The West is a land of dreamers and entrepreneurs that was built by the hardworking trailblazers who shaped Canada’s industries and communities. William McElhanney set up shop in Vancouver in 1910 and went out armed with little more than determination and a compass to survey lands for new settlements and railroads for forestry operations. Now 113 years later, McElhanney Ltd. has become the oldest employee-owned engineering and geomatics firm in Canada, with more than 30 branches across Western Canada and with offices in Newfoundland and Labrador and Florida.
In 1972, McElhanney expanded into Alberta with its acquisition of Dabbs Control Surveys. The Calgary branch hit the ground running, completing survey work for seismic programs and mineral exploration, pipeline and well surveys and navigation positioning for offshore rigs using what was cutting-edge Doppler satellite technology. Revenues soared and McElhanney grew exponentially to meet the demands of this booming industry.
After the heyday of the 1970s, the 1980s popped the oil & gas bubble. McElhanney’s dedicated team weathered the turbulence of the National Energy Program and continued to grow the business throughout the 1990s and 2000s under the leadership of Bernie McKenna and Craig Hughes.
“One of the unique aspects about McElhanney is that we are employee owned,” says Dr. Robert Radovanovic, McElhanney’s regional vice president for Prairies South and St. Johns. “We are all partners, so we push through when times are tough. When you have that mentality, you can weather the downturns because you can make decisions based on ‘how do we keep the lights on?’ And people dig in and they figure out how to make those times good.”
Through the multiple downturns and challenges Alberta has faced over the past 50 years, McElhanney has succeeded in making those good times great. The company is perched among the top in the industry, with its 1,400+ employees across the organization bringing expertise in a wide range of disciplines to deliver the best solutions to clients. As McElhanney isn’t an asset business, the true value lies in the exceptional professional services that help clients grow and succeed.
What McElhanney Does
The company is comprised of talented professionals working in everything from geomatics to landscape architecture on small-scale one-day jobs right up to multidiscipline multiyear nameplate projects. Small projects could see the team preparing a climate resiliency assessment to determine future at-risk infrastructure in Bragg Creek Trails while large-scale projects like the 600-kilometre KAPS pipeline running from Fort Saskatchewan to Grande Prairie involved around 300 McElhanney employees in the various stages of the nearly finished project.
Whether projects are large or small, the team offers any combination of geomatics, civil engineering, remote sensing, planning, landscape architecture and environmental services, and clients know they will get the best outcome from the best in the business.
“Once upon a time we were just doing one type of survey or one type of engineering but now we make it a point to promote the cross-selling of our multi-disciplinary services. We’re using all our expertise and bundling them together for clients,” says Scott Dufour, Calgary Geomatics branch manager.
Bundling makes for a more efficient and convenient experience for clients. McElhanney has become a one-stop shop and the team is proud to wear a multitude of hats on projects to get them done well.
“It’s a holistic solution for the client, start to finish, so they don’t have to go to three different firms to get the project done. We take it from inception right through to completion,” says Troy McNeill, division manager of Municipal Services at McElhanney.
There is technical specialization that occurs within the groups, but the collaborative culture of McElhanney leads to these varied services merging to produce comprehensive custom solutions. Through bundling of these diverse offerings, the 10 Alberta branches serve clients operating in three main areas: energy and resources, transportation and transit and cities, communities and parks.
Energy companies bring their wellsite and pipeline projects to McElhanney for planning and survey services as well as civil engineering and earthworks for building facilities. As the sector changes, so does McElhanney, especially in response to the push toward renewable energy and transmission lines that require new investments in infrastructure.
On the transportation and transit side, McElhanney works closely with City of Calgary, Alberta Transportation and Parks Canada on a variety of projects that cover everything from designing road widening and bridges to installing wildlife overpasses and fencing. The team helps keep people moving through the extensive transportation network of Canada’s parks and cities.
McElhanney is also committed to improving communities through strategic planning, land use and development approval, sustainability, urban design and tourism initiatives. The company is proud to partner with First Nations groups to design and install critical infrastructure and transportation links to better their communities.
