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How the 2009 FG50 Beat the Recession

How some of Alberta’s already fast-growing companies plan to take off in 2010

Jan 1, 2010

by Stephanie Sparks

The joke got old pretty fast: how the Fast Growth 50 companies we talked to chose not to participate in the recession. As if they had a choice. Explain that to the companies from last year’s list noticeably missing from this one.

In the 11 years that we’ve set out in search of Alberta’s fastest-growing companies, the class of 2010 represents a special case. They managed to persevere and maintain their growth trajectory in the face of constricted credit and a broad-based decline in business and consumer spending.

Now, with business conditions brightening, many say they are poised for a breakout year. “We are not looking for a way to slow down,” says Curtis Nikel, president of Contava (#5, Under $20 million), a security products contractor and integrator. “We are putting in place processes that allow us to look forward years, and that’s not with the purpose to plan a slowdown. It’s to ensure that our capacity can meet our growth, and that’s where we’ve been focusing our efforts.”

They’ve got the right idea, says Don Matthew, Edmonton office managing partner for program partner KPMG LLP. “What you’re going to find in 2010 is that things will get going again,” says Matthew, whose team vetted this year’s Fast Growth 50 applicants. “We don’t want to see them get too fast, too hot, too quick because then we’ll just end up where we were three years ago.”

To ready themselves for takeoff, companies should evaluate the parts that make up the whole. New products and service offerings must be ready for the marketplace, the groundwork must be laid for entry into new markets and sufficient numbers of management, supervisors and staff need training to handle increased workflow.

Where staffing is concerned, companies are hiring quality, not quantity. Layoff updates still make the nightly news, and Statistics Canada reported Alberta’s unemployment rate reached 7.5% in October. But for growth companies, that increased labour supply has turned out to be an enabler of recovery.

“During the height of the boom in Canada, there was a real tightness in the labour market. There just weren’t a lot of really highly skilled people available,” says Robert Stan, CEO of Grande Cache Coal Corporation (#3, Over $20 million), a producer and exporter of metallurgical coal for the steel industry. “As the recession deepened, I think we all had to rationalize our workforces and look for ways to work smarter and increase productivity and reduce costs at a time when production volumes were declining.” For companies like Stan’s, now is actually an opportune time, as better-quality hires are available just when sales, prices and production volumes are rebounding.

Still, that doesn’t mean staffing and skill shortages have been solved. “When you’re a small business, it’s hard to attract quality people” even at the best of times, says John O’Rourke, president of Calgary’s automation and engineering design services company Sigit Automation Inc. (#3, Under $20 million). “Why is somebody going to leave a good job to come work with John and Kyle [Boehme, vice-president of corporate development] over at Sigit Automation?” He says that small businesses need to offer suitable environments, unique challenges and appropriate wages to secure the right employees.

In many cases, the Fast Growth 50 are opting to invest in employees rather than seek highly experienced (and highly paid) hires from the outside. “Our HR group is very active in finding the right people and we’ve put a tremendous amount of energy into employee development,” explains Curtis Nikel at Contava. “Our commitment is to bring along the people we hire and ensure that they receive proper training and certification to design, sell and service the products we offer.”

Grasschopper Landscaping Ltd. (#7, Under $20 million), a full-service garden maintenance and landscaping company based in Edmonton, is also focused on improving its people and operations in the next year.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve been working hard on training foremen,” says CEO Trevor Ross, who started Grasschopper in 2001, the summer after his first year in university. Over the slow winter season, Ross is enrolling his foremen in leadership development courses. “It’s something we’re putting a lot more emphasis on. Before, it’s just been on-the-job training, but with certain things it’s just good to be taught in a course; it’s more formal and it helps you to improve in the areas that you can’t necessarily do just through work experience.”

Ensuring a company has the capacity for rapid growth often goes beyond people, though, to refining the business plan and strategic focus. “What we’ve done during this bit of a slowdown is use it as an opportunity to fine-tune our business so that we’re ready to grow,” says Jon Harrison, president of Northridge Energy Development Group (#4, Under $20 million). “We’re expanding our business… into different arms. We have an electrical and instrumentation division that is getting spawned from within our company and with people that have been in our company. Also, our document control and mapping division is going to expand to help better serve our clients.”

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