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Gina Pecore, CEO of Genoa Design International.Paul Daly/The Globe and Mail

When Gina and Leonard Pecore moved home to Newfoundland and Labrador to start a family, their friends and former colleagues chided them.

“I had to defend my choice to stay in Atlantic Canada,” Ms. Pecore says. “It didn’t seem like a smart thing to do if you wanted to progress your career.”

Today, the business the couple founded from their pine kitchen table 26 years ago is one of the fastest growing companies in the country, and the largest dedicated firm of its kind in North America. The company is 179th on The Globe and Mail’s Top Growing Companies list this year with a three-year growth rate of 234 per cent.

Genoa Design International, which produces and designs 3D modelling services for ship and naval defence builders, now has offices in Mount Pearl, N.L., Vancouver and New Orleans; multiyear contracts for the Canadian Coast Guard and United States Coast Guard Cutter; and an ambitious plan for more expansion.

It all began when Mr. Pecore, a former Navy architecture technologist and sailor, needed a job. He and Ms. Pecore didn’t want to move to the U.S. where he would’ve needed to go at the time to find work, so he convinced several small shipyards in Newfoundland to accept online drawings for their new vessels – a first for the shipbuilding industry, Ms. Pecore says.

But a few years later the work dried up. No shipbuilding was happening in Canada. Genoa was one of the few shipbuilding designers that continued to operate in the country, entirely dependent on the export market, she says. As those contracts slowed to a trickle, the company drifted towards financial distress.

In an effort to salvage the company, Ms. Pecore, a former Navy master seaman with a background in communications, business leadership and consulting, took the helm.

It was the same year the Canadian government launched its National Shipbuilding Strategy, a long-term project to renew the federal fleet of combat and non-combat vessels. It was a big opportunity, Ms. Pecore says from her office in Mount Pearl.

Genoa was awarded one of the first contracts, along with Seaspan, a shipbuilding company in Vancouver.

“That was the lifeline Genoa needed to rebuild itself,” she says. “It was enough to get us to pull us up by our bootstraps and get our debt squared away.”

By the next year, the company began crawling out of decline. In 2012, Ms. Pecore took over as chief administrative officer and over the next decade she navigated it “sustainably and organically” to become a shipbuilding powerhouse in North America.

The firm offered its employees part ownership – a decision business advisers initially didn’t support. Today, 20 employees hold part ownership of the company with three of those, including Ms. Pecore’s company Pecore Holdings and its directors, owning the bulk of it. “We would not have achieved our growth had it not been for employee ownership,” she says. “It was on the strength of their abilities that we grew the business.”

Over the next decade, Genoa grew by 600 per cent. The number of employees – the majority from Atlantic Canada – jumped from 20 to 300.

Much of the company’s success came from calling home Newfoundlanders living south of the border who had studied technology and trades at the Marine Institute at Memorial University, Ms. Pecore explains. It was their work culture that helped shape the company.

“We have a blue-collar sensibility inside of a white-collar strategy,” she says. “We come to work with a certain attitude. We don’t get too high on our horse.”

Her advice for other businesses is that a crisis is not necessarily a bad thing. “It feels horrible in the moment, but sometimes it takes a crisis to have a close examination to realize, ‘Are you ready to scale up or not?’ " she says.

It’s also important to realize a business can sustain a tradesperson – even if he is your husband – in charge only so long before it hits a wall, she says. It has to be run differently if you want to grow, she adds.

Today, Genoa is focused on an ambitious expansion plan that includes developing its own technology to find efficiencies, and increasing its market share in the U.S. Currently, the company’s market share south of the border is less than 5 per cent. “We have our sights set on doubling, tripling over the next five-year period,” Ms. Pecore says.

Finding more skilled workers shouldn’t be an issue. At age 55, with three children in their 20s, Ms. Pecore sees a generational shift, partially fuelled by the pandemic, in how people perceive living and working in the Atlantic region.

The things people shied away from 30 years ago are now qualities that make the East Coast a great place to live: access to coastline, clean air, open space, land opportunities and a laid-back lifestyle.

“All of those things are real assets,” Ms. Pecore says. “I feel like now, this is the hottest place you can be to progress your career or your business.”

In this series, we ask some of Canada’s Top Growing companies to share advice on finding new and innovative routes to success in an unpredictable business environment.

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