A few years ago, Canadian construction baron Cliff Lede sat at the blending table of his newly acquired Napa Valley winery, and decided to put his stamp on the place. He loved wine and he loved vintage rock 'n' roll. "We could have all the vineyard blocks named after classic rock songs," he remembers thinking.
So instead of blocks mapped out according to arcane codes - such as "West 9" or "East 8" - his plots of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon carry titles such as Moondance (after Van Morrison's 1970 classic), Truckin' (for the Grateful Dead) and Hotel California (The Eagles).
For Mr. Lede, 55, the new system is not only nostalgic, but practical. "Someone says 'A block' and I say, 'Oh, you mean Dark Side of the Moon" - he says, alluding to the Pink Floyd album. "At least I can remember what that is."
This is the ultimate baby boomer's fantasy fulfilment - to not only own your own 25-hectare California vineyard and winery, but to combine it with references to your youth in the 1960s and 70s. And if visitors to Cliff Lede Vineyards crave more refinement, they can stay the night in his Poetry Inn for up $1,400 (U.S.), or sip his 2007 Poetry cabernet, priced at $150 a bottle.
"There is poetry in everything in this valley," Mr. Lede once told a writer from the University of Alberta's business school, "and we want that feeling to pervade this place."
But his magnificent obsession is crafted not from poetry - or even Jerry Garcia's rock riffs - but from the gritty prose of rural Alberta. Its origins lie not in some refined terroir but in the sand, gravel, and mucky bitumen of the oil patch 2,500 kilometres northeast of Napa Valley.
The vineyards underline the long, strange trip taken by Cliff Lede (pronounced "Lady"), his brother Dave and the company they control, a construction titan named Ledcor Group. It is the company that built a big part of the modern West, survived the killer cycles of the energy economy and is now weathering the U.S. real estate meltdown. It is a North American success story, yet typically Albertan - great wealth achieved by doing mundane things very well in the oil patch.
Over 63 years, the Ledes have been Alberta road builders (motto: "We move the earth"), pipeline trenchers, telecom darlings, and dot-com busts, but they have never entirely abandoned their roots.
Coming off a tumultuous foray in fibre-optic networks - from which it spun off 360Networks Corp. - Ledcor emerged as the builder of Alberta's signature monuments. It is about to complete the massive Bow Tower in downtown Calgary, the highest building in Western Canada, and has finished the twisting metallic Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton. It is the construction company most identified with big oil sands projects.
Ledcor began as part of the cluster of small service companies that flourished around Edmonton following the massive Imperial Oil strike at Leduc in 1947. But Ledcor, with revenues estimated at $2-billion a year, is now based in Vancouver and operates in such places as San Diego, Honolulu and Nevada.
Asked why Ledcor has come so far, Hal Kvisle, recently retired as chief executive officer of pipeline giant TransCanada Corp., explains that "it is the vision of the Lede brothers and the things they did - these guys are not constrained by anything."
Mr. Kvisle became aware of Ledcor in the 1970s as a young Dome Petroleum engineer drilling wells in Central Alberta. Ledcor was among the companies he hired. Near the end of his career, he contracted the firm to build the Canadian arm of TransCanada's giant Keystone bitumen pipeline into the U.S. Midwest.
It is a case study in risk-taking, played out over and over on the service side of the energy business, he says. "There is an incredibly gutsy willingness to stake a fair bit on a new venture and work 18-hour days to make it go. The Ledcor story is just the top of the pinnacle." But there has been a personal price to this drive.
Tragedy heralds new era
Sept, 25, 1980, started out as a typical day for Bill Lede, owner of a contracting company called Leduc Construction. As a farm kid out of Hay Lakes, Alta., he had started out as a small road builder, and in his early 20s built the access road and well site for the big Leduc oil strike in 1947. It was the blowout that ignited the energy boom that still drives the Western Canadian economy - and Ledcor has been cashing in every since.
Thirty-three years later, Bill, 55, was mayor of Leduc and a well-liked local entrepreneur. "Dad had a knack for getting along with people," his son Cliff recalls.
At noon that day, he and his sons Cliff and Dave went out to inspect a job site. Bill walked up beside a high bank of gravel and clay, which suddenly gave way, burying him under five metres of earth.
"I was standing to the side and saw his hard hat thrown clear." Dave Lede later recounted. "We all dug with everything we had - hard hats, shovels. It was just too late." All that was left was to go home and tell their mother Florence that her husband was dead.
