After over two decades as Canadian Construction Association president, Michael Atkinson says the growth of the association’s integrity and professionalism is what he looks back on most fondly during his tenure at the helm.
“I think one of the things I would be most proud about is the professionalism, credibility, integrity that the association’s name has been able to achieve,” said Atkinson, who will stay on with the CCA as president emeritus until 2019.
“I can’t put that all on myself. That’s something I learned from my predecessors and my mentors here, how important it is to deal with governments and other external players and partners in a professional, credible manner where honesty is important.”
Atkinson joined the association in 1981 to work primarily in the area of standard practices. Over the years he worked with the General Contractors Council and with the Trade Contractors Council on the Standard Practices Committee and was asked to be secretary of the Canadian Construction Documents Committee (CCDC) in 1982. He became the vice-president of CCA in 1990 and president in 1993.
He admits he stayed longer than expected but what kept him interested and engaged was the dynamism of the industry and the people in it.
“They tend to be big on family values, big on giving back to their local communities, basically the backbone of Canada generally. They’re that way all across the country,” Atkinson remarked.
“It’s probably one of the few remaining true entrepreneurial areas of opportunity that somebody can literally start on the tools and become the president or owner of their own multi-million dollar construction firm.”
Over the past five to 10 years, all levels of government have started to understand the importance of infrastructure renewal, he said.
“I really saw a complete almost great enlightenment on the part of the governments waking up to the importance of infrastructure renewal,” said Atkinson.
The industry is in for exciting times and change, he added.
“Some might argue the pace of technological change is making change come at a more exponential rate than ever before but that also offers tremendous opportunities and that’s exciting and it’s something we should be promoting more…with underrepresented groups,” he said.
Looking back on his career, Atkinson recalls a number of significant events in his tenure such as the introduction of the GST in the early ’90s and how it impacted and affected bidding and contracting practices in Canada. As the lead CCA staffer on the file, he remembers working with Revenue Canada and the internal revenue department of New Zealand which brought in GST prior to Canada.
“New Zealand’s internal revenue department and industry association worked together to develop a model for implementing a value added tax into the bidding and contracting world and the construction industry,” Atkinson said. “It was somewhat easy for the CCA and myself to import that into Canada and to convince our own federal government that this was the way to go. There was a lot of concern on how that might impact bidding and contracting practices and I think overall it was somewhat of a smooth transition.”
He also enjoyed working with the CCDC.
“I arrived there just as the committee was trying to finalize the 1982 version of CCDC 2 which was at that time somewhat novel,” said Atkinson. “It had introduced a number of new provisions and new concepts and ideas into that contract form and that form ended up being the mainstay of the industry for some period of time.”
Around the same time the CCDC insurance subcommittee, working with the Insurance Bureau of Canada and others, came out with the very first standard insurance policies directed at the construction industry.
“Prior to that the insurance policies that were used in the marketplace had to be individually customized for construction projects because there wasn’t really standard construction insurance policies,” he noted.
During the time leading up to then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s stimulus budget, Atkinson was asked by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) to be one of the representatives on a special edition of Dragons’ Den, a Canadian television program where entrepreneurs pitch business ideas to a group of potential investors.
The CCA and FCM were pushing for infrastructure renewal, while others were promoting tax cuts or increased program spending.
“We went before the Dragons and pitched our specific proposals with respect to what should be the prominent solution in the stimulus budget…and that was a lot of fun,” he stated. “We taped the show all in one day and it was pretty neat to go down to the CBC studio in Toronto and film that.”
Mary Van Buren took over as CCA president on Oct. 16. Atkinson will stay on until April 30, 2019. His main responsibilities will be the CCA 100th anniversary celebrations taking place in 2018-19 and CCA’s international interests, primarily the North American Construction Federation (NACF).
CCA will be hosting the annual NACF meetings in 2018.
Reflecting on his time as president, Atkinson says he has learned so much and offered some words of wisdom.
“I think word gets around that we’re an organization that does their homework, will be straight with you, will be professional and, above all else, will be honest in their dealings with you and fair,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s very tempting on specific hot, emotional issues of the day to go off that path.
“Unfortunately when you do that, the damage you often do to your credibility, your integrity has tremendous negative consequences for the organization in so many other ways. Sometimes you go along a path and think you’re not being recognized for being that straight and narrow, honest, professional organization and yet believe me, it bears fruit and can serve your interest in a much greater way than you can ever imagine.”