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Growth and Innovation Keys to Avalanche Air Systems Success

Growth and Innovation Keys to Avalanche Air Systems Success

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Belinda Swick, Rick Ball, Wade Willems and Jeff Fazekas. Photo by Riverwood Photography.

Rick Ball learned a lot about hard work and business from his father. When he graduated high school, he got a job at Buckwold Western where his dad worked, and the two also sold soil and gravel door-to-door as a side hustle for extra money. This experience instilled the entrepreneurial bug in the young man as he set out to find his way in the world. He took a four-year sheet metal apprenticeship course at a tech school in Winnipeg and started his apprenticeship at an HVAC company there and finished it in Calgary where he worked on a variety of projects.

In 2002, after five years in the business, he was eager to hang up an HVAC and sheet metal shingle and work for himself. His employer gave him a labour contract that launched Ball’s company, Avalanche Air Systems. After the contract lapsed two years later, he was on his own to find work but he was never alone. He surrounded himself with great people, made vital contacts in the industry, and slowly built his company from the ground up.
“I started out working from my kitchen table, quoting everything, doing all my own invoicing, setting up supplier accounts, and then slowly expanded, adding another person to the team and getting larger labour contract jobs,” says Rick Ball, president and founder of Avalanche Air Systems.

Ball’s wife, René, helped him build the business, doing anything from administrative duties to insulating on projects. She was Avalanche’s commissioner of oaths and safety officer and continues to support the company even as she pursues her own entrepreneurial endeavours.

“I’m grateful for the support of my wife from the very beginning, even when we were just dating through until we got married,” he says. “She helped me with everything.”

In the early days, Avalanche was run by a two-person team in the field (supplemented by René) and Ball worked 16-hour days six days a week to establish the solid reputation for quality and service required to grow in the industry. By 2006, the company was consistently awarded contracts and jobs, and it was finally time for Ball to move the Avalanche Air Systems headquarters out of his kitchen and into its first commercial space: a small office in the back of a retail store downtown.

As the company grew, Ball brought on additional staff to meet the increased demand. Avalanche soon outgrew its space, moving into an 800-square-foot office and then to a commercial bay with a shop before moving into a 6,800-square-foot office and fabrication shop. He finally realized his dream of owning a building with the current 9,500-square-foot commercial space that includes a 4,600-square-foot shop to accommodate the workload and a staff that fluctuates between 20 and 30 employees. The employees are the best in the business, and with many having been with the company for 10 to 15 years, they know the business well and work together as a team to make every project a success.

“It’s not a matter of employees asking what their job description is. The job description is we do everything. We are all expected to know the different aspects of the job so everyone can step up and fill in. We do whatever it takes to get the job done,” Ball says.

This is facilitated by the fact that many of Avalanche’s staff started at the bottom as first-year apprentices and worked hard over the years to become third- and fourth-year journeypeople, so everyone understands all aspects of the job. From Belinda Swick, whose hats include accounting, bookkeeping and administrative assistance, to Kevin Sernowsky, who has been a key member of the team for 15 years and Avalanche’s field supervisor, to estimator Jeff Fazekas and project manager Wade Willems, who keep projects running smoothly, the carefully assembled staff have been invaluable to Ball and have contributed to the company’s success.

“The whole group – we have a solid core of people who know how to get things done and are dedicated and loyal to the company,” he says.

In turn, Ball takes care of his employees. He takes the safety of his team seriously and Avalanche has become an industry leader in health and safety and environment management. With a NSCO safety officer and a fully COR-certified shop, safety is paramount. The company ensures staff is well trained to avoid accidents in the field or the shop which serves to increase productivity and create a positive work environment.

That work environment is also a creative one, with the team customizing solutions for clients that are then realized in Avalanche’s impressive full fabrication shop. The team can create most custom products inhouse without the need to utilize third-party shops or materials. This gives Avalanche better control over its schedule as well as the materials it uses for clients’ projects, and as the business has grown, the shop capacity has grown along with it.

This growth has not gone unnoticed. In its first decade in business, Avalanche Air was ranked 48th on the PROFIT 100 fastest growing companies in Canada list in 2010, ranked 49th in the top 200 most profitable businesses in 2011, and was in the top 500 for growth in 2013. In 2011 it was also a finalists for the Merit “Contractor of the Year” award, in 2012 it was among the 50 fastest growing companies in Alberta and the following year was ranked 14th on PROFIT’s list of the fastest growing companies in Calgary.

“It’s hard to believe where we came from and where we are right now,” Ball says.

Today, Avalanche is able to accommodate nearly any HVAC and sheet metal job. As an HVAC commercial contractor offering heating, ventilation, A/C installations, RTU and MUA installations, and custom sheet metal for industrial and commercial sites, Avalanche Air can provide clients with design-build products that perfectly fit a project and a budget. That can be air conditioning or make up air and exhaust for commercial projects, rooftop units or retro fits for industrial projects, or air filtration and furnace installs for commercial residential projects. Over the years, the company has earned its position as the go-to sheet metal and HVAC contractor in Calgary.

“We do anything from retail lease hold improvements, grocery stores, schools, condominium towers, restaurants and a lot of base building commercial bays,” he says. “We specialize in multi-family, industrial and commercial projects.”

Large or small, Avalanche Air’s projects span the gamut of the industry. The team recently finished a K-9 school in Mahogany as well as all 17 buildings in the new Township Shopping Centre which included more than 100 rooftop units. Avalanche is currently part of building the Silvera for Seniors centre in the southwest while also doing work at the Bonnybrook Wastewater Treatment Plant. It has the experience and knowledge to take on any major project that comes down the pike, from big box stores to retail developments to huge multi-family complexes.

“We do a bit of everything,” Ball says, and the team is always open to expanding its offerings.

The company has grown in expertise and scope to be able to do everything and anything, attracting clients from all sectors. Despite the meteoric growth that Avalanche has enjoyed, Ball and his team have maintained high service levels and personalized attention to detail to ensure their clients come back project after project. And clients have returned time and again. Ball is proud of the strong relationships he has fostered that have helped build his company while helping clients build theirs. From the beginning, he was committed to exceeding expectations and delivering exceptional customer service to ensure customers were happy. It’s a team game, and that team extends beyond the company to encompass the amazing long-time vendors, suppliers, mechanical companies and general contractors who have developed great relationships with Avalanche over the years and helped build the company.

Avalanche has also grown through the use of technology as it is always seeking to stay on the cutting edge and investing in new ways to move forward more efficiently. Ball created his own app that has helped organize the company’s projects and allowed the team to communicate with employees as well as contractors in the field in real time in order to work faster.

“I pride myself on being organized, with technology especially, using any kind of software we can for estimating, project management and accounting to get the information out there quicker and more accurately,” he says.

Avalanche Air Systems is an innovative, progressive company in an industry in which that is somewhat unexpected. Even after two decades, Ball and his team continue to look for new opportunities to grow and evolve. One area for future opportunity for Avalanche is through HVAC service and maintenance programs, whereby technical professionals will repair, retrofit and upgrade existing HVAC and refrigeration equipment to help clients maintain peak performance for their equipment. In the meantime, Avalanche Air Systems will continue to provide innovative solutions for sheet metal, HVAC and ventilation clients with a high-quality product and top-notch customer service, just as it has for the past 20 years.

19, 240059 Frontier Cres.
Rockyview, Alberta T1X-0W3

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