It was a tragic moment that burned deeply into the family memory - and it changed the company in a significant way. Safety became the watchword of the construction business, and still is to this day. It also propelled Bill's elder son Dave into the CEO's job for which he had been groomed.
Cliff Lede says his father's legacy still resonates in how Ledcor operates and how he runs his winery. "My father taught my brother and me the importance of having good people and treating them right." Ledcor is well known in the industry for its smart unit managers, who run large businesses of their own.
Dave, 32, was more serious and driven than his amiable politician father. He was known for his taciturn nature, answering questions with a clipped yes or no. Cliff, 24 at the time and fresh out of school, had the easy charm of his father. The two men, both University of Alberta commerce graduates, continued their father's work but their ambition was bigger- to diversify far beyond earth moving and road building.
The company name was changed to Ledcor, reflecting the desire to stretch beyond Leduc. Dave moved the company into pipeline trenching for big players such as TransCanada, and into civil construction, mining, office buildings and other areas. He moved his operations to Vancouver, while Cliff as chief operating officer stayed in Edmonton a while before decamping to the West Coast as well.
As the energy business went flat in the early 1980s, the Ledes' diversification proved timely. The company suffered, but not fatally. The B.C. business grew and Ledcor built the spectacular Coquihalla Highway down the central spine of the province from Kamloops to Hope. Then in the 1990s, the brothers made the bet of their lives.
A Saskatchewan boy, Bernie Stene went to work for Ledcor in the late 1980s, and found himself doing sewer and water work. Then he was handed a new contracting job - to help lay an underground network across the country for Bell Canada based on new glass-fibre technology.
It seemed like a natural extension of the pipeline trenching business, but the unforgiving terrain in Northern Ontario was something the Ledcor people had never seen before. The problem was not only forest and rock, but "we covered every freaking kind of swamp - it was amazing," Mr. Stene recalls. "But we learned a lot."
Mr. Stene and a group of managers convinced the Lede brothers that if the company was so good at laying fibre, why not become more than just a contractor - why not build and own its own networks?
It was an idea that seemed right for the times. In the late 1990s, the world was seized by a new gold rush in fibre networks that would carry massively expanded broadband services - Internet, video and data - to seemingly voracious markets.
With a partner, Ledcor hit upon the idea of laying fibre along railway rights of way, which gave it a cross-Canada ticket - you make one deal with one railway and it would take your network across the country, even into the centre of major cities. Mr. Stene and a colleague invented a rail-mounted plow that would lay cable more efficiently by shifting wheels on and off railway tracks. And the company developed a "condominium" approach of franchising fibre to different carriers.
The brothers enthusiastically backed this focus. The dream became not just Canadian but global - to lay tens of thousands of kilometres of fibre, including an Atlantic network to Liverpool, England, from Halifax. The Ledes hired Greg Maffei, a financial wunderkind at Microsoft, as CEO of a spun-off network company called 360Networks. But as soon as 360Networks went public in 2000, the dot-com bubble burst and the stock sunk.
One problem was that too many people were jumping into the game. Players such as Global Crossing, Level 3, and MCI were laying fibre faster than demand could possibly justify. "The idea was just ahead of its time," says Mr. Stene, who now runs his own network services company, and now sees demand for broadband rising from the iPad and BlackBerry revolution.
"360Networks was trying to circle the world with fibre, which was a big high-stakes game - and the market wasn't there yet," says Robert Watson, president of SaskPower, and a former telecom executive whose company was acquired by 360Networks.
The share offering left a bitter taste inside Ledcor, especially for employees who invested and held on too long as 360Networks tumbled into bankruptcy protection. The shares, which went public at $14 in April, 2000, and hit a high of $35.90, fell to pennies by mid-2001. (After reorganization, the U.S. part of the company continues today as 360Networks, but with no Ledcor involvement.) After being listed by Forbes as the world's 270th richest people with $2.1-billion in net worth in 2000, the Ledes fell off the global billionaires' list. But the dot-com bust didn't sink them. A company they controlled, Ledcor Partnership LP, had sold a large quantity of shares in advance of 360Networks going public. The Ledes escaped much of the rancour surrounding network flops because, having funded 360Networks in the early days, they had indicated their intention to take some money out.
What's more, as a general construction company, Ledcor was so diversified that as one door closed, another opened. The fibre-optic bust was followed by the oil sands boom. Ledcor stepped up its work in northern Alberta - which flourishes now even after the sharp market decline of 2008-09.
