To make it in business, entrepreneurs need to not only have a great product but also to be ready to identify opportunities and fearlessly pursue them in order to grow their company. That’s exactly what the Whissell family has done as it has grown Whissell Contracting from a small operation into a leader in the industry over the past 50 years.
Brian L. Whissell joined his brothers’ small construction business that was installing small water lines for local farmers around Westlock, Alberta in the early 1960s. Over the next several years, the family grew the company and expanded its scope of work. Soon it was taking on small sewer and water projects across central and northern Alberta and eventually embarked on larger projects in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Northwest Territories and northern Alberta.
By the end of the 1960s, Alberta was positioned for incredible growth in the energy sector, which would open opportunities for a variety of construction professionals across the province. Opportunities in Calgary came calling and Brian answered them, moving from Edmonton to Calgary in 1970 and starting what would become Whissell Contracting Ltd.
“In 1970, as the Alberta economy was experiencing rapid growth, particularly in Edmonton and Calgary, we decided to open an office in Calgary, and that’s what started our ‘50 years of business in Calgary’,” says Brian Whissell, CEO of Whissell Contracting.
Whissell’s first project was a water and sewer contract with Carma Developers (now Brookfield Residential) for a residential subdivision in Huntington Hills. Brian’s work there quickly earned him a reputation for quality, and that reputation brought him more projects that helped him grow. Within a year, Whissell opened an office on 16 Avenue NW and by 1972, the company had outgrown the space and relocated to an office and shop on McKnight Boulevard. The company operated in civil construction in that location for 25 years and continued to expand its offerings and its service areas until it outgrew that space as well.
In 1999, Brian purchased land in Douglasglen and built a new, larger office and shop with a yard that could accommodate the company’s growing fleet of equipment. Whissell Contracting still operates out of that space today, with an impressive 20,000 square feet of shop space supported by 9,000 square feet of offices on six acres of land. The Calgary site serves as Whissell’s corporate headquarters which coordinates the operation of its branch and satellite locations in Alberta and British Columbia.
Leading the Way with Equipment
Over the past 50 years, Whissell Contracting has significantly expanded in size, markets and territory. What started out as a small operation has expanded to include around 400 employees during peak construction times and boasts about 250 pieces of yellow iron equipment and a few hundred pieces of support equipment like pick-up trucks and trailers. Whissell is forward thinking and proactive, always seeking out the best products that will help the team better serve its valued clientele.
“We’re innovative with our equipment. We’re always looking at the newest equipment coming out and asking what’s the advantage? Does it give us an advantage to get a project? How does it give our customer an advantage to get their project done?” says Jarrad Whissell, Brian’s son and president of Whissell Contracting.
Since the beginning, Whissell has been ahead of the technology curve, whether that was entering the Calgary market with a Long 5-in-1 backhoe that allowed the team to unload concrete pipe using forks, using cutoff saws years before the competition adopted the technology, introducing lasers to get the grade and alignment of the pipe set before other local contractors, or keeping the fleet current to ensure the team could tackle any job.
“I remember working at sites where people were still cutting pipe with a pipe cutter and using a hand file, and we had cutoff saws. And other people were unloading pipe by hand and we had a machine with forks that would pick it up. Everybody does it now but back then we were years ahead of the competition,” says Bill Hetherington, retired VP of operations and current consultant for Whissell Contracting.
Whissell was one of the first companies in the province to purchase a 48-wheel combination for trucking and was recently the first in Western Canada to purchase Caterpillar’s 395 Hydraulic Excavator for increased productivity, durability and performance.
“We believe that helps give us an edge on beating our competitors. It’s having the latest, most powerful pieces of equipment to do a job,” Jarrad says.
While the Whissell fleet produces optimum results on job sites, it also makes a powerful impression on the road; operators ensure their equipment is always well maintained and clean. Clients appreciate that and expect to see the bright orange Whissell trucks, immaculate with the chrome polished to a mirror shine, pulling the best equipment available. The Whissell brand is one of quality, professionalism and innovation, and that reputation for excellence has guided the company throughout its 50-year history in Alberta.
