There are a few key characteristics of every successful business partnership. A common goal and vision; the prospect of mutual reward; shared values; a keen enthusiasm for the enterprise. To succeed, the partners must want to work together and must do so well, to the benefit of the whole. Great things can be achieved when dedicated minds come together.
PBA Group of Companies (PBA) and Steel River Group (SRG), both of Calgary, believe they have formed one such successful partnership, and have set out to prove it. The two organizations, from different industries, with different backgrounds, experience and expertise, have grounded their strategic partnership in a shared value of building community. Their leaders – PBA CEO Patricia Phillips and SRG founder and CEO Trent Fequet – have big plans for the alliance.
“We’re both value-based businesses,” says Fequet. “After Patricia and I met, it didn’t take long to connect the dots as far as our goals and mandates. The synergies were obvious.”
Fequet founded SRG five years ago as a privately held Indigenous-owned diversified management and construction consortium, to support Indigenous-led businesses in creating and capturing value for their people and communities. With six SRG-owned companies (Steel River Solutions, Steel River SICIM Pipeline, Steel River Energy Services, Steel River Equipment, Water Care Company and the P4 Development Group), six affiliated ecosystem companies, and numerous Indigenous partners throughout the country, SRG works with Indigenous nations and communities across Canada.
“We’ve come a long way since starting,” Fequet reflects, “but until recently we didn’t necessarily have that reputable Western Canadian-focused developer by our side. Someone who could help with industrial developments, commercial developments, resort developments. Kind of a one-stop shop.”
Enter stage right: Phillips and PBA. Founded by Phillips’ father 56 years ago, PBA is a full-spectrum real estate company that owns, develops and manages diverse industrial, office, hotel, residential and retail properties in and around Calgary. Philips has led the company as CEO for 16 years.
“Our relationship began this year, after we met through a common business associate,” Phillips recalls. Phillips and Fequet are also on the Board of Governors of Look Forward Calgary. “We quickly realized we have a lot of common values. I was very interested to learn about what Trent was doing with Indigenous communities across Canada. And we talked about the hotel developments that they’re involved with.”
Currently constructing a hotel of its own in downtown Calgary – The Dorian, with 310 rooms on 27 floors, slated to open in July 2022 – PBA’s experience was informative for SRG. “I introduced Trent to some of our partners, like the CEO of Marriott Canada, for example,” Phillips says. “And I offered some suggestions for their hotel developments. It’s our different skillsets which formed the foundation of our strategic partnership.”
Partnering with PBA fit well within SRG’s People-Public-Private-Partnership (P4) model, its development framework guiding the relationship between Indigenous Nations and local communities, private industry groups and various levels (municipal, provincial and federal) of government. As a private partner, PBA will accelerate and increase the frequency and size of major projects available to SRG-affiliated Indigenous communities.
“Patricia and PBA have the resume, the decades of experience, and relationships with the larger chains, the financial institutions,” Fequet says. “An overall level of experience and financial backing that we don’t have. We have access to the communities, and a wide breadth of execution capabilities within our ecosystem. So that’s where need versus need matched up nicely.”
Still early in the relationship, there are some very exciting projects on the horizon.
“Each project will be unique,” Phillips explains. “But our goal will always be to go in and support the needs and wants of the Nation we’re working with. From a developer’s perspective, we’ll be looking at understanding the market and how we can create success for those communities.”
“For us it’s being a quarterback and allowing access to the right people,” Fequet adds. “We need to understand the community’s goals and then package the right overall team, whether it’s more construction, financial or other capabilities focused. It will be project-by-project, what’s best for the region and our partners.”
It’s not all about economics though, as Fequet highlights the importance of culture: “We’re both very devoted to synergizing the cultural and social aspects of the communities into each project.”
The approach is one PBA, a private women-led and owned company, has employed for over half a decade. “Our mission is to connect people every day to make space for their dreams,” Phillips says. “We have deep roots in the community.”
Having worked in male-dominated industries for most of her career, Phillips is no stranger to adversity. She got her start in Geneva, Switzerland, as a policy advisor for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the World Trade Organization today), and then landed on Wall Street where she worked for Credit Suisse First Boston.
“I was one of the very first women on Wall Street to really move forward on shattering the glass ceiling,” she recalls, “and I loved that challenge. It informed my understanding of what it means to be a leader.”
She returned to Calgary after her father, who was ill, requested she join the family business. Her first development was Strathcona Square Shopping Centre, for which PBA won the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC) Maple Leaf award.
Not easily satisfied, Phillips went onto found and successfully sell three energy companies. She assumed the role of CEO of PBA in 2005 after her father passed away.
