Growth 2020 CEO Summit

Canada's Fastest-Growing Startup in 2020: Steel River Group

Calgary’s Steel River Group, 2020’s Startup List winner, puts Indigenous communities first, and profits second, in infrastructure projects. It’s revolutionary thinking.

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
Trent Fequet of Steel River Group (Photograph by Colin Way)

Steel River Group CEO Trent Fequet recognizes the benefits and value of Indigenous partnerships (Photograph by Colin Way)

Trent Fequet has spent most of his career working for someone else. For the first 23 years or so, it was for major companies like Atco, Ledcor and JV Driver in the diamond mines of Yellowknife or oil fields in Fort McMurray, Alta. But now, as the president of pipeline and construction company Steel River Group (SRG), he says he’s working for a different, more meaningful type of client.

No, not himself, although being your own boss comes with some perks and power. He’s talking about Indigenous communities—which, for the bulk of Canadian industrial history, were pushed aside while already-rich companies got richer off their resources, with little prior consultation and hardly any profits staying put.

That history, says Fequet, whose roots are in the Innu village of Pakuashipi on the north shore of Quebec’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, formed the basis for Steel River Group’s business model, as did the reality that First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities have more to offer—strategies, ideas, skills—than oil, water and land.

“We are not a traditional pipeline company, focusing only on revenue or the work, and then going and looking for a feather, or an olive branch, and working with an Indigenous group because we need to,” Fequet says from Calgary. Instead, Steel River Group’s priority is to partner with Indigenous communities on infrastructure projects to maximize employment, education, ownership and entrepreneurial experience, he says.

“The people come first,” Fequet says during a phone call. The profits come second, and boy, did they ever: in 2017, the company’s first year, revenues were just shy of $700,000. Fast-forward to 2019, and Steel River Group generated between $50 million and $100 million—an increase (this is not a typo) of over 8,662%, which makes them the No. 1 company on the Startup List. Now, the company is searching for a partner to take on 20% to 30% equity, a move it didn’t anticipate making until at least a decade in.

How did SRG do it? After decades working in the infrastructure business, Fequet struck out on his own with his wife, Deanna, and a business partner, investing $500,000 into the venture. There were no outside investors, and no institutional backing, Fequet says, which left the company climbing a steep hill. Leveraging connections made across the country, as well as the company’s Indigenous ownership, Steel River Group began having conversations with community leaders about growing their wealth and revenue, just as Fequet envisioned.

One of the first to come calling, says Fequet, was Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, a community in Alberta that held a 51% stake in a contracting company called Backwoods Energy Services, which at the time was doing a tidy $3 million to $5 million in the oil, gas and forestry industries each year. SRG’s investments division helped Alexis Nakota raise enough money to expand its ownership to 70%, and then Steel River bought out the remainder. Since that switch, Backwoods Energy has grown from employing 20 band members to over 300 Indigenous employees, with annual revenues growing substantially, according to Fequet.

Little Shuswap Lake band councillor Aaron Arnouse says his community—which boasts a PGA-endorsed golf course and high-end resort in northern B.C.— contacted Steel River. The band wanted SRG to give them an edge as the community chases bigger contracts and ownership of projects in highway development and forestry that might otherwise go to faraway bidders. “We’re hoping that Steel River can give us that extra little boost,” Arnouse says.

While Steel River continues to score Indigenous partnerships, including a recently inked development deal with the Manitoba Metis Federation’s N4 Construction company, it has also secured contracts with major resource companies like Tidewater Midstream, TransAlta, TC Energy, FortisBC and Atco (a $38-million pipeline project). Earlier this year, Steel River entered a joint partnership with Italian company SICIM, one of the world’s largest pipeline construction companies, to direct their Canadian operations.

“They actually approached us,” Fequet says, still a bit awestruck. “For them to look at us and decide we’d be a good partner was pretty humbling, to be honest.”

The momentum from the SICIM partnership helped Steel River start the year off strong, but when COVID-19 arrived, Fequet held his breath. Executives took pay cuts, and Fequet vowed to issue no layoffs. “Everyone suffers a little, instead of anyone suffering a lot,” he says. For four months, much construction ground to a halt, but in August, the wheels started turning and Steel River was awarded over $200 million in new contracts.

Fequet made the most of the COVID-related downtime and put the finishing touches on his company’s P4 (people-public-private partnership) model. “I took six weeks and I literally locked myself in an office to finalize it,” he says.

While the details are still under wraps, Fequet says P4 distills the company’s ethos and provides a framework for Indigenous communities to be proactive in seizing economic opportunities. In a hiring coup, the company brought in JP Gladu, who is Anishinaabe and the former president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, to kickstart the program as chief development officer.

“I think we’ve [as a country] been stuck in a model that’s left out the Indigenous community, and what that’s done is create uncertainty,” says Gladu, who will head up a new Steel River office in Ottawa to lobby the government and corporations. “I mean, look anywhere, particularly around natural resource projects: if Indigenous communities aren’t meaningfully engaged and benefitting, projects are very challenged to get done,” he adds, alluding to recent projects, like B.C.’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, that were criticized for neglecting that engagement.

One challenge Steel River will face moving forward is continuing to stay true to its ideals, to not become the big fish dominating the pond at the expense of the minnow, while also earning trust in communities that historically have little reason to buy what resource and infrastructure companies are selling.

“When we build certainty into projects, you can lower the costs of capital and actually improve the lives of all Canadians by ensuring the most vulnerable Indigenous communities are operating from a place of strength, not the weakness that has been placed into colonialist practices,” Gladu says. “So this is evolution, and this is what’s going to empower our country.”