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Doing the Right Thing: Construction Person of the Year Brent Fillmore

Fillmore is a stickler for details. It doesn’t always make things easy

May 1, 2015

by Peter Burrows

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CONSTRUCTION PERSON OF THE YEAR: Brent Fillmore, President of Fillmore Construction
Photograph Bluefish Studios

When Brent Fillmore talks about construction – which he’ll do anytime, anywhere, for as long as you’d like – he’s like a kid in the candy aisle. His face brightens, his arms start waving and the words flow forth. “I love building,” he says when asked why he – the president of a company with annual revenue in the $100 million range – is acting as project manager on a small apartment building in Wabasca. “I’m getting the building I want,” he says, “getting it perfect.”

“I’m an ideas guy,” he says a little while later, discussing changes to an architect’s drawings. “I’ve been doing it for 37 years and I’ve seen it all, and I have a lot of ideas about how to do things. When I go to a site, I walk around for two hours and look at how things are ­connected, how they go together.”

His son (and company vice-president) Chris describes him as a perfectionist. “Many contractors will just build what the drawings say, regardless of whether it’s the right thing or not,” he says. “Dad works with the consultant and the owner to build the best building possible. Sometimes that adds a lot of work to the job, but he wants the building to be the best possible.”

That word – “perfectionist” – can raise red flags. Is it really code for pushy, demanding and unwilling to compromise? Sharon Downs, a health-care consultant who worked with Fillmore on a new elder-care home in Fort Chipewyan, has seen his drive first-hand. “We had an interesting time,” she says. “We didn’t always see eye to eye.”

Fillmore grew up in tiny Sackville, New Brunswick. His mother dealt in antiques and his father ran the bigger of the two grocery stores in town. “It was an absolute dump,” he says. “He gave credit to everyone and never collected. Everyone loved him and he made enough money to keep the lights on and keep us fed, but not much more. When I was in Grade 12, I said, ‘I want to be in business, but not in the grocery business.’ ”

Through his mother, Fillmore had met a couple of engineers who ran businesses, one a window manufacturer and the other selling steel pipe. “They weren’t practising engineering, but they had the degree and they started doing something. So I said ‘I’m going to be an engineer.’ ”

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2014 revenue: $100 million
Employees: 48 in the office and shop
100-200 in the field
Photograph Bluefish Studios

But he says he didn’t want to go to the local university, Mount Allison, and be known as the grocer’s kid. So he headed down the road to Fredericton and the University of New Brunswick. He paid his way through an engineering degree by working in construction in the evenings, on weekends and during the summers. He also started his first business, a lawn-mowing company. He met his wife, Terry, while in school, and proposed to her ­during his final year, “but it was conditional on one thing,” he says. “We had to live at least 1,000 miles away from my mother. I said, ‘Our marriage will not last my mother, because if we’re living in Halifax and want to go to St. Stephen, we’ll have to stop and take my mother to the yard sales before we can go. And when we’re coming back we’ll have to pick up something in Fredericton on the way, and that’s an hour out of our way, to bring home to her. It won’t work.’ ”

Soon after graduating, Fillmore applied to do his MBA at the University of Alberta. The school offered him $5,000 to do some tutoring, so the young couple headed west in 1977. After his first year, he got a summer job with construction giant Stuart Olson. “I loved it and wanted to keep working,” he says. “I did a few more part-time courses, but ultimately wanted to work.” So with 13 of the required 19 MBA courses completed, he joined Stuart Olson full time.

Fillmore rose to be vice-president of business development at the company over the following 13 years, but developed the itch to be his own boss. So in 1991, he founded Fillmore Construction.

Led by Fillmore’s drive and hard-work ethic, the company has grown steadily over the years. He’s now helped by his two sons, Chris, also an engineer, and Jeff, who holds a bachelor of commerce degree. “They’re aggressive and want to grow the company,” Fillmore says. “Before, I looked after everything but I could only do so much.”

Fillmore Construction is active all over the northern half of the province, and has developed a particularly strong relationship with the remote ­community of Fort Chipewyan, on the shores of Lake Athabasca. Over the past few years the company put an addition on the town rink for an ice plant, built canopies for the fire hall, rebuilt part of a mixed use facility and renovated the community centre. “We’re on our eighth project there,” Fillmore says. “Our latest contract is $3.5 million in town beautification. We’re building walkways and fancy planters and landscaping.”

When Fillmore won the job to build a new elder-care centre in Fort Chipewyan, in December 2012, he first met Sharon Downs. She’s a former hospital CEO and now a consultant on health-care matters, including the building of new facilities. “Brent is very hands-on,” she says. “He’s involved in the details of the project, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my many years.” She says there were times when he wasn’t happy with some aspect of the construction, and he would pull his guys aside and tell them to do it over again. “Getting things right is important to Brent.”

Fillmore concedes that there was some conflict between himself, Downs and others working on the job, but he says he was just living up to his conviction that things should be done right, and done right the first time. “The mechanical systems were not designed very well, so we were trying to fix them,” he says. “Sharon thought I was trying to cheapen it, build it easier. I said that’s not how I operate. I’m all about quality, and I don’t want to build it wrong.”

Downs tells the story of the building’s front door, which in the design was to be made of wood. But Fillmore felt the cold and extreme temperature fluctuations in Fort Chipewyan would cause it to shrink. “That was argued about at the site meetings for months,” she says. “I ultimately did my own research and he was right. It would have shrunk and we would have had problems down the road.” She says his passion helped the project become the pride of the community. “He is a perfectionist, and I am a bit as well, and that’s probably why we had our battles to begin with,” she says. “But the mark of having a good contractor is that I wouldn’t hesitate to use him again.”

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