By Ray Penner
As you pull into the parking lot of Breck Construction in the industrial area just north of Saskatoon, the bull on the wall is bound to catch your eye. It’s not a designer’s abstract icon beside the company name; it’s more of a mascot than a logo – a detailed illustration of one very revved up, snorting bull, ready to charge at anything that moves. Ask the staff inside whom the bull represents and you will undoubtedly get the same answer: Breck Construction’s founder, Royan Stewart.
If somebody said something couldn’t be done, I’d see it as a challenge to find a way to do it.
“Breck” is Royan’s middle name. When he was about to launch his scaffolding company, he was having trouble coming up with a name he really liked. A friend suggested “Breck” and bingo – Royan liked it, and that was it. That’s been his entrepreneurial modus operandi from day one. No sense waiting around or second guessing. See your target and commit.
“I’ve got the answer”
Picture this: You’re the construction manager on a worksite just outside Brantford, Ontario. Unannounced and unexpected, in comes a half-ton truck with Saskatchewan plates. Out step these two young guys from Saskatoon who have been driving around southern Ontario making cold calls. They say they’re really good at scaffolding, and wonder if you might have any work for them.
Coincidentally, you do have something in mind. The plant renovation needs scaffolding that can support equipment being lifted in by helicopter. So far, nobody has come up with an answer for how to do that. After one look at the area in question, Royan pipes up, “I’ve got the answer” and quickly explains the solution. You are so impressed, you give them the work, starting the next day. The only problem is, the odd Saskatchewan duo doesn’t have any equipment with them. They agree to start after the weekend, which means driving non-stop to Saskatoon, loading up the equipment, and driving back. First thing Monday morning, they are there on the site, as promised. And that’s how Breck Construction’s Ontario branch got started.
Why Ontario, when Alberta is so much closer to home? “A friend of mine who was working with me wanted to move back to be closer to his family in Ontario,” says Royan, “so I thought what the heck, we may as well drive out there and scout out the possibilities.”
Our guys aren’t scared of hard work, and they want to be the best. Along the way, we have fun as well.
And what was the impressive scaffolding solution he came up with? “It was simple, really, but in my mind I was thinking ‘helicopters! I’ve never done that before!’” Outwardly at least, Royan Stewart is fearless about taking on new or bigger challenges. “If somebody said something couldn’t be done, I’d see it as a challenge to find a way to do it,” he says. He readily admits he is very fortunate to have a business-minded partner: his wife, Bobbylynn, who has supported him from day one and now plays a leading role in the strategic direction of the company as its vice president of corporate development. A successful manager herself, she could see the potential of Royan’s vision. “When I started out,” Royan explains, “I just felt I could do so much more as a business owner rather than as an employee, so – with a one-year-old at home – we mortgaged the house and bought a semitrailer load of scaffolding equipment, which I initially had to store at my parents’ farm near Prince Albert.”
Hard work pays off
Royan was confident in his skills and was convinced that hard work driven by high standards would pay off. It has. Today, the company has over 100 employees who have been selected not only for their skills, but also for an attitude similar to Royan’s, one that shows pride in your work and a genuine desire to do what’s best for your client. “Our guys aren’t scared of hard work, and they want to be the best. Along the way, we have fun as well.”
What Royan has done, in fact, is skillfully leverage all of the advantages of a fledgling entrepreneur. The most important of those is the ability to deal directly with the client throughout the entire job. Royan’s outgoing nature and affability made it easy for him to talk to site managers and to earn their trust and endorsement. He recalls his first job as Breck Scaffold Solutions in September 2002. “It was a small job, and there I was unloading way more scaffolding than we needed on the site, but oh well. One of the area leads on the site, who knew me from before, asked what I was doing. I told him I was now working on my own. The guy then tells me to come with him, and he shows me another project they needed done. We got that work as well.
