Best Managed Companies

How CANA Group focused on communication to build a stronger team

This Alberta construction firm focused on better communication to engage younger employees and get the whole company innovating together

Canada’s Best Managed Companies
construction workers

CANA Group workers at the construction site for the ATCO Commercial Centre in Calgary. (Nathan Elson)

When it comes to the construction industry, price points don’t tend to differ that much,” explains Shawn Belecki, chief operating officer of Alberta’s CANA Group. “Everyone knows how to build a building. What people are paying for when they choose a company is openness and a willingness to collaborate—and that’s what we offer.”

CANA has been a fixture of Alberta’s construction industry for decades, slowly forming a reputation for doing excellent work on tight deadlines. Founded in 1942 as Burns and Dutton Concrete and Construction Company Ltd., the firm now describes itself on its website in a way that is as blunt as it is charming: It promises a “think straight, talk straight, do-it-right-once approach with no surprises.”

The company’s dedication to its work has proven essential during a period of economic instability in Alberta. September heralded the biggest drop in housing construction in the country—that, combined with a bleak outlook for the oil sector, has left a cloud over the province. CANA has taken the difficulties in stride, continuing its work in Alberta while exploring possible expansion opportunities. “It has been challenging times in Alberta, and that’s caused us to look at other markets,” explains Luke Simpson, manager of business development and marketing at CANA Construction. “We’ve looked to Saskatchewan and B.C.; we’re always looking into what we can pursue there.” But according to Simpson, the real secret to the company’s enduring success is its management style—one that subscribes to the idea that communicating with employees is important in the good times and essential in the bad. “In economic times like these, it’s worthwhile to let our employees know we’ve been here before and we’ll get through it just like we always have,” Simpson explains. It’s this ability to grow during tight periods while while keeping employees engaged that earned CANA the designation of one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies, as determined by Deloitte.

The business’s management approach has been fine-tuned by the Simpson family for more than 60 years. In 1949, CANA hired acclaimed builder Jack Simpson as a chief engineer; he rose through the ranks to eventually gain ownership of the company. After his passing in 1984, his son John took over the family business, serving as its Chairman and CEO.

Over the years, the firm expanded its holdings, acquiring companies when the opportunity arose. In 1987, it bought ACE Construction, now CANA Utilities; in 2010, wiring construction company High Time Industries, now CANA High Voltage. The business also owns land development company Shepard Development. These varied holdings make it a household name throughout the province.

Next year will mark CANA’s 75th anniversary, and the occasion is causing some of the company’s executives to reflect on its stability in tough times. “I think a lot of the reason we are as successful as we are is because of our people—we spend a lot of time training them, and a lot of our people are hired straight from university-based internships with us,” says Simpson. He believes the company’s faith in, and support of, its junior talent makes it a standout in its industry. “We have a lot of young people we encourage to go as far as they want to in the company,” he explains. “We have a culture that says, regardless of your position, everyone has a seat at the table when it comes to discussing everything from current projects to where the company is going.”

Fabrizio Carinelli, president of CANA Construction, puts a lot of stock in the firm’s regular supervisor and management meetings, held at a different construction site each month. “We invite everybody from the company to come out, and we basically have a roundtable discussion,” he explains. Attendees are encouraged to share details of what they’re working on that month: “It really enables everyone to get to know other people in the company and to know what’s happening in different areas,” says Carinelli. Outside these meetings, younger employees are encouraged to seek out mentorship from more experienced ones, and management will often step in to facilitate the process.

All CANA executives believe in a core value: Every member of the company must be respected, informed and allowed to have his or her say. “We try to keep them in the loop on what projects we’re chasing, how we’re doing against competition—really just keeping them as informed about the business as we can,” Simpson says. “You have to focus not only on having the right people but also on making sure those people are engaged.” To that end, Simpson is proud of the company’s efforts to interact with its employees, from a newsletter to regular social events. “We have people all over the province of Alberta, and it can be hard to interact with them,” he admits, saying that having senior management go out into the field is essential and something the company strives to do regularly. “We want them to know who we are; we want to engage with them on every level of the company. By offering a steady stream of communication, I think we do a good job of keeping them comfortable.”

All of that work and support can be seen in the success of the daunting projects CANA often undertakes—its latest effort was the completion of the National Music Centre’s Studio Bell in Calgary. The 160,000-square-foot structure is one of bold geometric shapes, composed of nine interlocking towers made up of steel covered with hundreds of thousands of terracotta tiles; it was completed this June, after three years of work. Other notable efforts include Mount Royal University, Bella Concert Hall, the Calgary’s Arts Commons and the Telus Spark science centre. Calgary is strewn with ambitious CANA-made structures—50% of both Mount Royal and the University of Calgary were completed by the company.

Neither Carinelli nor Simpson seem particularly worried about whether CANA will continue to thrive. According to Simpson, the proof is in the work: “The best evidence that you’ve done a good job is when you get hired back to do another one. And we keep getting hired back.”