“We have vast technical specialties working together, and in many of those fields we are working at the verge of new ways of doing things, of new technologies,” says Radovanovic.
Innovation and a desire to be ahead of the curve runs deep in McElhanney’s DNA, and its employees are always looking for better ways to do their jobs. As a technology leader in the industry, McElhanney regularly performs 3D modeling via scanners and remotely collects measurements and data courtesy of the largest drone fleet in Canada. The company also has specialists who can create photorealistic visualizations of a design so clients can better picture the end results. McElhanney operates at a very high technical level to provide the best solutions for clients and communities.
To keep a finger on the pulse, the company monitors market developments so it can adopt or pursue innovations early and quickly.
“The most transformational change that we’re contemplating is the movement into this data economy. People are calling it the fourth industrial revolution so that’s one thing that we’ve had our eyes on for a while,” says Radovanovic.
As an organization that collects information and generates knowledge, McElhanney is developing new ways to combine data so project delivery is more impactful. This helps the company anticipate what types of projects need to happen and formulate solutions even before clients know they need them.
People Make the Difference
The incredibly talented McElhanney team, which in Calgary includes more than 180 employees plus field personnel, works hard to develop strong relationships and exceed expectations at every turn. Having long-tenured staff paired with long-time clients leads to a comprehensive knowledge base for the client’s portfolio and the two become partners on current projects leading to future ones.
To retain staff long term requires a positive culture that puts people first, and from the beginning McElhanney has emphasized community, both within the company and outside of it. Despite its size, the company maintains a family feel that has the team looking after clients like they would their neighbours and fostering a family atmosphere among employees. People know that management cares about them professionally and personally, and the company is flexible and supportive when life events happen.
That flexibility is born from a nimble business model that encourages collaboration between all levels. Being a relatively flat organization, employees are encouraged to think outside the box and propose innovative initiatives to any of the management team.
“We’re very entrepreneurial so if there’s an idea and there seems to be a business case for it, it’s not going up the chain to the top and back down. It’s at the local level and we’ll go for it and see if we can make it work,” says Walter Johnson, executive vice president at McElhanney.
This type of thinking also allows staff to explore other areas of the business through mentorship as well as branch-to-branch staff sharing. Management urges people to pursue professional development in-house as everyone wins when employees grow their knowledge and skillsets.
“What sets us apart is our philosophy when it comes to people and progressing their careers to try to build a lifetime of service at McElhanney,” says Nathan Sikkes, Major Projects branch manager. “So often you have to move companies in order to take that next step forward but being a people-focused organization, you’re encouraged and supported to evolve here.”
McElhanney prides itself on being the kind of company that people want to work for and is proud at how many employees come on board immediately upon completion of their studies and never leave. In fact, the organization targets potential employees early in their careers, hosting high school students to teach them about the scope of McElhanney’s work, providing scholarships for students to study related streams, offering internships and co-ops and even having Dr. Radovanovic teach graduate courses on infrastructure asset management at the University of Calgary. Its efforts are being noticed: McElhanney was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Employers for 2022/2023 and has been named among Canada’s Best Managed companies each year since 2016.
McElhanney invests in its people as well as the future of the industry, all while supporting the communities in which its teams work and live. Employees volunteer with a variety of charitable causes, from helping at the Mustard Seed to designing community baseball diamonds pro bono, and the organization leads by example through McElhanney Cares – its charity committee. Its initiatives have recently included providing underprivileged children and their families free admission to TELUS Spark to grow their love of science. With support from McElhanney’s staff, clients and partners, the non-profit saw their most successful year-end fundraising, with more than $120,000 raised to ensure more than 6,000 young minds will have their imaginations sparked as they develop their future ambitions.
McElhanney’s people focus, whether that’s staff, clients or communities, is an intrinsic value that attracts and retains the best employees and clients, and is something that will continue to guide the company as it moves forward. Just as its founder did 113 years ago, today’s McElhanney will continue to build a team that will dream big, innovate to realize those dreams and lead the industry into the next 50 years.