CALGARY, Alta. – Kind of like a phoenix, a tired old business is of being reborn, maybe not in flames but with a healthy injection of new people and ideas.KLS Earthworks & Environmental was past its prime, according to current vice-president, Travis Powell who, with his brother Christopher and father Pat, bought the business from another family about three years ago. Purchasing an existing business can mean you’re inheriting someone else’s headaches, but for the Powells, the price of admission – Travis said they got into the company for “pretty well start-up costs” – was worth it, even though the company was in rough shape when they took over. “They were little bit top heavy,” Powell said, “so we had to trim some fat.”
That corporate diet plan included bringing their maintenance in-house.
“We hired a journeyman mechanic,” Powell said, “and we have three mechanics now keeping our trucking fleet going and safe and I think in a lot better condition than what the third-party shop was doing.”
They’re also consolidating their operations, moving the office to southeast Calgary’s Frontier business park, where their yard is located and where they’re building a new shop.
“We never bought the shop off the old owner,” Powell explained. “We just leased it off them and it’s too small.”
Powell said they added the “& Environmental” aspect to the Earthworks side of the business to reflect the new direction in which they’re taking the company.
“I think that’s a place we can grow,” he said. “We already have the equipment and the employee base, we just have to train them up.”
Besides wanting a piece of the reclamation business, Powell said they also want to expand beyond their Calgary roots and into new segments of the economy.
“We want to get more oilfield-based as well,” he said, “and I think the environmental aspect is a good foothold to get in there.”
They hired a person to help with that side of things last October, though Powell noted Murphy’s Law raised its ugly head almost immediately.
“The day after we hired him the oil price dropped by half, so it definitely put a strain on him to grow us,” he said. “But we’re getting traction slowly. We’ve done an environmental job in Calgary, a water treatment plant, and we’re on the verge of starting another one.”
Despite having owned the company for three years now, Powell said the new ownership is still in a transition period. “We have the general manager (from the previous ownership) and he’s kind of a mentor for my brother and I,” he said. “He has a Master’s degree and is teaching us the financial end on his way out.”
Rather than getting him to train his replacements and then kick him out, however, Powell noted the manager is also in the process of growing another company with patriarch Pat Powell.
Powell noted the other major challenges to the business include a lack of labour, especially during the summer – the busiest part of the construction season – as well as the low Canadian dollar.
“We can’t buy used equipment because the Americans are coming up and getting it at a 20% discount,” he said, “so we’re getting beaten up on that a little bit.”
The price of oil doesn’t help, either. “It’s kind of got Alberta at a standstill because nobody knows what’s going to happen this year,” he said. Then there’s the challenge of keeping ahead of the other guys.
“We have some pretty strong competitors that keep us on our toes, which is nice,” Powell said.
“Competition keeps everybody honest.”
To help stay ahead of the pack, the company is focusing on ensuring their equipment is in top notch condition so, as Powell said, “our customers will see we’re better than the other guys. We invest a lot of money in getting our fleet up to ‘as good as new’ standard as they can be. Being a leader in safety industry-wide was our biggest focus for this year and the last year, to turn our safety program around and I think we really have,” he said, noting that the company was at “an industry minimum” when they took over, but that wasn’t good enough for the Powell family.
“One thing my Dad always stressed was that it has to be safe, so we kind of bought into that our whole lives and we’ve gotten really good buy-in from our field guys, and we reward them for safe practices. We want to be an industry leader in safety and if we’re safe and ethical then our business will grow.”
KLS also works hard to ensure its employees are competent and happy.
“We give them good training and a lot of room to grow and that goes a long way with them,” Powell said. “We pay competitive wages – we’re not on the high-end nor the low end – and the family feel of our business has really helped with retention.”
Powell also stressed the importance of leading by example, even via such seemingly mundane things as going out into the yard and shoveling.
“They (the employees) know that you do it, so maybe they should start doing it too,” he noted, adding that KLS is also looking at sponsoring a hockey team if there’s enough interest.
And if there isn’t enough interest in-house, “we’ll start an industry team and have other companies’ guys,” he said. “It doesn’t matter as long as the guys can go out and have fun.”
KLS also has a profit-sharing program and Powell noted proudly that “last year we had a notably better year than our previous three, so we took every supervisor down to Mexico for fishing and golfing.”
Powell said he’d like to see KLS get back to its glory days over the next five years and he also wants to be working more outside of the city limits of Calgary, with “an alternate branch in central and northern Alberta.”