The Lede brothers moved into middle age, accumulating marriages, children and wealth. Cliff was never as committed to construction as his brother, and began to focus on his love of grapes and wine developed as a boy making basement wine with his mother in Leduc. An Edmonton wine-shop owner had opened his eyes to the glories of Bordeaux grape varieties, and he started to build a cellar. "It's kind of a male thing - we like to collect."
Then, in his mid-40s, he reached a decision point - how could he put his personal stamp on his life? He remembers pondering his relationship with Dave. "I came to the realization that he is always going to be my older brother, he is always going to be senior to me.
"Going into a family business at 24 and working at it till I was 44, I just thought I needed to do something on my own. I thought 'At least you could do something you relate to and something that interested you every morning.'"
In the mid-1990s he found his destiny in the Napa Valley, and a few years later, his search for a winery began in earnest. It was a difficult time, he says, because of the 360Networks debacle, but the vineyard represented a lifetime passion. In 2002, he spent six months negotiating the purchase of family-owned S. Anderson vineyards for a price which local media speculated was $15-million.
He reluctantly agreed to change the name to Cliff Lede Vineyards, reflecting the Napa Valley practice of identifying the wine with the winery owner. The private construction baron had become a brand, which made him a little uncomfortable. "One of the hardest things to learn was talking about Cliff Lede," he says.
He bought land within sight of the vineyards to build a small, modernistic inn, now an architectural landmark in the valley. Each of the Poetry Inn's five suites/rooms is named after a writer - Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, and Walt Whitman. He also brought Ledcor itself into the Napa Valley, where it has forged a business building wineries, along with hotels and restaurants.
He remains a Ledcor director, and he talks to his brother Dave about every other day. "But you cannot do construction on a part-time basis. I am resident of the U.S. now and spend the majority of the time here. I am at this business every day."
Meanwhile, according to friends, his brother Dave knows no other life than running the construction company. A former employee, who watched him regularly arrive at the office at 7 a.m., says "he really loves his company more than he loves anything else."
Looking to the future
Allan Scott had a front-row seat as Ledcor changed the face of downtown Edmonton. As a telecom executive and local economic development boss, Mr. Scott watched the firm build the striking City Hall and do much of the construction around the city's landmark Churchill Square.
Then he came face to face with Ledcor's cost discipline as chairman of the Art Gallery of Alberta. The gallery had chosen Ledcor to build what would become the next major structure on Churchill Square - an eccentrically stunning building designed by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout.
But with plans finalized and the fundraising set to launch, Mr. Scott grappled with an overheated economy which in the 2004-2008 period pushed building costs far beyond the $60-million that had first been estimated.
"We decided to take a deep breath and just do it," Mr. Scott says. The gallery and Ledcor nervously shook hands on a $90-million budget, 50 per cent higher than before. "Full marks to Ledcor," he says. "We signed the contract 10 months later at the same price."
It was an extraordinary feat for Ledcor and the sub-trades, he says, but the cost controls did not compromise the basic design. The Ledes came in as donors, with the new gallery incorporating a theatre named for the family.
Such resilience is critical in a post-meltdown period that has been trying for Ledcor. The oil sands have been up, down and now up again. In the shaky moments of early 2009, the Bow Tower's developer, H&R REIT, struggled to complete a critical financing - but managed to pull it off. Ledcor now faces pressure in some of its U.S. commercial markets.
Cliff Lede admits U.S. operations are weaker. "There was a correction needed," he says. " I remember the 1980s when the oil patch went in the tank and we were a small contractor in Alberta and our dad had just died. But it all came back."
Yet plenty of questions remain, particularly about the firm's succession plan. Cliff, Dave and Florence Lede - in her 80s and still living in Leduc - control the majority of shares, but the next generation is a question mark. One classic mechanism for exiting ownership in the construction industry is to sell shares to employees. Ledcor already has substantial management share ownership and will likely move further in that direction.
Whatever happens, the two Lede brothers will likely never reunite as a management team. Cliff misses the close camaraderie of construction, but he thrives on being master of his own destiny. He believes he is building a business for future generations in the Napa Valley's vaunted Stag's Leap wine district.
Sitting in his winery, he sounds like a man who does not yearn to shiver away his time on a Canadian job site. "I spent 40 years of my life in Edmonton - and the people there are as good as you will ever find - but the weather leaves something to be desired." Napa Valley, he says, "is a pretty nice place to live."