A Half-Century of Growth
The company has experienced the best and the worst that Alberta’s economy has to offer businesses, and Whissell Contracting has ridden the boom times and survived the downturns, all by adapting to the times. To prepare for the ebb and flow of business in Alberta, Whissell has diversified its offerings with new growth areas.
While the company originally focused primarily on the Calgary area, much of Whissell’s growth has been organic, often resulting from capitalizing on opportunities that arose in other markets. The 1980s were a challenging decade and times were lean, so Whissell had to be creative to remain strong. Then as the economy improved in the 1990s, Whissell was awarded a contract with the City of Calgary to supply a few machines to the landfills. By 2003, that agreement grew into a full landfill contract, which led to additional landfill contracts in Drumheller, Red Deer and more recently British Columbia — and it became a significant element of Whissell’s business portfolio.
Whissell also organically expanded into heavy and oversized hauling and transportation services. Early on, Brian knew he did not want to outsource hauling so he ensured that the company had the capacity to move its own equipment. This opened more opportunities for Whissell’s product and service lines.
“Our heavy haul transport side was an offshoot because we like to do things ourselves. We’ve always had large trailers for hauling our own equipment, and we would basically put that equipment out to hire through the years to other businesses,” says Jarrad.
While Whissell Contracting could do work across Alberta, it did so with the Calgary office as a base. Then in 2012 Whissell was awarded a project on Bridge Drive in Lethbridge and the team proved itself in southern Alberta by exceeding expectations across the board.
“It was a very complex project with a tight timeline and we were successful in delivering it ahead of schedule and under budget,” he says. “When we were in that market, we also realized that there was a lot of work going on in the Lethbridge region.”
In 2012 Whissell purchased a Lethbridge company called GW Cox Construction and rolled the company into Whissell Contracting, allowing them to set up a permanent office in Lethbridge. This acquisition also facilitated the company’s creation of an earthworks division using the resources from GW Cox and supplementing the fleet with additional new specialized equipment required to best service these projects.
Then in 2014, Whissell was called in to complete a difficult project for a client in Edmonton and after the success of that project the company established a permanent Edmonton office as well. At the same time Whissell started a B.C. Waste Management division starting with a landfill contract in Chilliwack and now operates six landfill sites in British Columbia. Alberta’s equivalent, Whissell Waste Solutions has another six landfill contracts. On top of the three offices, Whissell also has a construction operation in the Okanagan.
Whissell Contracting: Ready to Serve
While Whissell started out small, today’s company offers an impressive portfolio of services to its client base.
“We’re a general contractor for civil construction specializing in deep utility installations, earthworks, landfill construction and operation, renewable energy construction projects, environmental work and heavy haul transportation,” says Jarrad. “We’re fairly diversified.”
The company also has a rental division that rents out equipment in slower times, but the current market doesn’t allow for that area of business. In fact, the Whissell teams are finding that they are using all their equipment and in some cases have to rent equipment from others to keep pace with their own projects.
Whissell Contracting is keeping busy with clients working in everything from the energy sector to civil infrastructure to residential development, proudly serving private and government clients in an array of areas. It is growing its landfill business and construction operation in British Columbia while continuing to serve diverse clients across Western Canada.
One growth area is environmental projects, and Whissell has specialized experience in wind and solar projects for renewable energy companies. Over the years it has done a number of challenging environmentally-sensitive projects including complex river crossing projects as well as flood mitigation and river restoration work after the 2013 flood. The company’s environmental expertise comes in part from employees’ internal training, which involves a variety of topics including spill response, soil monitoring and testing, slope protection and stabilization, air quality testing, emergency response procedures and ground disturbance. Whissell takes its environmental responsibilities and stewardship seriously and ensures all staff are educated before heading into the field.
Whissell has found success in the hands of its knowledgeable staff — a diverse team comprised of experts in project management, road construction, infrastructure upgrading and rehabilitation, augering and tunnelling, landfill services, and residential and commercial subdivision servicing. Whether clients are looking for pond, container and liner installations or building excavation, lift stations or deep utility installation, cofferdam and river crossing construction or oversized loads hauling to remote areas, Whissell has professional teams available to do whatever job is required — the more challenging, the better.
