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When Silence is Golden: David Lede on the success of Ledcor

Alberta’s most low-key entrepreneur finally gets his due – whether he wants it or not

Mar 3, 2014

by Max Fawcett

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Ledcor CEO David Lede
Photograph Paul Joseph

There is a fundamental irony at the heart of Ledcor, the Vancouver-based company that got its start in Leduc more than 60 years ago. It is, after all, one of the most visible companies in Alberta and has built some of the province’s most high-profile projects, including Calgary’s Bow Building and the Art Gallery of Alberta. And yet its CEO, David Lede, the man who is the driving force behind both its oversized ambitions and its ability to meet them, is positively allergic to public profile. “I’m a low-key, average guy, and I don’t like the public spotlight,” says Lede. “This is one of the few interviews I’ve ever done.”

It’s true, and it shows. Sitting on the 16th floor of the Telus Building in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, where Ledcor’s head offices are located, the 66-year-old Lede is not enjoying himself. And this is not the false humility of a man trying to project an image, but the unalloyed dread of someone sitting in a dentist’s chair.

Attempts to get him to talk about his career, his achievements and his legacy, meanwhile, are treated like the drill.

But get him talking about Ledcor, the company that his father Bill built when Lede and his younger brother Cliff were growing up in Leduc, and he opens up a bit. He’s deeply proud of what it’s achieved (Lede always uses the pronoun “it” rather than “I” when referring to Ledcor), and the degree to which it’s managed to shape the physical landscape of both Alberta and parts beyond. In addition to its high-profile work, Ledcor has also built corporate head offices, retail outlets, major highways, oil sands mines and residential towers in markets across North America. And it’s not done yet – projects currently in the company’s docket include the twinning of Highway 63 to Fort McMurray and the construction of the new Royal Alberta Museum.

Lede is, naturally, reluctant to take credit for Ledcor’s success. But it’s not for nothing that he is the recipient of the Alberta School of Business’s 2014 Canadian Business Leader Award. As Ledcor’s vice-president, Bob Walker, puts it, “We’re doing tenfold the work we did when I started 16 years ago. And he’s taken us down non-traditional roads for a contractor, which is usually someone that just builds buildings.” Indeed, that’s been the hallmark of Lede’s career as CEO – an almost Gretzky-like ability to see where the company needs to go, and getting it there at just the right time. “He’s smart enough to realize what is strong today may not be strong tomorrow,” Walker says. “He plans for that.”

Neil Manning, the chair of the business advisory council for the Alberta School of Business, agrees with Walker’s assessment. “They are real entrepreneurs,” he says of Lede and his brother Cliff, “and they’ve been nimble enough to survive some very difficult times and take advantage of some great opportunities.” And despite Ledcor’s successes, there have been some difficult times for the Ledes. Ironically, perhaps, the most difficult time of all (aside from the death of their father, Bill, in an accident in 1980) came right on the heels of what appeared to be their greatest triumph.

After being contracted by Bell Canada to lay fibre-optic cable across the country, and realizing that there might be more money in owning the cable than just digging the trenches needed for it, the Ledes became players in the high-tech industry. They developed an ingenious approach that involved laying fibre along the rights of way controlled by CN and franchising the fibre to a variety of carriers, and quickly became – or, perhaps, decided to become – global players, with plans for Trans-Atlantic cable from Halifax to Liverpool, England. They convinced Microsoft CFO Greg Maffei to join the communications arm of their company, which they spun off from Ledcor, rebranded as 360networks and took public on April 26, 2000. It was the largest high-tech IPO in Canadian history, raising more than $1.4 billion for the company and turning the Ledes into bona-fide billionaires in the process.

As it turned out, their timing couldn’t have been much worse. The company went public just weeks after the NASDAQ peaked, and it wasn’t long before it became clear that there was a glut of fibre-optic cable in North America – no surprise, in retrospect, given that everyone seemed to be building it at the time based on the assumption that demand for it would grow more or less exponentially.

Of the $1.4 billion raised during 360networks’ IPO, more than half came in the form of debt offerings, and the combination of plummeting demand for its primary product, an over-leveraged balance sheet and a stock market sell-off nearly destroyed the company. After going public at $14 and cresting at $35, its shares traded for less than a dollar by June of 2001. “When we took it public and we allowed the investment bankers and people like that to come on the board, they put it into too much debt,” Lede says. “If we’d have kept it private and kept going in the way we were, we’d probably still have it today.”

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Still, if given the chance, Lede says he probably wouldn’t do anything differently. “I think it was a university education in itself,” he says. “It was a lesson learned for us.” And that lesson has played a big role in Ledcor’s success since then, he says. “The key to Ledcor is that we never over-finance ourselves,” he says. “We basically have no debt, and whenever something requires us to go into debt we probably shy away from taking that step.” And while there might be the odd investment banker out there who’s brave enough to try to convince Lede to take Ledcor itself public, he says that’s not going to happen – ever.

“We were involved in the public markets with 360networks, and that was enough exposure for me to know that we never want to be a public company. As a private company, we can do what we want – we don’t have to worry about the quarterly statement that’s coming up for shareholders. We just do our thing, under the radar.”

And what a thing it’s doing. The company now has six divisions, involved in everything from pipelines and green energy to sawmills, tugboats and even an airline in the north. That’s in addition, of course, to Ledcor’s thriving residential, commercial and industrial construction businesses. “We’re very financially solid right now,” Lede says. That success, Manning says, is a product of Lede’s low-key leadership style. “I’m sure it’s helped them win business with major vendors, whether that’s up in the oil sands or in some of their infrastructure projects where they’re dealing with large and sophisticated clients.” Indeed, the way it just secured a $1.2 billion contract with TransCanada to build a pipeline from Fort McMurray to Edmonton speaks to the payoff from that approach. “They didn’t bid it,” Lede says. “That’s a real feather in our cap.”

But while he’s put the company in an enviable position, he’s not about to hand it off to anyone else. “Is he at retirement age? Absolutely,” Walker says. “Will he retire? I don’t think so. He’s still engaged, he still loves what he’s doing and he still gets excited about the possibilities for our company.”

Lede agrees. “It’s my life. The challenge of building the company bigger, and having people move up in its ranks – it’s just what I love to do. It’s not just my work, it’s my hobby.”

It’s safe to assume he’ll continue to operate under the radar, where he’s most comfortable. That is, with one exception. He’s been the driving force behind the $5 million Dave Lede Campus of Care in Abbotsford, which brings together three organizations to provide palliative care services for children in the region. “Of all the things in life, that’s one of the worst – that someone would lose a child that didn’t have a chance to grow up,” Lede says. “So if they have terminal cancer, you try to do the best you can for them in the time that they’re here.”

Lede says he wants to do more of that philanthropic work, too, and has plans for a similar hospice in Edmonton. But even here, his willingness to court attention is carefully calibrated. “You know, it’s the kind of thing that I don’t think will get a lot of publicity once it’s open,” he says. “After that it’ll just operate, and hopefully make these people feel a lot better with the situation they’re in.” And if anyone back home in Leduc is thinking that this gesture opens the door to honouring him for his achievements by naming a street, building or park after him? Well, think again. “I’d say, ‘No thanks.’”

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