By Ray Penner
Photos courtesy of 3twenty Modular
Oil prices dropping to $40 a barrel was one of the best things that could have happened to us.” That’s a statement you’re not likely to hear from a company owner in western Canada – especially one whose business back in 2016 depended almost entirely on the resource sector. It’s typical, though, of the pragmatic optimism of Bryan McCrea, co-founder along with Evan Willoughby of 3twenty Modular.
“The downturn in oil and gas forced us to diversify,” explains Bryan. “We realized that unless we diversified, we could never grow to the size we wanted to be.” Today, container-based buildings – converting shipping containers into portable offices and facilities for project sites – account for only about 10% of 3twenty’s revenue.
An overnight sensation two years in the making
That original idea, though, can be credited for making it all happen. It’s what motivated two University of Saskatchewan students – Bryan, in accounting, and Evan, in engineering – to convince the professor of an entrepreneurism course to allow both of them to enroll in his class, even though Evan was technically ineligible. “We wanted to get into that class so we could work on our business plan,” says Bryan. “We both knew we really didn’t want to do what we were being trained for at the time.” Converting shipping containers became a passion that united them. Evan could see how it could be done; Bryan could see the market potential. That was in 2009.
One year later, Evan and Bryan, along with their former partner, Channing McCorriston, appeared on CBC TV’s Dragons’ Den, winning the praise of the entire panel of Dragons and the sought-after support of W. Brett Wilson. After the show aired in early 2011, the energetic entrepreneurs garnered literally overnight prominence among Saskatchewan’s business community and beyond. More importantly, they were now able to walk into the boardrooms and offices of major companies in the resource sector, with W. Brett Wilson holding the door. “Brett gave us the credibility and the confidence to ask for a million-dollar purchase order and, by the way, we want a 30% deposit,” says Bryan, grinning at his own audacity.
Early success, though, can have its downside. “When Evan and I competed in business case competitions in school, and when we’d ask successful business leaders for advice, we’d be told so often to focus, focus,” says Bryan. “We took that advice too seriously.” Their intense focus turned into tunnel vision and vulnerability. Thus, the bright side of the oil and gas downturn.
It was tremendously fulfilling to realize we just weren’t building structures; we were providing solutions that could improve people’s lives.
The company’s recent projects demonstrate how Evan and Bryan’s vision has broadened. In the spring of this year, they delivered the White Buffalo Treatment Centre on Muskoday First Nation. The client was so impressed with the work, they invited Bryan and Evan to the grand opening and presented them with the very high honour of a star blanket. “I never felt prouder of what we were doing,” notes Bryan. “It was tremendously fulfilling to realize we just weren’t building structures; we were providing solutions that could improve people’s lives.”
3twenty’s most recent major project exemplifies its capabilities and competitive advantages. A new high school for Mistawasis First Nation will enable students to learn within their own community. Constructed entirely at 3twenty’s new facility in Saskatoon, the Mistawasis school has a capacity of 125 students, cost approximately $6 million, took five months to build, and opened this fall. A similar project elsewhere, but using traditional on-site construction methods, is expected to cost upwards of $23 million, take approximately two years to complete, and accommodate under 100 students.
“What makes more sense?” asks Bryan. “We believe the Mistawasis project will change the way Indigenous Services Canada looks at building schools in this country. There’s really no other modular building company in Canada that can build the way we build when it comes to commercial and institutional structures. We are really leading the way that modular technology can be used for permanent commercial construction.”
A tour of 3twenty Modular’s operations reveals other advantages to the company and its clients. Compared to sending crews, materials, and equipment to various distant sites that all require
security, having the entire building process at 3tweny provides greater efficiencies and more control, with more opportunities for everyone in the company to suggest innovations and share
knowledge and experience. Furthermore, anyone who has worked in construction can readily appreciate the appeal of working where you live, with regular shifts year-round that enable you to
go home to your family at the end of the day.
“Today, we don’t even mention Dragons’ Den, except on our website,” says Bryan, “because a Dragons’ Den company is a fledgling company, and we’re way past that. We want to be known
for what we do, not for the TV show we were on.” However, they still have their relationship with former Dragon W. Brett Wilson, whom Bryan describes as “more of a partner than an investor. Some weeks, he’ll call us every day, although at other times we might not hear from him for a month.”
After ten years, another notable accomplishment is the partnership itself. Evan continues to be the innovator; Bryan, the salesman and number-cruncher. “It’s worked out really well. Sure, we’ve had differing opinions, but we’ve never had a fight. We understand each other. We both have young families and share the same values. Most importantly, we have a deep respect for each other’s unique strengths.”
First published in the December 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.