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The servant leader

By Matt O’Grady | January 13, 2014
The servant leader
Brian Conlin

What sort of an impact are we having globally – and is anybody paying attention? Canada’s place in the world has long been the stuff of existential debate. Our seventh prime minister, Wilfred Laurier, famously promised in 1904 that while the 19th century was the century of the United States, Canada would “fill the 20th century.”

Most would argue that we didn’t really hit our stride as an economic and social power until late into the 20th century. In two areas in particular, our wealth and expertise in natural resources and in the livability of our communities, Canada has become world-renowned, with Toronto the undeniable centre of financing for the mining sector and Vancouver regularly atop lists of the world’s most livable cities. Our expertise in developing both is something that’s finally put Canada on the map. 

Brian Conlin doesn’t think this is an accident. The company he helms, Golder Associates, has 8,800 employees in 37 countries speaking 18 languages. What started off as a small partnership based in Toronto is now a truly global business, offering expertise in consulting, design and construction for ground engineering and environmental solutions to Mining, Oil and Gas, Urban Development and Infrastructure, Manufacturing and Power clients on six continents. It is, as the company puts it, “engineering earth’s development while preserving earth’s integrity.” Fully 58 percent of Golder’s business now comes from outside of Canada.

Conlin, who grew up working on farms in Metcalfe, Ont., just outside of Ottawa, feels that being Canadian – specifically, the Canadian tendency to try to find common ground in business dealings – has been key to Golder’s global growth. 

“The Canadian way of getting things done – working with governments, industry and the public – is a real advantage,” explains Conlin, a 36-year Golder veteran, from his Burnaby, B.C. office. “You contrast that to somewhere like the U.S., which is highly regulatory and legally driven. U.S. clients get very nervous when we talk to the regulators. In Canada, we do that all the time. If we’re trying to get an environmental assessment for an oil sands project, we’re right in there from Day One. We’re all on the same team.”

Another way in which Golder has brought a typically Canadian sensibility to its increasingly global operation is trusting and empowering local talent, rather than sending people from elsewhere to ‘show them how to do it.’ “When we go to new places to set up business, we would only go there if we had local people we trust in our fields to run it,” explains Conlin. “We have 325 people in our office in Santiago. When you go into that office, it’s indistinguishable from this office: they do the same things as us, except they mostly do it in Spanish. There are maybe three or four expats, and they’re there just to help out. But the operation is led by and driven by Chileans.”

Golder’s long-held culture of trusting local talent and embracing their priorities aligns nicely with Conlin’s preferred leadership style, what he calls “servant leadership,” putting the needs of employees, clients and communities first. 

 When Golder helps its clients with their resource developments now, they have to identify what the beneficial use of the site will be in the long-term, because the majority of these developments tend to be fairly short-term, says Conlin: 10 or 20 years and they’re gone. Typically there’s enduring infrastructure (roads that were built, an airstrip) but increasingly that’s not enough. 

“It’s very clear that in most places where there is a non-corrupt regime, just paying money isn’t the solution,” says Conlin. “The reality today is communities want more: they want long-term royalties, they want a seat at the table, they want to be a partner.”

That sort of collaboration in sustainable development is very much a part of Golder’s DNA. Started in 1960 with three founding partners, the firm has maintained a unique employee ownership structure for over 50 years, despite its tremendous growth. In the early days, existing partners would sell some of their shares to the new guy, and so on. Today, all employees have the ability to purchase shares, and the senior ownership succession process is supported through a defined sell-down policy. 

“In terms of private companies, there’s probably only three or four companies our size in the world that have a similar share ownership structure,” explains Conlin. “We have an operating company, a board, and principals and associates, our senior owners. I’m in the middle, balancing the views and interests of these stakeholders. ”

Conlin’s job is a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, there’s the challenge of managing a diverse workforce: different languages, different work sites, and increasingly, different generations of workers (38 per cent of the Golder workforce are millennials, entering adulthood at the turn of this century). 

The company has made great strides in recent years to broaden its diversity. In addition to hiring locally wherever possible, Golder’s strategy includes a black empowerment program in South Africa, First Nations cultural training in Canada, a diversity council (currently piloted) in Australia and young professional groups in many of Golder’s operating regions. 

Once internal needs have been addressed, there’s the pressing challenge of managing client expectations, as economic conditions ebb and flow.

“When commodity prices are high, there tends to be more exploration – more properties, more opportunities,” explains Conlin. “If prices come down, they come to us and say, ‘We’ve got an operating mine. We’ve invested $2 billion. We’re not turning back on this – we’ve got long-term commitments – but we are squeezed for profitability.’” 

Golder’s task is to help clients find ways of optimizing their operations. “They come to us and say, ‘Can you find ways of doing it more efficiently? Can you find us steeper slopes? Can you find ways of getting the grade out that allows us to blend it?’”

Interestingly, one of the things that has stayed relatively stable over the decades is Golder’s focus on its core strengths in ground engineering and environmental services. This dedication to purpose comes even as some of its competitors have tried to move toward a one-stop-shop model: doing not only the permitting and planning, but also the detailed design and building the plant at the end. Golder, too, is seeking to build its detailed design and construction services, but focused on projects where the company’s specialized knowledge is a strategic advantage, such as slope depressurization at an open pit mine, lining a landfill or remediating a contaminated site. 

“Our philosophy is, if we’re going to take on a new service, we’re not going to take it on a part-time, toe-in-the-water way,” says Conlin. “We want to do it and be the best in it – we want to strive for excellence.”

And in a typically Golder sort of way, Conlin is content to let his competitors do their thing - to be all things to all people – while Golder continues to hone its leadership in earth, environment and the related areas of energy.

“There’s enough space and enough scope – and enough work – for everybody.”

All about Golder Associates

Golder Associates started in 1960 in Canada as the brainchild of Hugh Golder, an expert in soil mechanics from the U.K.; Larry Soderman, an Ontario highways expert with a wealth of local contacts; and Vic Milligan, an Irish civil engineer (who earned fourth-place in the four-minute mile race at the 1954 Commonwealth Games). 

In the early days, the firm specialized in the field of soil mechanics: understanding the properties of soil to help in things like building and bridge foundations, retaining walls, dams and buried pipeline systems. Today, Golder’s work has expanded to include ground engineering, natural resources management, environmental and social assessment, environmental management and compliance, decommissioning and decontamination and planning and design. In addition to working with prominent mines and oilfields throughout the world, the firm has also had its hand in the construction of Toronto’s subway system and remediating Vancouver’s Expo lands, among many other projects.

The founders realized that they had to expand their sights to keep up with business. As Vic Milligan put it in a company biography, “To get great quality work in Ottawa, we had to be in Ottawa. To get quality work in Vancouver, we had to be in Vancouver. We never went after jobs, we went after clients who would give us jobs.”

Today’s controlled but steady growth, with operations now on six continents, remains true to Golder’s original concept of building relationships with clients and allowing the business to grow organically.

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