The agility advantage
High regard for your work ethic as a small entrepreneur can also present unique challenges. That points to another advantage of an entrepreneur: the ability to adapt quickly when market conditions change or new opportunities arise. Royan recalls a time when he mentioned to one of the site coordinators of a large potash mine that Breck had not been invited to bid on a particular project. Royan wanted to know what Breck could do differently to get an opportunity next time. Later that day, Royan was shocked to see he had been copied on the senior manager’s memo to his potash company’s entire supervisory team, insisting that Breck be included on all relevant bid requests.
Sure enough, a few days later, Royan did receive a request to bid. The problem was, the deliverables were outside his scope as a scaffolding company. “But man, I felt I had to put in a bid. I mean, how would it look if I questioned why we weren’t on the list, then they put me on the list, and I decline to bid?” Royan went ahead and put in the bid – and won it. Fortunately, he had the support staff with the talent to successfully complete the project. Thus began the expansion of Breck Scaffolding that would lead to Breck Construction.
“Putting the cart before the horse – I’ve done a lot of that,” admits Royan. Why bid on projects that would necessitate expanding your services? “For one thing, you don’t always expect to get the work,” he explains, “But when you do get the work, things can get interesting in a hurry. If it wasn’t for the team we have at Breck, there is no way we would be able to do the things we do!” A good example is an asbestos abatement for a local power plant. “To get the job, I met with them on a Wednesday to convince them that we were capable of other trades and to present another option. The next day they called to say they needed an emergency abatement and wanted our guys to start on it on Monday. I’m thinking, ‘Guys? What guys? I don’t have any guys! We have only
In true Breck fashion, though, Royan found the people he needed, including a friend who is a highly regarded expert on insulation and abatements and was looking for a change. Thus began the insulation division of Royan’s growing enterprise.
To be fair, Royan’s style is not as haphazard as it might appear. He has the successful entrepreneur’s penchant for visualizing and preparing for various scenarios, always playing the game of “what if?” Thus, when the power plant call came, he had already talked to his insulation friend many times about what might come about down the line. They were both mentally prepared to make the move, even if it had to be done over a weekend. When opportunity knocks, you not only have to open the door – you have to be ready to open the door.
Sometimes, nobody’s knocking. That’s when you have to remember the adage that you shouldn’t get too high with the highs in business, or too low with the lows. When things aren’t going right, Royan invokes his three-day rule. It’s OK to be down the first day, even the second day, but by the third day things should be looking better or it’s time to move on. For Royan, that third day has never come. He recalls the email from a company telling him they were cancelling all three of his biggest regular scaffolding contracts. Soon after, he got an email suggesting that it would be better if those same scaffolding projects were part of an overall maintenance contract – and that Breck had been chosen to do the work. “In the space of a week, we went from nothing to something even bigger.”
The weight of responsibility grows with business growth. It’s one thing to be on the edge with your own family’s security; it’s quite another when the risks you take could affect a hundred families.
The road to success is littered with casualties, often because the personality and skills that it takes to start a company are not always those that can sustain it on a higher plateau. Breck’s future is now shaped by an executive team, regular financial reports, budgets, strategic meetings, and long-term business plans. “I don’t exactly like it as much, because it’s never been my style,” Royan confides, “but I definitely agree with it. Without it Breck wouldn’t be where we are today. I needed people smarter than me to grow the company.” Today, Breck Construction offers services in scaffolding, insulation, asbestos abatement, sheet metal, carpentry, civil concrete and construction, and mechanical.
To prairie people, being able to adapt to survive is as obvious as our seasons. Roughly 70% of Breck’s business has come from the potash industry, but that, too, has its inevitable peaks and valleys.
“Diversification has been the key to our growth,” says Royan, who will always be eager to seek new opportunities, albeit supported by much more solid management. There have been other key
factors as well, such as learning how to properly value your services to remain profitable as well as competitive. Most important, says Royan, is your ability to form relationships – with customers and employees alike – that are based on trust and mutual respect.
For Royan’s business, and any business, it’s all very much like scaffolding. Get it right, and who knows what heights you can reach?
First published in the December 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.