Contractor Of The Year Awards
Meet Alberta’s best builders in Alberta Venture’s Contractor of the Year
by Geoffrey Morgan and Steven Macleod
There are no shortcuts in the construction business. Instead, success is a direct product of effort, hard work and dedication, and those qualities are all exemplified by the winners of the Alberta Contractor of the Year Awards. And while each of them has already enjoyed a moment in the spotlight at the awards gala that took place on April 28, Alberta Venture thought they deserved another for their jobs well done.
When it comes to the business of building, they’re at the top of their respective games. Here’s how they did it, and why it matters.
His commitment to hard work and helping others make PCL’s Roger Dootson Alberta’s Construction Person of the Year for 2011
Photograph by Curtis Trent
Roger Dootson isn’t the kind of person who hugs his employees on a reg-ular basis. But when PCL Construction Management Inc. received the go-ahead to build the southeast stretch of Edmonton’s Anthony Henday ring road, the vice-president for northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut broke with tradition. “I remember him coming down the hall,” says Randy Boddez, PCL’s senior manager of finance and administration. “I had never had this happen before, but Roger came over and gave me a great big hug. It was a great day to remember for all of us.”
Dootson had reason to be excited, given that the contract was worth $493 million to the firm. But it’s not the only major contract in recent years for his division, which builds roads, overpasses, hospitals and other large civil projects from Red Deer north. Dootson’s division is also working on the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science at the University of Alberta, the terminal expansion at the Edmonton International Airport, the Edmonton Clinic North and, next year, the Edmonton Clinic South.
Dootson says the Anthony Henday contract is one of the projects of which he’s most proud. He lives southeast of Edmonton and drives that same stretch every day to work. The project is a fitting highlight in a career that began 40 years ago with Dootson working as an apprentice carpenter. It’s also a big reason why he is being recognized as Alberta’s Construction Person of the Year for 2011.
Operations manager Mike Wieninger remembers the first time he met Dootson. Wieninger was competing for Calgary’s team in a company hockey tournament and Dootson was cheering for his Edmonton squad. “All I remember is playing against Edmonton, and there was this guy with huge curly hair sitting in the stands banging the drum and yelling for his Edmonton team and I thought, who is this guy?” That guy was Dootson, who Wieninger credits with improving the division’s culture of safety. The division recently went five years without an incident or injury, a considerable feat in the construction industry.
In addition to the projects Dootson oversees for PCL, he champions a number of philanthropic causes, including the Canadian Red Cross, the Stollery Children’s Hospital and the United Way. “I always said I was going to work a year for charity,” Dootson says. “Then I thought about it and said, ‘Why don’t I start my own charitable foundation?’”
He did just that in 2010, creating the Roger Dootson Charitable Foundation, whose primary purpose – for now – is helping to put students who can’t afford it through post-secondary schooling. Apart from his foundation, Dootson has also established three scholarships to pay for apprenticeships for carpenters and welders. It’s a cause he champions because he entered the construction business through a carpentry apprenticeship.
“The project that I was most proud of was when, as a second-year apprentice, the foreman promoted me to be the surveyor on a project,” Dootson recalls of his early career. The project was a residential highrise building in Edmonton, and it was unusual for a young carpentry apprentice to work as the surveyor. “I still think about that a lot: the leadership and the trust that was instilled in me.”
Dootson passed that first test and began rising through the ranks to become superintendent and, later, vice-president. He has tried to model himself after the four superintendents he met early in his career who, he says, “were not the screaming, hollering types. They were on top of their game, worked with exactness and knew how to treat people.”
Dootson also admires former PCL presidents John Poole and Bob Stollery for their work and philanthropy, though he didn’t have the chance to work with them. Boddez says Dootson shares some of those men’s most important traits. “I didn’t know John Poole but I did know Bob Stollery and their style was very much a positive, problem-solving type of approach,” he says. “And I see that in Roger. A lot of people look at problems in terms of being something that’s not solvable. These guys break down complex problems into smaller parts. That’s an ability that contractors have, and Roger’s right at the top of the pile.”
Built to Scale
From start to finish, AltaPro Electric is on the job and earning accolades, including Contractor of the Year under $10 million
Photograph by 3ten
It was a different world – a different province, at least – when Bert DeBruin decided to go into business for himself. With his wife, Jeanette, at his side, DeBruin launched AltaPro Electric Ltd. out of their garage in Edmonton more than 20 years ago. Like much of the country, Alberta was still stuck in the recessionary doldrums and the boom in construction work that lay ahead might have seemed as improbable at the time as a Liberal premier. It wasn’t always easy to make ends meet, but DeBruin managed to make it work. Today, with more than 50 employees in the fold, AltaPro has long since decamped from the DeBruins’ garage.
The electrical contracting company has enjoyed success in large part because of its expertise in design-build projects. “This construction method requires more skill and, quite frankly, the challenges are invigorating,” says DeBruin. With design-build projects, rather than hiring one firm to design a construction project and another to build it, the client hires one firm to do both jobs.
DeBruin says the design-build practice is becoming more common in the trades because it saves everyone – clients and contractors alike – time and money. “It allows us to complete more projects on an annual basis compared to the plan-and-spec method,” says DeBruin. “When schedules are not kept, it is hard to manage the workforce and it ends up costing everyone more money.” The design-build model is a money-maker for DeBruin, but that’s not its only attribute. He says working on design-build projects also allows his staff to be more creative. “We found this construction direction allows our project managers, estimators and even our journeyman electricians to constantly test and hone their skills. As well, we can incorporate the greener way to build and install if we have the ability to design our own project.”
