Why Adaptability Has Kept This Family-Run Business Thriving For Over 30 Years

Atlantic Canada’s largest general contractor weathered the storms of 2020 by remembering all the other ones they survived.

Adaptation. It’s the word that comes up over and over as Christopher Hickman tells the story of the Marco Group. “We’ve adapted to market conditions, and we’ve reinvented ourselves several times out of necessity,” says Hickman, the chairman and CEO of the company his father Tom founded in 1979.

Adaptation is how Marco Group grew from humble beginnings in Newfoundland to become, in Hickman’s words, “the largest locally-based general contractor in Atlantic Canada.” Leveraging their deep local knowledge to compete against national competitors, they tailored their construction methods to the region’s unique needs and challenges, like seawater pressure and those wicked winds whipping in off the ocean. “I laugh at my friends in Ontario who think a windy day is five to ten kilometres per hour,” says Hickman of the latter. “When we’re building here, the cranes are actually shut down 30 to 40 percent of the time because of wind speeds.” It’s adaptability that has seen the company, which currently specializes in industrial, commercial and institutional construction, navigate market slumps and booms alike. “There’s not a challenge we haven’t been able to defeat,” says Hickman with pride.

Adaptation is also how the Marco Group weathered the pandemic. “When all this hit back in March, we didn’t know if the world was going to end,” recalls Hickman. When construction was declared essential, and the company was allowed to keep the 2000 people employed on their job sites working, it was a blessing—but also a challenge. “You can’t build a building from home on a Zoom call,” says Hickman. “We came up with a plan of attack that centered around our people, and how to keep them safe.” The measures—hot-and-cold handwashing stations on all sites, directional signage to enable social distancing between the sometimes hundreds of people on a single site, 60” TV screens in every office, iPads for all staff, and software that enable remote site inspections—were a significant investment, to the tune of over a million dollars on technology alone. “But we didn’t see it as a cost of doing business,” says Hickman, who’s a majority shareholder in the business he co-owns with four partners. “We saw it as a way to keep our people safe.” To this day, there hasn’t been a single positive case on any of their job sites or offices.

MUN Core Science Facility, St. John’s, NL. Photography: Jane Brokenshire

“The Marco team was able to respond with agility and speed to ensure all work sites were provided with the necessary safety protocols and resources. Protecting the safety of employees as well as subcontractors was priority number one,” says Christine Wheaton, the CIBC coach who supported them through their win of a Canada’s Best Managed Award this year. “The management team was able to pivot quickly and adjust its project schedules to ensure that all performance metrics were met.” For Wheaton, who has worked with the company for over four years, that doesn’t come as a surprise. “The team has substantial experience in the industry with a range of specialized skill sets as well as practical experience to ensure performance-to-plan,” explains the senior manager. “Marco’s competitive edge is based on a reputation for quality work, proof of financial strength, demonstrated knowledge of local market conditions, a track record of accurate job estimates, past performance on contracts and an established reputation for timely, quality work.”

Dalhousie University Student Union Building Renovation and Expansion, Halifax, NS. Photography: Julian Parkinson

Chairman and CEO Christopher Hickman describes the Marco Group as “like a family,” not just in the sense that it’s family-owned, but because it is intentional about treating each employee as though they really were family members. “I enjoy each and every person I work with,” says Hickman, noting he spends as much time with his work family as his own blood relatives. There’s something particularly reflective of Atlantic Canada in how close-knit the 110-person corporate team is, he says. Hickman adds that many employees have been with them 15, 20, 25 years. “We’re very proud that we live and work here, and all the money we make stays here.”

It’s also important to him that leadership practices what it preaches. In the early days of the pandemic, Marco Group, like many other companies, cut employee salaries by 25 percent, while leadership took a 100 percent pay cut. “The promise was that when everything was back to normal, we would restore everyone’s salary and everything that they’d lost,” says Hickman. After just eight weeks, he was able to honour that pledge.

MUN Core Science Facility, St. John’s, NL. Photography: Jane Brokenshire

This is despite the company losing over $250 million dollars in cancelled business last year, particularly in the hard-hit hotel sector. Again, their success is down to a well-practiced ability to adapt. Unlike in Ontario or Quebec, the market in Atlantic Canada isn’t big enough for a company like Marco to specialize in one particular kind of construction. “We have to go where the work is,” says Hickman. “One day it could be a community swimming pool, or a hospital, or a distribution centre for Walmart.” Because they don’t directly employ the trades or labour that work on their projects, they’re able to adapt more quickly to whatever kind of project comes their way, and aren’t tied into a particular skill niche for their workforce. Hickman says that ingrained nimbleness is what enabled the company to grow their workforce and their book of projects, despite all the headwinds of 2020.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but because of the people we have, it’s been a lot more ups than downs,” he concludes. “I have no idea what the new normal will look like, but I know that we’ve been very successful in meeting the challenge, and we’re poised to take advantage of whatever is to come.”