Another “Whissell Job” by the Industry’s Best
Over the past 50 years, these challenging jobs have come to be known as “Whissell jobs” in the industry, and the company’s unique team is perfectly suited to deliver. The employees have diverse backgrounds and experiences, and Whissell takes pride in using those assets to produce quality results efficiently, quickly and safely.
“I think that comes from the fact that we think outside the box on a lot of these projects. With some of the older employees we have and the input we get from all our people, we come up with unique strategies that other people just don’t see. We’re really innovative,” says Allan Boswell, Whissell Contracting’s general manager for Calgary.
After 50 years of tackling the unique, challenging and often ugly jobs, Whissell has amassed an impressive reservoir of knowledge that can be tapped both to solve the expected challenges and the unknown ones that arise over the course of a project. Team members develop unique skillsets during these jobs and share them with their colleagues to build a broad, expansive internal database for future projects. And clients know that if there is a particularly challenging aspect to a job, Whissell is the first-choice contractor to bring on board.
One of the main reasons for the company’s success lies with the incredible, innovative people Whissell has attracted and retained over the long term.
“It’s a team at Whissell, collaborating to get projects tendered,” says Gus Stamm, senior project manager/estimator for Whissell. “It also has a family-oriented way of doing things.”
The family company takes care of people, whether that means going above and beyond for clients, empowering staff in their jobs or giving back to the communities in which they operate.
Whissell has built or contributed to several community playgrounds to support the kids in their communities and builds its annual Whissell Spirit Christmas Fund by selling raffle tickets to raise money for local charities. Typically, the team supports the food banks in the cities where they have offices and then also chooses another cause that is significant to a member of the staff at the time; if an employee or an employee’s family member is fighting an illness or challenge, Whissell will direct their fundraising to the charities that support those causes.
In keeping with the company’s environmental focus, the staff is involved with river clean up every year as well. Whissell pays the waste management group to join the weekend river clean up crews across the province and then provides a bin truck to haul the waste away at the end of the day. The team is invested in its staff and in the community at large and is proud to give back however they can.
The strong values the family instilled at the company are what drives the positive culture at Whissell. Fifteen years ago, the management team participated in strategic planning to identify just what was at the core of the company. The values they discovered were represented by the apt acronym S.P.I.R.I.T. — Safety, People, Integrity, Respect, Innovation and Teamwork — and those values guide all Whissell employees in their day-to-day interactions with clients, suppliers and colleagues. As a family business, the Whissells treat employees like part of their extended family and appreciate the commitment to growth and collaborative spirit that the staff has shown over the years.
“I think to be able to celebrate 50 years in business is quite amazing and it’s a credit to our employees,” says Brian. “We’re pretty thankful for our staff. They are what got us here. It’s been quite a ride and it’s really a result of hard work and having the opportunities to work with amazing customers.”
The staff appreciates the respect, growth opportunities and great work environment at Whissell so much that once employees sign on they don’t leave. Many of the company’s staff have stayed with Whissell for decades. Bill Hetherington joined the company 47 years ago and is now semi-retired, working for Whissell as a consultant; Allan Boswell celebrated 43 years with the company; Gus Stamm has been with the company for 42 years; and across the company there are superintendents with more than 15 years with the company and operators with decades of experience at Whissell. This wealth of experience and loyalty have contributed to Whissell Contracting’s success and incredible growth.
Investing in Success
Whissell has always invested greatly in its employees. It was one of the first contractors in the city to have an integrated safety program, complete with full-time safety manager, back in the mid-1980s and later to be a member of construction safety associations in the 1990s.
“We started safety when the other guys weren’t even talking about it. I think a lot of companies started after we did because the government mandated it but it was easier for us because we were involved from the get-go,” says Brian.
Every day starts out with crews addressing Whissell’s three pillars — Safety, Quality and Efficiency — as they relate to the day’s job. They assess the job hazards, talk about what work they have to do and identify the key notes for quality to ensure it is completed well, and discuss how the crew can work efficiently to meet their productions.