That’s not the only upside for AltaPro employees. In order to ensure that staff members have the tools to solve problems effectively, the company invests in an extensive professional development program, including apprenticeship training and numerous safety courses, as well as courses in leadership, project management, supervisor training and even contract law. In the end, DeBruin says, it’s an investment that pays handsome dividends. “When a person grows, they get a sense of accomplishment – and they can make greater contributions to the company.”
Working Fast Comes With the Territory
How Territorial Electric finds a balance between speed and safety. Meet Contractor of the Year $30 to $100 million
Photograph by 3ten
When Don Daly struck out on his own in the early 1980s, he specialized in the same kind of work as most starting subcontractors: anything he could get. But as Daly, the founder and CEO of Territorial Electric Ltd., began to grow his company, he found his niche in fast-track projects. “These are projects with extremely finite timelines and that need to be designed as you go,” says Daly. “Those kinds of projects lend themselves to our skill sets, people who think on the go.”
The Edmonton-based company’s first foray into this specialized market was in 1994. Rexall Place, which at the time was transitioning from being known as Northlands Coliseum to the Edmonton Coliseum, was being renovated to add new amenities, including luxury suites. The start of the NHL season was creating a non-negotiable deadline and the work had to be finished on time. It was.
After finishing work on the Oilers’ home arena, the company moved on to fast-track projects that involved structures that were still open for business. In those situations, Territorial has to be mindful not to disrupt operations while working in close proximity to the general public. Its projects have included Southgate Centre, the Lois Hole Hospital for Women and the current Edmonton International Airport terminal expansion.
Working on job sites with firm deadlines, especially when the public is close at hand, makes safety a paramount concern. Territorial developed its own safety program about 15 years ago to ensure its job sites would be free from unnecessary hazards. “We really thought if we took bits and pieces of other safety plans, then we could customize the plan to meet our needs rather than fit into someone else’s safety plan,” says Daly.
Territorial’s safety program is delivered in-house and undergoes an audit every year to ensure it’s up-to-date and being communicated effectively. That emphasis has put the company in the 99.9th percentile when it comes to workplace safety in Alberta. “We kind of hang our hat on that,” says Daly. “We want everyone to go home in one piece every night.”
Unitech Electrical Contracting’s innovative approach earns it Contractor of the Year $10 to $30 million
It might be difficult to spot Unitech Electrical Contracting Inc. on a job site, given that the Calgary-based company’s white vans don’t sport a company logo on the side. But if you see someone driving a remote-controlled car around, there’s a good chance you’ve run into one of Keith Brooke’s employees.
It turns out that the same remote control car that a five-year-old might find in his stocking on Christmas morning is also pretty efficient at pulling cable down onto a cable tray in preparation for installing a data system in a million-square-foot warehouse.
“It took us 10 minutes instead of two days,” Brooke says. “The biggest problem was deciding who would get to take the car home for their kids at the end of the job.”
It’s all part of Brooke’s plan to implement innovative methods to improve productivity. This thought process has been central to Unitech’s business model ever since Brooke founded the company with a partner in 1986. During the ensuing quarter-century of business, the contractor has grown from a modest team of six electricians to approximately 115 employees.
Although Unitech is always looking to improve productivity, Brooke isn’t willing to compromise on safety in order to achieve it. For example, the company places automated external defibrillation (AED) units at all of its work sites in case someone has a heart attack. And when Unitech sets up AED training time for its staff, it also offers free training for the general contractor’s superintendent and the foremen of all the other subtrades. This effort earned Unitech the 2008 Trailblazer Award from the Alberta Construction Safety Association.
“A large general contractor told us it was the first time he ever felt pushed on safety by a sub[contractor],” Brooke says. “Usually it’s the other way around. That’s a great compliment for us.”
That recognition doesn’t mean Unitech is resting on its laurels, though. Brooke says the company plans to keep innovating in safety and productivity. “We don’t do things differently just to be different; there has to be positive results,” he says. “My guys buy in and they push me now with good ideas. It’s not just conduit wire, conduit wire; they take pride in that.”
How a “we-first” culture helps Clark Builders get ahead and earn its place as Contractor of the Year over $100 million
Photograph by 3ten
Clark Builders might be named after founder and CEO Andy Clark, but the company’s namesake doesn’t really think of it as “his” company. Employees of the Edmonton-based general contractor are encouraged to perform tasks like they own the business – and many of them do. “It’s one thing to say let’s work as a team, but unless you share the dividends, it has a bit of a hollow ring to it,” says Clark.
As an employee-owned company, it’s important to have responsible and self-motivated people on the team, Clark says. “With that, you don’t need much management. You just have to set targets, provide opportunities and they make it happen,” he adds. Having detailed plans to set precise targets is something Clark has been practising since launching in 1974. Based in Yellowknife at the time and staffed with just a handful of employees, the challenge of starting a new business in Canada’s North required thorough planning. As well as having to deal with fewer sunlight hours, Clark Builders had to negotiate temperatures that could drop to -45 C and whiteout conditions that eliminated work days. Under those conditions, even getting the right materials was a challenge. “You have to detail in a serious way the schedule, materials and equipment,” says Clark. “If you don’t have the details done, it costs you a lot of money and time.”
That attention to detail in project planning has been one of the driving forces behind the success of Clark Builders. Since moving operations to Alberta, the company has grown to more than 550 employees and achieved $550 million in annual revenues. In order to sustain the company’s growth, Clark Builders University (CBU) was created about nine years ago. Learning sessions are offered during lunch hours, and in addition to technical classes, CBU offers leadership programs, health and wellness modules and even social-networking seminars.
It’s obviously working, given that Clark Builders has earned a spot as one of Canada’s 50 Best Employers for the past two years. But Andy Clark says it’s the employees who really make it a great place to work. “At the core of the company are people with a can-do attitude who thrive on challenges,” he says. “It shapes the character and fabric of the business culture.”