Growing & Cleaning up
The Love Canal was an environmental disaster for Niagara Falls, N.Y., and it took the luster off the reputation of the Hooker Chemical Corporation and its parent company, Occidental Petroleum. However...
The Love Canal was an environmental disaster for Niagara Falls, N.Y., and it took the luster off the reputation of the Hooker Chemical Corporation and its parent company, Occidental Petroleum. However, the pollution scandal helped launch a small consulting engineering firm in Waterloo, Ontario on the road to becoming a major player in the environmental engineering market in the United States.
Thirty years ago, Frank Rovers, P.Eng. of Frank A. Rovers & Associates and Don Haycock, P.Eng. of Conestoga Engineering combined their firms to form Conestoga-Rovers & Associates (CRA). They had about 15 employees at the time. The firm now has 2,350 employees scattered around the world.
“I had gone to the University of Waterloo and Frank and I had done our masters degrees together [there],” says Haycock. “I started Conestoga Engineering in 1973, basically on my own, and Frank had gone off to the University of Ottawa. I had a project that needed his expertise and I called him. He moonlit for me on the project. He found he liked the consulting engineering business a whole lot better than he liked the academic world.”
At first, Haycock simply supplied office space and secretarial services for Rovers, who worked in solid waste and landfill design. Haycock’s firm was involved more in municipal infrastructure, such as sewer and water treatment.
In 1976, they decided to form a partnership, bringing Haycock’s employee Ron Schwark in as a 10-per-cent shareholder to prevent potential management deadlocks.
Shortly after the new company was formed, Rovers was lecturing at the University of Buffalo on solid waste management failures in North America when he was approached by some engineers from the state of New York and Hooker Chemical. The U.S. engineers were already involved with the Love Canal clean-up.
More than 21,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried in the mile-long remains of an abandoned canal project until the site was filled to capacity and buried in 1952. When part of this chemical stew started bubbling to the surface in the school yard that had been built over the site and in the yards of nearby homes, it attracted national attention.
Hooker hired Conestoga-Rovers to devise a strategy to clean up the site and act as project managers to get the job done.
“We did the engineering and construction supervision of the project and got a high profile out of that,” Haycock says. “That led to a whole lot of opportunities to work on clean-up projects across the U.S. and Canada.”
In the political fallout of the Love Canal, the U.S. passed Superfund legislation, which identified more than 1,000 priority hazardous waste sites, placing the onus on companies responsible for the contamination to clean it up.
When these firms were looking for someone to run these clean-up projects, who better than the company that had cleaned up the Love Canal?
“At one point, we were working on five or six of the top 10 sites on the list,” Haycock says.
Jumped right in
Some consulting engineers shied away from this type of environmental engineering, concerned about the potential risks, but Conestoga-Rovers jumped right in.
“We were 30 years old, with a brand new consulting firm, only two or three years old. We didn’t have big bank accounts. We didn’t have much to lose,” Haycock says.
At the same time, he thinks other firms misread the amount of risk and lost out on a golden opportunity.
“We went a decade and a half without a lawsuit — and that is working inside the United States, sometimes being insured by a non-North American company. We were a fairly obvious target.”
Part of the reason the company avoided problems was it did not try to bury its mistakes.
“If we made a mistake,” says Haycock, “we ran immediately to the client, told them what the mistake was, fixed it ourselves, paid for it and did not look to insurance to cover us.”
The management structure they set up is unlike most other companies. Each shareholder (there now are 48) along with one or two associates is responsible for running what is equivalent to a profit centre. Overseeing the operation are four primary officers and an executive committee of nine shareholders, which includes the officers.
Draws students from the University of Waterloo
Until 1992, all the growth in the company was “organic.” The firm made extensive use of Waterloo’s co-op program and still does.
“We employ no fewer than 10 and sometimes upwards of 25 students, depending on the term,” says Ed Roberts, P.Eng., the current president.
Roberts and Glenn Turchan, P.Eng., the executive vice-president, are typical of the employees who joined the company as it began to grow in the 1980s.
Both went to the University of Waterloo. Roberts spent a work term as a co-op student at CRA in 1984 and was hired full-time in 1985. Turchan did three work terms beginning in 1985 and signed on as a full-time employee in 1987.
Growing the company from within meant the firm could develop and train people in its own methods. But that growth pattern was also a necessity because the discipline of environmental engineering was just developing; there weren’t any firms out there to acquire.
Only when the environmental work started to slow down in the early 1990s, did CRA start strategically acquiring other firms in order to broaden its expertise into areas such as geotechnical engineering, material sciences, mechanical and electrical engineering and process engineering.
Haycock, who turned 65 this year, retired in September but Rovers and Schwark are still active in the company. Rovers is spending much of his time in Brazil, setting up South American operations for the firm.
“I was looking at other things I wanted to do in my later years,” Haycock says. “I don’t think Frank shares that philosophy.”
When the new management team took over, much of their initial emphasis was putting corporate infrastructure in place to allow for future expansion. For example, they invested in new accounting systems to handle the demands of a multi-national company. They also became registered as ISO 9001, the International Organization for Standardization’s quality management system.
CRA presently has 70 offices in six countries, and it is now looking to expand its presence on the west coasts of Canada and the United States.
The company was chosen as one of Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies in 2005, and in November was named Waterloo Region’s Business of the Year.
John Leckie is a freelance writer based in Toronto.