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Lessons Earned: Sometimes, you have to clear your own road

Keeping Canadian highways open for over 30 years, Emcon Services’ path hasn’t always been so clear.

Emcon Services Inc. is a company that quite literally keeps Canadians moving. Back in 1987, the Government of British Columbia privatized highway maintenance work. And Frank Rizzardo, President & General Manager of Emcon, having been a maintenance district manager for the province, immediately realized the potential in this move.

“When given the opportunity, we responded by setting up an employee shareholding company,” says Frank. “We decided to put our best foot forward, and the Ministry [of Transportation] responded by awarding us with a contract.”

From there, Emcon has continued to maintain an extensive network of highways all over the country, keeping Canadians connected and safely travelling.

Weathering the storms

But highway maintenance can be a risky business venture, and Frank learned this quickly with one of the very first contracts Emcon won. One of the main arteries connecting British Columbia’s Lower Mainland with the rest of the province and beyond is the Coquihalla Highway. In 1988, Emcon won the bid to maintain this vital roadway.

However, the road was still quite new with the first phase only having been completed in 1985. “The Coquihalla was an unknown with no historical record of costs or knowledge of difficulties,” recalls Frank. “There’s a lot of meteorological data, but not relative to a highway that’s been built through the mountains.”

And snow it did during those first few years. Emcon had a clause in their contract, stipulating that if there were 150 per cent of the meteorological five-year snowfall, they would be able to receive a bonus or an ability to recover some of the costs incurred by such extreme elements.

At the end of the contract, the total precipitation accumulated was 149 per cent of the forecast. So Emcon was not able to collect the bonus. “It was a very difficult period in our history,” says Frank.

Sunnier days ahead

However, this didn’t deter Frank. Emcon moved forward and was incredibly successful with the next round of work — bidding on four contracts and being awarded three, which was the limit at the time. This tripled their volume of work, and Emcon was able to not only survive, but thrive. Getting through this difficult period at the outset of the business only strengthened their resolve to continue.

“One of our greatest successes is our actual survival in the industry for 31 years,” says Frank. “That and the fact that we’ve retired people with over 31 years of service.”
Highway maintenance work is not without its high stress times, but Emcon’s impact on its employees cannot be understated. Several have left or retired, only to return to work on specific contracts because they’ve missed the work and environment too
“We had one of our senior people retire three or four years ago, and he’s about 70 now,” says Frank. “He just came back and did a job for us. That’s the kind of commitment and loyalty that we love to have across our operations.”
Not only has Emcon’s footprint left an indelible mark on its employees, it also ensures that vital roadway connections in some of the more remote communities in Canada are not lost forever. Dease Lake, a small community on the British Columbia/Yukon border, is one such town that Emcon serves. “We spend our time trying to keep an existing asset so that it’s in good condition on a go-forward basis; it’s only deteriorating by the very fact that that it’s being used, rather than ignored from a maintenance perspective.”

Banking on success

In summer 2018, Emcon took its next giant step forward with the acquisition of Carillion Canada. When the move was approved, it came with 44 per cent of the highways in Alberta and 42 per cent in Ontario — a massive footprint in two large provinces. Also included in the deal were 1,800 new employees, as well as the challenge of taking on the existing equipment and leases.

“We assumed a lot,” Frank says of the deal. “Good, bad or indifferent; for better or worse. It was a big hoop to jump through.”

But when your bank is your biggest believer, the hoops seem a little easier to clear. “We needed the operating line to service our expanded acquisition and that wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t get the letter of support from Canadian Western Bank (CWB) that we went to court with.”

“They’re there for us as partners,” Frank continues. “When we first started our relationship with the bank, our account manager was a banker who understood our business. He knew equipment, attended auctions and understood valuations on various brands. He was our champion when we were proposing a deal.”

Emcon’s future looks brighter than ever, and CWB will be there to help pave the way. “We’re very pleased to be a client of CWB’s. We hope to have a much longer relationship with them.”

CWB is here to support companies throughout every stage of their business. Speak to a CWB Relationship Manager today to see how they can help your business grow.