Diversity Spurs Focus
Risk and reward go hand in hand for #26 Focus Corporation
by Will Gibson
In 1994, John Holmlund led a mid-size surveying company with about 75 employees, $8-million in sales and a good reputation in the Alberta oilpatch. But the co-founder of Focus Surveys Ltd. realized that his moderately successful company needed to diversify its operations in order to survive the next downturn in the industry’s historic boom-bust cycle.
Seven years later, Holmlund’s decision has paid huge dividends. His Edmonton-based company has a new name — The Focus Corporation Ltd. — that reflects its geomatics, international, advanced technology and engineering arms which have done everything from laying down the state-of-the-art track at Commonwealth Stadium for the World Track and Field Championships to using geographic information system technology to help a Florida police department track dangerous offenders. All together, Focus now employs more than 420 people who generated annual revenues of $47 million last year, more than double its 1999 sales. “There were four or five companies positioned well above us in providing services to the oil and gas industry in 1994,” says the 53-year-old CEO, who co-founded Focus in 1977. “They had more finances, more expertise, but they didn’t recognize something else was out there.”
The meteoric growth of Focus — which landed it in the 26th spot on this year’s list of Alberta’s Fastest Growing Companies — stems largely from a willingness to take risks and work hard, a lesson learned by Holmlund shortly after graduating from high school in 1971. “My parents gave me some money to go to university and I invested it in the stock market and lost it all,” he says. “I had to go to work without my parents knowing about it in order to make some money so I could go to school. I learned there was no easy way to make money.”
Remembering the struggles for his company to survive after Ottawa imposed the National Energy Program, Holmlund pushed to reinvest his company’s oilpatch profits into developing new areas. His diversification drive did not come without costs – Focus co-founders Jack Doyle and Gerry Symonds left the company. “I’m sure there were other people close to leaving but pretty well everybody believed in me and stuck with us,” he says.
The diversification began paying off in 1998, when Holmlund’s effort to develop overseas markets earned Focus a multimillion-dollar contract with Exxon to oversee a land compensation and resettlement plan for villages affected by an 1,100-kilometre pipeline and oilfield development in Chad and Cameroon. “We try to establish a niche where we can add value to projects where people didn’t even realize that value could be added,” Holmlund says. “For Exxon, things went so smoothly that we had accelerated their program. They rated us as one of the top consultants that worked on the project.”
The acquisition of new companies has also reaped rewards for Focus, although none as immediate as last October’s purchase of Fort McMurray-based Hidber Construction Services. One month later, Syncrude awarded Focus a three-year, multimillion-dollar contract to provide surveying services for its $4-billion expansion. “HCS never would have gotten it on their own, and we never would have gotten it because we weren’t in Fort McMurray,” Holmlund says. “The objective was to have a real win-win situation for both HCS and Focus, and I think it is very beneficial for all parties involved.”
As part of its growth strategy, Focus has also invested heavily in higher education, forging close ties with the engineering schools at the University of Calgary and the University of New Brunswick. Holmlund comes by his respect for school from his father, who worked in a sawmill in Canal Flats, B.C., a small town just north of Cranbrook. “Although I was under-age, I managed to get a job at the mill and started making some money,” Holmlund says. “My dad, through his wisdom, always ensured I got the worst job at the mill so I would want to go back to school.”
But Holmlund sees partnerships with universities — the most recent being an agreement to contribute $50,000 annually to the University of New Brunswick — as clear-eyed business decisions rather than philanthropy. “One is so that we can access graduating students and maybe have some small influence on the programs there,” says Holmlund, who chaired the University of Calgary’s geomatic engineering advisory committee for three years. “It also allows us to get involved with research and development with the universities.”
Focus will need new recruits — a lot of them — because Holmlund says the company has not finished growing. “Our goal is to be $100-million company with 800 to 1,000 employees. That’s a carrot that we have hanging out there that we are trying to achieve in the next four to five years.”