In the spring of 1910, engineer W.G. McElhanney—the son of Irish immigrants and known to his friends as “Mac”—began a one-room surveying and mapping firm in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood. Despite a slow and difficult start during the First World War, McElhanney cobbled together projects big and small to stay afloat: logging roads in the 1920s, interior reservoir mapping, and the Lions Gate Bridge alignment and Kemano tunnel in the 1930s.
“McElhanney really opened up and pioneered a lot of this province,” says modern-day CEO Allan Russell of the company’s rich history in Western Canada. Times are only slightly different now, Russell jokes: “They’d send crews out in March, it would take a week to get there, and they’d live in tents in the bush until Christmas. Today, we do the exact same thing, upload it via satellite, and the information’s available the next day.” The engineering and servicing company’s recent clients include the Port Mann highway, the TransCanada Pipeline and the upcoming five-year, $3-billion George Massey Tunnel replacement.
Yet the firm did something unconventional as it went big: It vowed to stay small. Yes, multi-billion-dollar projects are flashy, explains Russell, and surely handling a few massive key projects would be easier than juggling many tiny ones. But McElhanney has built a reputation and conquered a lucrative niche by considering its smaller tasks—like campground design or tree placement recommendations—not just as important as massive marquee contracts, but more so. “We say we service local projects and big projects too,” Russell says. “Our first priority is the local client.” Indeed, about 70% of McElhanney’s 1,000-odd ongoing projects fit this criteria, some worth just a few thousand dollars in fees.
McElhanney now employs more than a thousand staff members. But rather than keeping everyone in a fancy building in downtown Vancouver, the company has staff working out of 26 offices spread across Western Canada in towns of all sizes—something made financially viable by the resources brought in by the giant projects. “This means that if you’re a resident of Campbell River, you’ll get a local expert from Campbell River,” says Russell. For a resident of Campbell River, working with a knowledgeable local with big-company backing is a major selling point.
Finding and recruiting these local experts is therefore crucial to McElhanney’s business model. Luckily, they’re an easy sort to spot: The company seeks out engineers and scientists who are heavily involved in their communities (such as people who moonlight as Girl Guide leaders, soccer coaches or Rotary Club members). “Technical knowledge is important, but working with people and caring about your community is way more important,” says Russell.
McElhanney has been structured to foster these relationships within the community (it also sponsors local events, for instance), and the trust and loyalty that engenders has benefited the company greatly. A full 90% of McElhanney’s clients are repeat customers—proving that focusing on the small can help a business make it big.