After helping to build one of Canada’s biggest construction companies, Bill Giebelhaus is retiring. But will he ever really leave Clark Builders?
Alberta Venture's Construction Person of the Year shares his story
by Robbie Jeffrey
Photograph Bluefish Studios
Between the whirr of buzz saws and the back-up beeper of a Genie boom lift, Bill Giebelhaus paces through the atrium of an uncompleted building.
With an orange safety vest over his suit and tie, he asks a construction worker about the shades of paint on a newly built staircase. This building, NAIT’s new Centre for Applied Technology, will be ready for classes this fall. But Giebelhaus, a co-founder and chief operating officer of Clark Builders, who boasts 42 years with the company, won’t be around to see it to completion. Today is actually one of his first days of retirement, and he’s spending it at work.
“I’ve always enjoyed doing things with my hands, building things,” Giebelhaus says, retelling how, after studying at SAIT, he found himself cribbing basements. Reflecting back, he says this was when he developed the entrepreneurial, independent spirit that would drive him to strike out and join the company he’d help build into an empire.
Giebelhaus says he never expected Clark to expand as it did. In their first year in Whitehorse, the company’s total volume was just $300,000. Mostly, he says, they worked to keep the company afloat. But somehow, through every downturn, Clark Builders grew, and the team learned to conquer the logistical complications of the harsh northern environments, from where much of their success would spring. There wasn’t a single turning point; rather, Clark Builders grew into an $800-million-per-year company one step at a time. But Giebelhaus was behind it every step of the way.
Giebelhaus grew up in Calgary, never thinking he’d leave. As a high school student he worked at the flour mill where his father, a Russian-born immigrant who arrived in Calgary in the late 1940s, was a superintendent. He wasn’t old enough to work there legally, but still he toiled from four until midnight, in the summers and through school, until his grades started to fall because he’d worn himself out. He grew fascinated with cars and motorcycles and bought his first motorcycle, a Honda 50, when he was 13.
Eighteen months after graduating from SAIT, in 1973, Giebelhaus accepted a job in Yellowknife with PCL, which years later would be one of Clark Builders’ biggest competitors. “I was 21 and engaged to be married and they approached me,” he says. “A week and a half after we got married, we packed up our meagre belongings and flew to Yellowknife.” The company put him and his wife, Karen, up in a one-bedroom apartment and gave them an empty box for a table.
Giebelhaus began the next chapter of his career at the Yellowknife Calvary Community Church, where he met Andy Clark, who founded his own construction company in 1974, when they both joined the church building committee.
Today, neither Clark nor Giebelhaus like to psychoanalyze their younger selves to try to uncover all the reasons they got along so well. Giebelhaus just says, “We sort of hit it off,” and in 1977, he joined the fledgling construction company that bore his friend’s name.
“I was the ‘can do’ guy and Bill was the ‘there’s a better way’ guy,” says Clark, who’s been retired since 2011. They were complementary opposites. They took personality profile tests, which said they were so at odds with each other that, combined, they produced one complete person.
Their well-oiled machine chugged away. In 1978, they opened an office in Whitehorse, and in 1980, another in Edmonton. Within a year they built a gold mine in Echo Bay in the High Arctic. When the market in Alberta crashed, they refocused their efforts in the North, working on support structures for a pipeline from Zama to Norman Wells, rebuilding the DEW line into the North Warning line and, more generally, becoming a global leader in construction in the far north. They also opened an office in Reno, Nevada, and expanded into Japan, China and Siberia, where they built a village in Yakutsk in 1993.
Siberia was a mettle-testing operation for Clark Builders. Materials were shipped through the Bering Strait and along the Russian coast, and then moved onto barges that rode the Lena River before trucks took them to the site. No international freight company would go anywhere near a job like that and no western goods had ever been shipped through the route. All told, Giebelhaus would make 17 trips to the Siberian hinterlands. “Bill was always the kind of hands-on manager who led by example with both the long hours he put in as well as putting himself on the front lines of our most challenging projects,” Clark says.
In 1997, Giebelhaus hired Andrew Ross, now Clark Builders’ executive vice-president for northern Alberta. Ross first met him in Andy Clark’s office, where, for 40 minutes, Giebelhaus stayed silent. “Most people’s impression of Bill, when they first meet him, is that he’s the scariest man in the world,” Ross says. But Giebelhaus doesn’t have an aggressive or imposing personality – people are intimidated by his silence, by the idea that you’re never sure what he’s thinking. And this translates to his work ethic: “He flies under the radar,” Ross says. “He just does the right thing, treats people well, keeps his nose down and plugs away.” He’s the last one to speak, but when he does, everyone listens.
Photograph Bluefish Studios
The result of that attitude is that Giebelhaus has become, in Ross’s words, “probably the smartest construction guy in Western Canada.” Both Clark and Ross concur that he’s been the perfect counterweight to their brand of enthusiasm, and that without him, Clark Builders would never have survived. Not that silence alone did the trick – Giebelhaus worked six-day weeks. “In starting a business from virtually nothing, and going through all the stuff you go through in the tough times, those are invaluable experiences that you can’t teach anyone,” Giebelhaus says. “You almost have to live through it and feel it slipping through your fingers to learn what to do and what not to do.”
It’s an ethos that his colleagues will miss now that he’s retired. But one of Giebelhaus’s undeniable achievements has been the creation of a corporate culture based on collaboration and, above all, delivering results. And that mentality will persevere, perhaps for generations. “That culture is what Bill created,” says Ross. It also comes through in Giebelhaus’s own reflections on his legacy. “We’ve never been focused on growth alone,” he says. “It’s just about making sure we’re doing a good job.”
Retirement has also brought Giebelhaus back to his humble beginnings. He’ll spend more time with Karen and his kids – one of whom works at Clark Builders – and he’ll get back on his motorcycle. He’ll stay on a few boards, including FortisAlberta and Habitat for Humanity. But it won’t be easy. Especially on a day like today, when, just as he did through his many years transforming Clark Builders into the construction giant it is now, he walks through the unfinished project, among bustling employees and the hum of machinery, contemplative, pondering the work in silence.