Canadian Consulting Engineer

AMEC Celebrates the Past

December 1, 2007
By Sophie Kneisel

When it became Canada's second-largest consulting engineering firm seven years ago, AMEC acquired a lot of history. AMEC is a huge British company that was established there in 1982 and now has 19,000...

When it became Canada’s second-largest consulting engineering firm seven years ago, AMEC acquired a lot of history. AMEC is a huge British company that was established there in 1982 and now has 19,000 employees and offices in 25 countries all over the world. It merged with AGRA of Canada in 2000 and by doing so took on the legacy of some of our most venerable and respected firms: the Montreal Engineering Company (later Monenco) founded in 1907; H.A. Simons, established in Vancouver in the 1940s; and AGRA, created in the early 1960s in Saskatchewan.

It may seem odd that a neophyte firm should claim all this history as its own, but even though the Canadian giants it comprises no longer exist as individual corporate entities, it remains important to remember their contribution, and that of their many engineers and employees, to the country’s development. Hence, AMEC has chosen to mark some of that history this year by celebrating its “100th Birthday in Canada.”

Michael Joliffe, vice-president of government relations and communications for AMEC Americas, joined AGRA Monenco in 1996. “This firm has quite literally helped shape the landscape of Canada,” he says in an interview from his office in Oakville, just west of Toronto. For him, the projects that stand out the most are those that mark the beginning of industries. “They almost mirror the evolution of the country,” he says. Here are just a few such jobs, on which AMEC companies played a major role:

* 1954 – Labrador’s first power station. An AMEC company engineered the concrete gravity dam at the Menihek Hydroelectric project, which had a 12,000-hp generating station. The project required what was then the largest airlift of equipment and supplies ever attempted in Canada;

* 1967 – Geotechnical engineering and the original 25-year reclamation plan for the world’s first oil sands mine, the Great Canadian Oil Sands Mine (later to become Suncor). It was built at a cost of nearly $250 million, and was the country’s biggest private capital project to date;

* 1992 – The $5.2 billion Hibernia offshore oil project, for which the firm and its partners provided engineering, design and procurement of the topside production facility;

* 1999 – The Ekati Diamond Mine, Northwest Territories, which is Canada’s first diamond mine. AMEC did engineering-procurement-construction-management for BHP Diamonds; the mine produces six per cent of the world’s diamonds by value;

* 2004 – Design of Canada’s first commercial-scale biodiesel production facility, in Hamilton, Ont. for Biox Corporation. The alternative fuel plant refines diesel from agricultural seed oils, waste animal fats and other organics. The fuel can be used undiluted or blended with regular petroleum in any proportion; it emits 80 per cent fewer hydrocarbons, 60 per cent less carbon dioxide, and 50 per cent less particulate matter than petroleum diesel.

“For a century, the work our people do has affected the air Canadians breathe, the water they drink, the electricity and transportation systems they use,” says Joliffe.

Joliffe specifically mentions the contribution of the founder of H.A. Simons, and Tom Simons, who took the helm in 1968, Tom Simons developed the firm into one of the two largest global consultants in the forestry industry, and expanded it from 700 employees and $25 million in sales, to 2,500 employees and sales of $370 million in 1998.

Ben Torchinsky is another key figure. As the founder of AGRA, he was instrumental in building what was Canada’s second-largest engineering firm (with 7,000 employees in 24 countries) when it merged with AMEC in 2000. Torchinsky’s entrepreneurial spirit led to the formation of companies at the forefront of recycling, cable television and vegetable oil production, not to mention soil mechanics and foundation engineering.

Torchinsky saw every employee as “a member of a family,” the welfare of which was his responsibility. His compulsion to provide constant employment for this “family,” as well as the best service for his clients, led to AGRA opening offices across Canada and in other countries.

As for AMEC today, Joliffe describes it as a very diverse, truly international firm. Because it is organized by market sectors, staff can move up without necessarily moving to head office in the U.K. “There is a lot of opportunity for staff in Canada,” he says, pointing out that global mining operations are based here. AMEC works in many sectors, including oil and gas, energy and power, manufacturing, and transportation. Its earth and environmental division covers geotechnical and environmental services, infrastructure, water resources, and material testing.

For a fourth consecutive year, AMEC has been named as a support services sector leader in the 2007 Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) in the World and European sustainability indices. Of the world’s 2,500 largest companies, only the top 10 per cent of the best performing organizations, based on social, environmental and economic performance, are included in the index.

Sophie Kneisel, a former editor of Canadian Consulting Engineer, is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, Ont.


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