By Brent Banda
Rob Phillips, Brent Trombley, and Don Berry were in Calgary for a pre-job interview with a client before being awarded a project. It was 2019, and their business, Commercial Sandblasting & Painting, would be working on two large pieces of equipment in an industrial facility. The months-long project was scheduled to start in May but the client had just informed them of a delay. The work would begin in August. The team looked at each other and realized they were all thinking the same thing – scaffolding would be a problem.
“OK, folks,” Phillips said to capture the client’s attention. “We have not accounted for snow load on the scaffolding. It’s going to cost more than we quoted. Please understand we’ll add 10% to the scaffold price. That’s it. And if you would like to put in place a site-wide scaffolding contract with some other service provider, please take scaffolding out of our scope.”
This was not what the client expected. Most suppliers fight for every dollar on a contract because extras are often a source of high margin. But Phillips and his partners thought differently about the situation. Scaffolding is not their core business.
Relationships are based on trust. And when it comes to working in the industrial sector, relationships are important.
The client looked at Phillips, Trombley, and Berry and said, “You’re the kind of people we want to work with.”
That project went ahead smoothly and was completed two days ahead of schedule. It captures the essence of how Phillips, his partners, and his employees work with people. Relationships are based on trust. And when it comes to working in the industrial sector, relationships are important.
Commercial Sandblasting & Painting does most of its work on equipment in industrial facilities. For example, the company might work with a mine that needs to dissolve potash ore. The fluid used in the process is corrosive; a protective coating can be applied on industrial equipment to prevent wear. That’s where Commercial Sandblasting & Painting has built its specialty. It prepares the substrate (the base layer) of fabricated equipment and applies the appropriate coating. If the company does the job right, the equipment lasts longer than it would if it had a typical coat of paint.
Most of Phillips’ time is spent with Commercial Sandblasting & Painting – he is president of the company. It is the largest of six related businesses with shared ownership. Each business has an important role within the group of companies based on its own specialty. Western Urethane, for example, works primarily with spray polyurethane foam, while Core-Cut Industries specializes in concrete cutting and coring technology.
If you shake a hand, it’s done. To the letter. Whatever you said, it’s done.
In 1989, Phillips was a young mechanical engineer working for Kilborn Engineering. He volunteered in the business community and was on a committee organizing a technical event. In a turn of fate, Jim Christie was on that committee. Christie owned Commercial Sandblasting & Painting at the time, and he was impressed with Phillips’ organizational skills and drive. Christie told Phillips, “If you’re ever looking for a job, come and talk to me.”
Phillips’ career continued to progress after his work on the committee. He had a background in electronics and computers and worked in the IT department for the Saskatoon and District Health Board before taking a job at SaskTel. But Phillips had an interest in materials science. He also had a desire for entrepreneurship. He looked around town and considered which company might provide an opportunity for ownership. Phillips ended up with a shortlist of one. Jim Christie had left an impression: he was one of the most honest people Phillips had met and was the type of person Phillips wanted to work with.
“I called Jim up and said that if he ever planned to transition his company outside of his current employees or family, I would be very interested.” The seed was planted.
Nothing happened for some time. The economy moved up and down and other items filled Christie’s agenda. But timing is important, and one day in 1999 Christie called Phillips. As Phillips recalls, “We got together and had an hour-long discussion. We shook hands in front of his office. I went home and confirmed with my wife I was going to resign from SaskTel.”
Building the team
When Phillips started working at Commercial Sandblasting & Painting, the arrangement was that he would commit to one year and decide after that if he would buy into the business. Phillips got to know the company’s 35 employees and talked with senior people in the company. He discussed the opportunity ahead with a small number of employees to see if they wanted to be owners. Phillips was laying the foundation for a strong team.
“We all had different skills,” Phillips remembers. “We all had strengths and weaknesses. Jim had always hinted that not everyone needs to be a golfer or banker, but it is good to have someone on the team that likes to golf. You want a good group of technical people and customer-focused people.”
Phillips and two other employees went to Christie with an offer. By year’s end they closed the deal. The three employees would buy a certain portion of the company in phase one of the arrangement and then another portion in phase two. The plan defined how they would eventually buy Christie out completely. The arrangement worked well for everyone. Two more employees joined the ownership group in subsequent phases of ownership transition. Eventually, the partners completed their purchase of the entire company as planned.
