By Ray Penner
Jim Woodward, who at the time was general manager of ASL Paving’s Saskatoon division, was inspecting the surveying work of a newly hired engineering student. “That’s a mistake,” noted Woodward, pointing to an obvious and costly error. The student’s heart sank at the thought that his summer job might be over before it had really begun. Woodward continued, his voice calm but firm. “Well, we’re going to fix it. We’re going to learn from it. And we’re going to move on.” That was it. No tongue-lashing. No termination. Just one brief piece of advice: “Don’t do it again.”
That student was Dave Paslawski, who now, 34 years later, is president and a major shareholder of ASL Paving Ltd., a road building company with divisions in Saskatoon, Regina and Lloydminster. “I learned a lot about leadership from Jim Woodward,” says Paslawski. “After I graduated, I decided to return to ASL full-time. Some of my classmates probably thought I was wasting my engineering degree, but I loved the company and the people in it.” Paslawski did eventually leave ASL for a job in Calgary, but returned in 2004 when he was invited to become a shareholder and vice-president.
Paslawski’s affinity for ASL is shared by many in the company. Two-thirds of the employees – upwards of 200 during good years – are seasonal workers. Each spring, more than 80% return. In six months, they will each work the equivalent of 10 months at a typical full-time job. Some of them have been doing this for 20 or more years. “It’s hard work, too,” says Wade Mitchell, who retired as president in 2014 but still owns shares in the company. “The asphalt comes out of the paver at 160° Celsius. You work a lot of overtime. It doesn’t take long for a hire to figure out if they belong here or not, but those who do decide to stay usually become long-term employees. ASL was founded in 1950, and during my time as president there were at least three employees who celebrated 50 years with the company.”
Paslawski is also typical in another – and often surprising – way. “One of the unique things about ASL is that from its inception it has hired a significant number of engineers and other professionals,” he says, adding that ASL recruits primarily from universities and technical schools. Almost all of these hires start at entry-level positions.
THE PEOPLE THAT WERE HERE WERE THE KIND OF PEOPLE I WANTED TO WORK WITH. THEIR VALUES ALIGNED WITH MY OWN.
James Fraser, vice-president of operations, also worked summers at ASL while he was in university. He joined ASL full-time in 2006 because, as he says, “The people that were here were the kind of people I wanted to work with. Their values aligned with my own.” When Mitchell retired in 2014, Fraser became the newest of the three shareholders. His career at ASL, like that of many others, helps to explain the company’s growth and success from one generation to the next.
Promoting from within
“We almost invariably promote from within,” says Fraser. “Everyone at ASL is encouraged to take on more responsibility, to show what they can do, even if that means making mistakes. I tell our people not to be afraid to speak up, to try new things, and if they get in hot water because of it, we are there to back them up.” With ongoing opportunities to prove themselves, employees tend to evolve into positions of greater responsibility, rather than jumping into them. Fraser’s transition to shareholder and vice-president began with casual conversations with existing shareholders years before Fraser acquired his shares.
Paslawski says ASL’s size is what makes it possible to successfully promote from within. “We’re big enough that we have enough people to choose from, yet not so big that good people get overlooked. We’re constantly evaluating our pool of talent.” ASL’s size also helps to bridge generations, ensuring leadership that remains relevant to changing times. Mitchell, who became president in 2004, is eight years older than Paslawski, who is 15 years older than Fraser. There are others “in the bullpen”; the casual conversations continue.
More than meets the eye
To the disgruntled driver whose daily commute is disrupted by a paving crew, it might seem that road building has been done the same way for decades, but there have been changes in the industry, particularly in the past 20 years. “There’s much more emphasis on quality now,” says Fraser. “The specifications are much more detailed, and there are many more professionals overseeing the work. Back in the day, your grading could be plus or minus 5 centimetres from what was specified, and that was considered acceptable. Now, you have to be within five to 10 millimetres. Although difficult, this has made us a better contractor.”
The other major shift in the construction industry as a whole is the emphasis on safety. ASL was a leader in its industry, developing a strict safety protocol, supported by a culture that encourages people to speak up and look out for the well-being of their co-workers as well as their own.