“All those other things have to come second because hitting your productions is easy if you don’t pay attention to quality and safety,” says Jarrad. “It’s easy to just go fast but it’s harder to do your job right when you have to work within the confines of safety and quality to give the right product, and to have everybody go home safe at the end of the day.”
They carried that dedication into 2020 when COVID-19 changed how the world did business. Whissell was deemed an essential service so was somewhat insulated from major business disruptions during lockdown, but it still had to determine how to operate in this new environment. The management team spent a great deal of time putting together COVID protocols that would adhere to government health mandates and protect staff both in the office and out in the field. Management even brought in an occupational hygienist to assist the company with compiling COVID practices that would help keep people safe.
Whissell has always been a safety leader and that leadership is apparent in the unique training program at the company. Unlike other trades disciplines, there isn’t any formal, regulated training in which a person could earn a ticket in underground construction and become a journeyman pipelayer. Being innovators, Whissell worked the problem and crafted a solution. To ensure staff was safe and effective on the job, Whissell developed an extensive in-house training program to give staff the tools needed to execute their job well and to do it safely. No one can operate equipment or get behind the wheel of a heavy haul vehicle without not only undergoing the training specific to that piece of machinery but meeting the competency standards the company sets.
“We really had to develop our own training system in-house to train our workforce. We have a training program called the Whissell Integrated Training program, and it is a competency-based training program for all of our equipment operators, foremen, pipelayers and lead hands for various tasks on our site,” says Jarrad. “That’s something that sets us apart. I don’t think there is a competitor in our direct industry that has the level of training program that we have.”
This in-house apprenticeship aims to clearly define roles and performance expectations as it provides measurable progression throughout the training program. Training is critical, as Whissell Contracting has been involved in a wide range of projects that require a varied skillset to complete.
Building the Whissell Legacy
The portfolio of Whissell projects is impressive and diverse. Over five decades of being in business they have completed more than a thousand projects. Some of their major projects showcase just how much the team of professionals has done and can do.
In the early ’70s, two contracts back-to-back for The City of Calgary were The Boulevard Sanitary Sewer Trunks Phase 3 and 4, which involved the installation of nine kilometres of 1,800 millimetre, 1,750 millimetre and 1,600 millimetre concrete pipe on the north side of the Bow River from Centre Street to Shouldice Park. These projects were extremely difficult as they were down existing streets and required a high degree of dewatering due to proximity of the river.
In 1984, the Forty Mile Coulee project was a huge undertaking that had the team supply and install a twin Hyprescon pipeline to act as an inverted syphon for the irrigation district across a coulee on St. Mary’s River Irrigation District Main Canal south of Bow Island. This involved cast-in-place inlet and outlet structures and earthworks required to realign the canal to flow through the new syphon crossing. This was one of the largest projects of the era and a feather in Whissell’s cap.
Another early “Whissell job” was the Sam Livingston Fish Hatchery in 1991. The team had to be innovative with methodology and equipment modifications in order to refresh the drainage and filter media in the lower portion of the hatchery. Whissell imported materials like oyster shells and limestone, and fabricated conveyors to remove the old filter beds and replace them. At a time when work was scarce, this complicated, labour-intensive project kept the company busy.
“We came out after two months white as a sheet and smelling like canned salmon,” says Bill. “It was outside our box, and it was a really different project for us.”
In 1991, Whissell also provided the sanitary and storm trunk mains for the new development of Patterson Heights. The sanitary connected to an existing main in the Shouldice area on the north side of the Bow River, with the storm to outfall into the river on the west side of the Shouldice Bridge. It was installed across the river with the excavator mounted on elevated tracks for additional clearance to traverse the river. The storm outfall was a cast-in-place structure to accommodate a 1,650 millimetre diameter storm pipe. From the location of the outfall, both trunk mains followed Bowdale Crescent over to Sarcee Trail, the mains crossed the north-bound lanes of Sarcee Trail into the median and were installed in the median of Sarcee Trail for approximately 900 metres. They then crossed the south-bound lanes of Sarcee Trail to service the lands that comprise Patterson Heights. The project included approximately 1,800 metres of trench ranging from four to eight metres deep and included a river crossing, tunnelling of the CPR railway tracks and auger crossings of the north-bound and south-bound lanes of Sarcee Trail while maintaining traffic.
