, data storage, GIS modeling, and drones. All of this changes how we do the work but it does not change why we do the work,” Eggers said. “No matter how we do the work, we will always remain true to our Cliff Spicer roots – focusing on project quality, integrity, and building good relationships.”