It’s not a business for the faint of heart and it’s a high-risk venture, especially if you don’t understand the intricacies and costs involved. “Gravel, asphalt and concrete are expensive,” says Fraser. “So is the equipment. All of our equipment has a significant capital cost to it with a relatively short-term life expectancy. It is a very capital-intensive business.” Mistakes, too, can be very costly. Concrete cures and is expensive to remove and replace. An incorrectly paved street could wipe out your entire year’s profits.
Bidding on projects is also expensive – painfully so, if you lose. “On bigger projects, we would hope to win an average of one in three bids,” says Fraser. Bidding on massive projects, where a consortium is formed and led by a general contractor, can cost the company leading the pursuit millions of dollars. Fraser points to the North Commuter Bridge Project, where ASL was part of the successful bid led by Graham Construction. The federal government, which was funding a portion of the project along with the City of Saskatoon and Government of Saskatchewan, tied the funding to the P3 model. Under those terms, the Graham team, including ASL, would design and build the bridge and adjacent roadways, maintain the property for 30 years and then turn it over to the City of Saskatoon in pristine condition in 2048. Every detail of the bids would be scrutinized by many eyes. Fraser estimates that ASL devoted more than a thousand hours to its part of the bid, including trips to Vancouver to meet with the project partners. “The day I got the news that we’d won the bid was one of the proudest days of my career,” says Fraser. ASL is now responsible for maintaining the roads and the areas adjacent to what is now the Chief Mistawasis Bridge.
To increase its odds for success, ASL Paving has adopted the strategy of concentrating on the urban market, leaving rural projects such as highways to other firms. The crews in the rural areas must work with portable asphalt plants so they can easily relocate within the province and beyond its borders. In contrast, ASL has permanent stationary plants located in Saskatoon, Regina and Lloydminster. The permanent plants reinforce ASL’s reputation for dependability in each of its cities, a visible assurance to civic planners and developers that ASL is here to stay. The strategy has worked, making ASL Paving Ltd. the largest urban-based road builder in the province.
Although ASL remains focused on the urban market, the economic downturn has prompted the company to pursue projects outside city limits. This necessitates portable asphalt plants. Thanks to the company’s foresight, ASL has two such plants. “When I became president, there was some opposition to restoring an existing portable plant, but we went ahead with the work anyway. Having portable plants turned out to be the right decision. If we hadn’t done that, it would have made a difference in our ability to adjust to the market. The hallmark of a successful contractor is the willingness to be creative, to do things differently.”
WHAT ALL THREE SENIOR LEADERS HAVE IN COMMON IS THEIR COMMITMENT TO SUPPORTING AND DEVELOPING THEIR EMPLOYEES, A LONGSTANDING TRADITION THAT HAS FOSTERED THE TEAMWORK AND CAN-DO ATTITUDE THAT PERMEATES THE ORGANIZATION.
As was the case with the portable plants, all three shareholders admit that, as with any partnership, there can be times when you don’t have a meeting of the minds. The difference in ages can sometimes come into play. An older partner on the verge of selling their shares might have a very different view of what do with the profits than a younger partner who wants to aggressively grow the business. There can also be different professional perspectives, such as when Mitchell was president and Paslawski was vice-president. Mitchell, an accountant, was keenly interested in the spreadsheets. Paslawski, the engineer, was focused on equipment and processes. Mitchell’s advice to those considering entering into a partnership is to first be sure you’ve clarified who is going to be responsible for what, and then “do your best not to step on the other’s toes.”
Continuing the commitment
What all three senior leaders have in common is their commitment to supporting and developing their employees, a longstanding tradition that has fostered the teamwork and can-do attitude that permeates the organization. All three shareholders are confident that ASL’s culture will remain robust, regardless of economic conditions, because their employees have embraced it and readily instill it in those who join their team.
Mitchell’s son, Drew, remembers that when he was a boy, he and his brother would sometimes go with their father to the office evenings and weekends. “While Dad worked, my brother and I would play with mini-sticks and a ball in the hallway outside his office, using the vault as a goal. Later, I worked summers at ASL when I was going to university.” Drew Mitchell is now general manager of the Saskatoon division. The tradition continues.
First published in the December 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.