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Roadbuilders share stories of ‘true grit’ and overcoming challenges

Angela Gismondi
Roadbuilders share stories of ‘true grit’ and overcoming challenges
SCREENSHOT — To showcase the challenges roadbuilding contractors in Ontario have faced over the years, the Ontario Road Builders’ Association put together a video called Ontario Road Builders — A Story of True Grit and Determination.

Roadbuilders have faced a number of challenges over the years and 2020 was no exception.

“It’s been a hell of a challenge, but we’ve been getting through COVID just like we have gotten through many other tough challenges past and present,” said Regan Cox, president of Cox Construction Ltd. in a video presentation entitled Ontario’s Road Builders — A Story of True Grit and Determination.

The video was shown on the final day of the Ontario Road Builders’ Association’s (ORBA) virtual summit. The theme of the four-day event was Forging the Road Ahead.

“This past year has been unlike any other than most of us have experienced in our lifetimes,” said James McVeety, who was president of ORBA’s board of directors in 2020, as he introduced the video.

“At this time last year, we thought we would be back at the Fairmont Royal York (Toronto) celebrating a year’s worth of achievements. As we have all been through a lot and long to be together we thought it would be inspiring and uplifting to hear from several builders in our great industry to tell the story of how our industry has persevered and truly forged a better road ahead for all of us through the decades.”

COVID-19 brought unique challenges which required unique solutions.

“Like many, I suppose, we had the fear of the unknown,” said Ryan Essex, executive vice-president of the Miller Group. “It was the most troubling part of dealing with COVID in the beginning.

“We were learning new things about the virus daily and our people stepped up finding solutions to the constant change of restrictions.”

For the most part, roadbuilding was deemed essential and allowed to carry on through the provincial shutdowns and lockdowns.

“From the roadbuilding perspective, we didn’t miss a beat thanks to the work of ORBA pushing for essential work to carry on,” said Jim Hurst, vice-president and partner with Steed and Evans Ltd.

“The stress we have had to deal with. Technology had to be done quickly, overnight,” added Cox. “It’s been a real handful. Lots of good things have happened from this. It has allowed us to find new ways to do business.”

While roadbuilders faced significant challenges related to the pandemic in 2020 and even this year, many of them said they went through tough times in the past including the 1980s when inflation interest rates were high and there was a shortage of work and then there was the 2008 financial crisis.

“We are in a business where we have millions of dollars invested in capital assets and we don’t know from one year to the next what we are going to be doing,” said Phil Annett, vice-president of business development with Pioneer Construction Inc.

“One of the hard lessons we learned is you are much better off to take on small jobs than you are to take on large jobs,” Malcolm Matheson, president and partner of Steed and Evans Ltd., noted. “The risk is much greater.”

Roadbuilding contractors also talked about industry-specific challenges such as weather conditions, especially when working in Ontario’s north and the pressure from the amalgamation of competitors.

“The MTO downloading the responsibilities of contract administration onto the contractor,” said Cox, citing another challenge.

“It’s hard to get that extra overhead and still be successful. We met this MTO requirement by hiring new staff that were mostly from the engineering firms that were local to help us through being not only the contractor but the contract administrator.”

Changes with building materials, particularly asphalt, and the focus on the environment is another change the industry has had to adapt to, explained Amma Wakefield, Canadian regional engineer for the Asphalt Institute.

“I think about the pressure on our industry to be more environmentally friendly, which gave birth to the technology warm mix asphalt, which is now a technology that has shown many benefits,” she said.

“We always find solutions and I think we will find solutions to any future problems that come our way with the same attitude we’ve been tackling the previous ones.”


Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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