We got together and had an hour-long discussion. We shook hands in front of his office. I went home and confirmed with my wife I was going to resign from SaskTel.
Phillips finds it difficult to discuss these early days of working with his mentor and former business partner because Jim Christie recently passed away. Christie was well respected for his approach to business. You can hear the emotion in Phillips’ voice as he remembers his friend. “Jim would work with good people and stay away from bad people. He believed in partnership. He realized people never forget when someone had not been fair and honest. If something went right, he got paid and if something went wrong, he stood behind it.”
Phillips has adopted many of Christie’s traits. As he describes Christie’s character, the tone of his voice changes. He becomes a bit more forceful, as if to emphasize a point. “The man was always true to his word. If you shake a hand, it’s done. To the letter. Whatever you said, it’s done.”
Growing the business
The new ownership team was young and hungry for growth. One of the groups businesses tripled in size in less than ten years and another quintupled. They did this by staying within their expertise and embracing Christie’s perspective on partnerships.
“We find customers whose operating environment we understand and work with these customers to introduce a solution that solves their problem,” remembers Phillips. “Then we expanded as our customers expanded.” The straightforward description Phillips provides seems simple, but it worked.
The size of operations fluctuates with economic activity. The business group has 110 employees today. Peak employment was 350 people, with group revenue of near $70 million.
Phillips is quick to point out that Commercial Sandblasting & Painting was able to respond to market opportunities because it had a strong team. Each member of the team has a different role. “There are people all over Canada who call our management team members to seek solutions for their corrosion and asset protection challenges.
Always focus on the solution to the problem at hand. Not just finding a solution, but understanding the technology and people involved.
“One day I got a call from a client, and he said, ‘Rob, we’ve done an analysis on a job we need completed and your company keeps coming up. Would you take on the entire project?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir. I think that’s something we can do. I’ll talk to my partners and I’ll call you back.’” Phillips went to his partners and asked if everyone was interested. It was a huge commitment. It required collaboration between several of their operating companies – roofing, sandblasting, and protective coatings / linings. They decided to go ahead. The team felt they were ready for the challenge.
Phillips’ role has changed over time, with several employees taking on greater responsibility. He used to be heavily involved in operations, dealing directly with 30 people in the business. Commercial Sandblasting & Painting now has four vice-presidents, and Phillips now deals directly with eight people. “I deal with my office manager, vice-presidents, and my partners. And I reserve the right to be able to meet with my site supervisors just to hear how things are going and listen to any concerns or challenges they may have.”
Staying true to who they are
Being able to do what you promise comes down to competence. Phillips and his partners always focus on the solution to the problem at hand. Not just finding a solution, but understanding the technology and people involved.
“We consider our suppliers of liquid systems to be partners. I don’t necessarily want to meet the salesperson or the president of the company. I want to meet the chemist,” Phillips explains. “With a new supplier, I get on a plane. I want to tour their factory. I want to get to know the chemist, know their background and interests, and find out how long they’ve been around. I want to know what they are like to deal with.”
For Phillips, doing business comes down to finding the right people to work with and treating them fairly. The biggest joy in life is meeting people and forging relationships that turn into friendships and relationships of trust. Life is finding partners you can work with.”
Phillips then reflects on advice he received from his mentor. Before Phillips bought into the business, Christie gave him some advice. “Jim said to me, ‘Rob, if you decide to take this on it’s going to be the loneliest thing you ever do.’ And those words are as true as true can be. Who are you going to talk to? Everything is confidential. When there’s trouble, there is no manual or course you can take.”
Despite the difficulties of entrepreneurship, Phillips speaks favourably about his experience. It has been both challenging and rewarding. You can hear his pride when he describes the business he and his partners have built. “Some of our bigger customers come into our business and audit our financials. When they find that there is not one thing off from where it should be, that’s very satisfying.”
When asked what advice he would give an entrepreneur in the early phases of owning a business, Phillips pauses to consider his own career. “Go out and meet people,” he says. “Sometimes it’s going to be uncomfortable but as a businessperson, you’re not allowed to have fear. Get over it.”
First published in the September 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.