Currently under construction, The Dorian represents PBA’s new direction and development. “It’s a rare development in that we’ve brought dual Marriott flagship brands together,” she says proudly. “We were the first Autograph awarded flag by Marriott in Alberta. And we’ve married that with the Courtyard by Marriott. It presents an opportunity, from a hospitality perspective, to allow the more price sensitive traveler to stay at a similar offering as the luxury traveler.”
Another exciting PBA project currently underway is Southbow Landing, a 545-acre master-planned community in Cochrane. PBA has led the design, engineering and regulatory approval process as development manager. “It’s an opportunity to work a skill set that we’re hoping to be able to provide to SRG and its community partners,” she says.
Fequet recognizes the benefits for SRG: “For all communities – not just Indigenous – success is when everyone is pointing in the right direction. When everyone understands the culture, the region, the people, the history, where the needs and wants and focus are as we go forward together.”
Originally from a small Innu community in Quebec, much of Fequet’s career was spent in construction. Naturally, the first few SRG and alliance partner companies were in the construction industry. From civil to industrial to pipeline, construction was how SRG gained its legs.
“But then a year ago, COVID hit, and I realized we had to pivot, we had to accelerate the business again,” he explains. “I started to accelerate the diversification away from construction and towards the P4 model. I started to look at how we could expand the business into areas that support the needs and wats of our Indigenous community partners.”
SRG made some moves into the forestry, development, water care, environmental care, caribou (wildlife recovery), and harvesting of sea life for the cosmetic industries. “We’re really diversifying our portfolio,” he says. “And as we grow we will reinvest back into the P4 model and overall development projects.”
Within the short span of five years, SRG has made some significant strides. “We became the first Indigenous-owned prime contractor ever for TransCanada this past year,” he says. “It’s a major accomplishment. We’re pretty proud of that.”
With 8,000 per cent growth last year, SRG won Canadian Business Magazine’s Fastest-Growing Startup in 2020. “We’ve seen some amazing revenue growth,” he says, “and it’s allowed us to diversify a lot quicker.”
To its Indigenous partners, SRG has been a crucial support to achieving social and economic goals. For example, the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, in joining SRG as its first Indigenous partner, wanted to improve its 66 per cent unemployment rate. “We went in and helped them analyze the entire community needs,” Fequet explains. “And we purchased a minority interest in Backwoods Energy Services, of which Alexis is now a majority owner.”
Within three years of becoming involved, SRG took Backwoods from employing 20 Nation members to 250, and from $5 million in revenue to $100+ million.
“We try to work ourselves out of every partnership we enter into,” Fequet continues. “We go in and develop a five or 10 year plan. We set up cooperation agreements, USAs, focus on mutual accountability. The community’s goal is ultimately to take over the legacy assets. With Backwoods we had a six-year plan, and later this month we’ll be announcing that Alexis is going to buy back the company from SRG, to be the 100 per cent owner and operator.”
A similar partnership has been struck with Little Shuswap Lake Band which, prior to its involvement with SRG, owned and operated the Quaaout Lodge and Spa and Talking Rock Golf Course. “Within one year of our involvement they had expanded operations to include a multi-million-dollar construction company,” Fequet marvels. “Just 12 months ago the community struggled to realize additional revenue streams.” There are also plans underway to expand the hotel and the overall resorts experience at Talking Rock – something Phillips and PBA can help with.
“We’re ideally suited for Indigenous communities that are needing and or wanting to improve their governance through the lens of synergizing the cultural, social and economic goals,” he continues. “We can really help communities that are struggling with employment. I personally believe that if you take an individual and focus on getting them employed, they’ll change their own life, and their family’s life. And in turn, they’ll change the community in which they live.”
It’s a sentiment Phillips and PBA share, exemplified by their many philanthropic efforts. “We currently have multiple non-profits as tenants in our properties and are a major matching donor for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Calgary & Area,” Phillips offers. “We are proud supporters of the Terry Fox Foundation, Kids Cancer Care and the Magic of Christmas program.”
SRG focuses on youth with its charitable giving, regularly helping to set up youth councils in the communities in which it operates, supporting initiatives like Bullying Ends Here, the Coaster Association (a nonprofit from Fequet’s home region) and Stardale Women’s Group, which supports and empowers Indigenous teen girls and women.
For both Phillips and Fequet, and their respective organizations, the partnership is ripe for success, leveraging complimentary expertise, a shared enthusiasm for the future, and a mutual desire to do good. “It’s so synergistic,” Phillips delights. “We’re thrilled.”