Whissell was then part of the Rundle/16 Avenue Storm Water Duct project in 2003 that saw them supplying and installing 547 metres of a double box culvert up to nine metres deep in the median of the TransCanada Highway between 36 Street and 52 Street NE. They installed two cast-in-place maintenance manholes at the ends of the twin storage ducts to allow for cleaning with skidsteer loaders. This was a “Whissell job” as work had to be contained to the median.
“We had to leave two lanes of traffic both east and west, so we came up with an innovative approach to the project. We used a very large trench box (Big Moe) to contain the excavation and a unique installation system where the previously installed box culverts supported the crane as it continued installing boxes as the excavation proceeded along,” says Bill. “It worked very well and there were very few traffic disruptions.”
The Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant project in 2005 transferred treated effluent from the ultraviolet building into the bed of the Bow River. To achieve this, Whissell had to construct a cofferdam into the river to accommodate the installation of precast pipe with galvanized diffusers to allow the flow to be dispersed into the bed. They also installed 500 metres of precast pipe and a cast-in-place diversion structure (which included power actuated slide gates and stop log channels) and an emergency outfall structure. Whissell won an environmental award from the Alberta Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association for the innovation of “instream” work on this project.
“Pine Creek was the one that started the ball rolling [with environmental projects],” says Jarrad. “Prior river projects had little if any environmental controls required or designed into them. We built a watertight cofferdam in the Bow River. We then installed 1,800 millimetre diameter perforated concrete pipes in the riverbed and encased them with drainage rock allowing the treated effluent to slowly release upwards into the river versus a large pipe jetting directly into the river.”
In 2018, the team took on another renewable energy project in Pincher Creek at the Riverview wind farms. They worked on 27 towers and their job included excavating the tower bases, installing the roads leading to them, and land remediation at the end.
In the recent Imagine Jasper Avenue project in Edmonton, part of this project was designed to mitigate flooding between 109th and 110th Streets. The team installed an underground storm water system that could handle more than 1,800 cubic metres of water using a structure measuring 3.66 metres by 3.66 metres by 139 metres. The Whissell team changed the original round-pipe design to a larger square box pipe in order to shorten the line down and keep it within two city blocks, and this avoided a difficult utilities crossing and allowed it to be done quicker thus reducing the traffic impact and saving the client more than $120,000. Whissell also completed related work in new catch basin installations and new manholes.
“It is an example of our innovation because it was done by our Edmonton office but we brought Bill in to help organize the cage, work on the trench box system we were going to use, and we got feedback from a Calgary superintendent to collaborate on the build,” says Jarrad.
Teamwork, innovation and quality have kept Whissell Contracting busy for 50 years, and the team is looking forward to being part of more outside-the-box “Whissell jobs” in the future.
Looking to the Future
Whissell Contracting is looking forward to continuing to be an industry leader, keeping ahead of the curve on technology and innovating solutions as the world around them changes. The team is committed to growing its services, divisions, and innovating renewable energy solutions to a transitioning industry.
The company itself is transitioning too. It has an incredible staff of long-time employees who are starting to retire and the team is facing the exciting, yet scary, challenge of building the company up as these trailblazers move on. The strong leaders who have been with the company for decades are mentoring the younger employees who are still learning the ropes, imparting their experience and unique skillsets so these resources can continue to contribute to the success of the business.
“It’s fantastic to have that to set us up for another 50 years, and hopefully the employees that we’re mentoring and training today will be 40-year employees in 30 years from now. That’s what’s exciting. It’s a huge challenge but I can also see how our plans are coming together and we’re setting ourselves up to have that continued future in the construction industry in western Canada,” says Jarrad.
Whissell Contracting has been a pillar of the civil construction industry for decades and with the experience and solid reputation it has, it will continue to lead the way in innovation and quality in Alberta and beyond.
200, 2500 – 107 Avenue SE
Calgary, Alberta T2Z 3R7
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Lethbridge, AB T1H 7A4
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Leduc, AB T9E 0Z4