Nearly six decades have passed since Marcel Dutil started his career at Canam Steel Works, but his recollection of those early days is still vivid.
“I started work at the plant in May of 1961,” he recalls. “I was working on the assembly line. I was 18 years old. I’ve worked at Canam since that time except for a period of five months between January 1963 and June 1963 when I went back to school to get my high school diploma.”
The plant, in Saint-Gedeon-de-Beauce, Que., was only 32 by 400 feet. Dutil was one of 10 employees at the company. He started as an assembler-welder and soon became an evening shift foreman.
The company was founded by his father, Roger Dutil, and mother, Gilberte Lacroix-Dutil, and partners from Boston, Mass. That first year, about 2,000 tonnes of joists were manufactured at the plant.
This year, the company is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Dutil, meantime, is now chairman of the board of Canam Group and also chief operating officer of the bridges division of the company.
Much has changed since those early days. The plant where he worked has been expanded and the company, which specializes in designing and fabricating metal components for the North American construction industry, has more than 2,600 employees and eight plants in Canada and the U.S.
Dutil has been at the helm for most of that growth. He worked at the Boston office for a few months before taking over the company. He also formed Manac, another company, in 1966 out of the backyard of his house because Canam needed means to transport its products.
In 1972, Manac purchased Canam and the Canam Manac Group was born. Canam is derived from the words Canada and America. Manac is the letters in reverse.
Dutil, whose son Marc Dutil is now CEO and president of the company, says his father and mother would be astounded at the growth of the firm.
“None of us ever thought that it would grow like that, not even myself.”
Canam has now participated in the construction of more than 350,000 buildings in North America and elsewhere.
“We are participating in supplying about 10,000 projects a year,” notes Dutil. “We do a lot of Walmarts and stadiums and bridges but we do a lot of small projects as well.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Over the years, the company has faced its fair share of adversity and recessions but has survived.
Four fires marked the company’s early years. The first fire destroyed part of the Saint-Gedeon-de-Beauce plant in April 1964. Others occurred in September 1968, February 1973 and February 1974.
Each time, the company bounced back and continued to expand. In the 1970s, the company built a plant in Boucherville, opened a sales office in the Toronto, and in the 1980s started a new steel joist plant in Mississauga, Ont. and acquired a number of companies in Canada and the U.S. Canam was also listed on the Montreal Stock Exchange and acquisitions continued in the 1990s and 2000s.
Earlier this year, the Dutil family, Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec and the Fonds de solidarite FTQ acquired all of Canam Group’s Canadian operations, all overseas assets and certain ones in the U.S.
The company continues to modernize equipment and make acquisitions to grow its business. This year, a major, $15-million expansion of the St. Gedeon plant is expected to be completed. The amount includes the purchase of several pieces of equipment as well as an expansion.
Dutil, who’s seen his fair share of ups and downs during his many years in the industry, says business cycles are inevitable and the secret to success is providing good service and treating employees right.
“Every seven or eight years you have a downcycle. It goes up and then, bang, it goes down for a period of 18 months,” he says. “But that’s the business we are in. You learn to live with that.
“For any company, if you have integrity, and you give good service, you give good products at the right price and you have good people, that makes the difference. We have good people everywhere. You treat your people right and do the other things right and people react the same way.”
Dutil also believes a company’s reputation is also built on honesty and giving back to the community.
“You never make a mistake by telling the truth,” he says. “You never make a mistake by admitting a mistake.”
Over the years, Canam has been generous in supporting organizations in communities where it operates.
“That’s the way I grew up,” explains Dutil. “My parents and grandparents have always been part of a community. We are in a small town; we all live together and that’s a must. You have no choice. If you don’t do it, you are not fair. We all have to participate in the community and you need to be there.”
As for his most memorable work experiences, the elder statesman of Canam says there are too many to count.
“I’m 78. I started work at 18. That’s 60 years ago. I’ve worked 60 hours a week and you have surprises every week. I’m still learning.”