Since its inception in 1910, a mere 39 years after the founding of British Columbia, Vancouver-based McElhanney Group has contributed to engineering and construction projects that have opened up B.C. and Alberta, entrepreneurially and literally.
When William Gordon McElhanney opened his surveying and engineering practice on West Pender Street, he carried out his practice with packhorses and tents, disappearing into the wilderness for weeks at a time. He retired 46 years later in a different landscape, one he’d helped design.
The firm is now made up of two key companies, McElhanney Consulting Services Ltd., which offers engineering, planning, mapping, environmental and surveying advice, and McElhanney Land Surveys Ltd., which offers mobile surveying and mapping services.
Chris Newcomb, president and CEO of McElhanney Group, has been with the company for 31 of its 100 years. He says its success, with about 800 staff and $100-million annual revenue, comes from thinking like a smaller business and being grounded locally.
“The company is very western Canada focused. We’re exclusively in Alberta and British Columbia, apart from one international office … with locations dotted around the two provinces this hasn’t created a big-business mentality. I can’t drive anywhere in those provinces without seeing a project we’ve worked on, and they were managed by local offices,” he says.
“We’re not 800 people in one location. We’re 800 in 20 different locations; each office has its unique culture and its own roots in the communities in which they are located. This has helped us to retain a small business, family kind of culture.”
The way the company is organized has helped foster that culture. Forty per cent of the key staff, around 320 staff members, own 100 per cent of the shares. Mr. Newcomb says this drives the success of the company collectively.
“No one owns a huge chunk of the shares. I’m the largest shareholder and I own less than 3 per cent,” he explains. “It’s very widely and evenly distributed and having each office with a couple of shareholders, there’s that sense of ownership and entrepreneurship that drives each element of the company forward.”
Mr. Newcomb says many firms that describe themselves as employee-owned fall in the 20-per-cent to 25-per-cent ownership cent range. The company elected to offer shares to its most senior employees in 1960, and it adopted the current model in 1988.
“The remaining 60 per cent of employees who don’t have shares can aspire to advance to a more senior position in the company, and then they will be eligible,” he points out. “But those who don’t aspire to advance can still participate in performance bonuses, with 20 per cent of before-tax profits going back to employees in these bonuses.”
Mr. Newcomb says McElhanney’s success has come partly from this ownership model and partly because of its professional ambitions. “There’s no single reason why we are as successful as we are. There is a whole combination of reasons. Our multi-office model and our deep roots in the community, our multi-disciplinary model and our willingness to do a wide range of things from mapping to engineering to surveying, environmental services, materials testing … I think, too, we punch above our weight on the world scene,” he says.
McElhanney has worked on projects in 70 countries, starting in the 1950s. It currently has an office in Jakarta, which opens it up to work on projects in southeast Asia.
“The international scene gives us the opportunity to do unusual projects and projects with a humanitarian side to them. I like to say that all our projects have benefits to society in them,” Mr. Newcomb says.
Two international projects the company is particularly proud of include work in the Indonesian province of Aceh following the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, where it carried out forensic investigation in re-establishing property boundaries and road alignments so villages could be rebuilt on their original sites. A similar project in Cambodia is creating a land titles system in the country, more than 3,000 since the end of the Khmer Rouge’s terrible hold there.
“We are certainly very proud. We didn’t make any money, but it acted as a focal point for our staff to feel a sense of engagement with helping the developing world,” says Mr. Newcomb, who adds that it fits in with McElhanney’s commitment to localism.
“However, we are a diminishing breed. More and more firms like ours are being gobbled up by multinational engineering corporations, which are traded on the stock market. And every week, it seems, there’s news of another independently owned company somewhere in western Canada that’s being gobbled up.”
But this is not the way his company is planning for the next centenary, Mr. Newcomb adds. Rather, it wanted the path set by the past to influence its future development. To that end, McElhanney hired Canadian historical author Katherine Gordon to write the company’s history, with the resulting Maps, Mountains & Mosquitoes: The McElhanney Story, 1910—2010 handed out to staff and available in stores.
The book “reads like an adventure,” says Mr. Newcomb, and it also fits with its business ethos.
“About 10 years ago, one of our employees said, ‘You know, a lot of our old-timers are dying off. We should interview them. And somebody said ‘What for?’ and we didn’t know, but we hired someone to interview them. After a few years we wondered what we should do, and after considering something high-tech we went with a nice old-fashioned book.
“There was huge enthusiasm from retirees for the company and we realized there was this good will out there.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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