Calgary’s story over the past 20 years includes many different things: oil-fuelled high times and employment-crushing busts; entrepreneurial risk-takers and newcomers looking to build a life; the influx and flight of capital; the pivot of entire businesses and birth of new industries; a global pandemic. There has been great success, spectacular failure and adaptation by necessity. A wild ride, not for the faint of heart.
Those businesses that lived through this time – no matter their industry – are today stronger for it. What hasn’t killed them has truly made them stronger. Whether they downsized, reorganized, pivoted or rebranded (or all of the above) to survive, they wear the badges and scars of the past 20 years stoically, better prepared to face whatever comes next.
Black Diamond Group (BDG) (named after the Alberta town) is one of these businesses. Founded in 2003 by chairman and CEO Trevor Haynes and four partners, the company started out as a modular building supplier for remote workforce lodges in Western Canada’s oil and gas industry. With 12 rental units, the small group of Calgary entrepreneurs quickly jumped on the oil boom bandwagon.
“The timing ended up being quite good with the expansion of the oilsands and all kinds of infrastructure builds around the oil and gas sector,” explains Haynes of BDG’s early days. “We built up our remote accommodation fleet fairly quickly, and the initial 10 years of BDG were very successful.”
With family roots in Alberta, Haynes is no stranger to Calgary’s cycles. His father was part of the early team that helped build ATCO, and the family moved around when he was young. He attended the University of Toronto and was about to enter law school when he was asked to help at ATCO on some projects in Algeria.
“I agreed to stay on for a short period before I went back to school, but that turned into over 10 years,” he chuckles. “And I guess the rest is history. During this time, I learned a great deal and did business all over the world.”
An entrepreneur at heart (Haynes owned landscaping and cleaning businesses in high school in Calgary), he eventually left ATCO, connected with some of the co-founders and created BDG.
While the initial focus of the business was large-format, remote work accommodations, the company also launched BOXX Modular in 2005, which rents, leases and sells temporary and permanent modular buildings for a broad range of clients and industries.
BDG went public as an income trust in 2006, then converted back into a dividend paying corporation, enjoying a 40 plus per cent compounding annual growth rate for 10 years. “We were growing very quickly,” Haynes recalls. “And at the same time, we grew our modular space solutions business – using modular buildings for purposes other than accommodations.” In 2009, the company expanded this business into the U.S. (initially in Texas), and then into Australia in 2012.
“And that took us up until the downturn in 2014/2015, which was really difficult for many in Alberta, certainly for us,” he says. “We lost about 90 per cent of our revenue stream in about 18 months.”
Like many businesses heavily reliant on Alberta’s oil and gas industry, BDG was suddenly faced with significant end market challenges. Haynes describes the intense pressure to deal with such massive upheaval, from every aspect, including staffing and financial.
“We were always solvent and didn’t have to restructure from a financial or legal perspective, but there was a lot of pressure on the business,” he notes. “We had to resize and reposition both organizationally and finically.”
“We’re extremely proud of our team through that period of time,” he continues. “There weren’t a lot of rewards for the hard work, but the team was committed to the business and each other, which was a big driving factor in getting us to where we are today in terms of being able to generate growth once again.”
Out of the experience emerged a strategic visioning process, still used to this day by the company, called Onward. It involves identifying where BDG can add value, using its collective resources, over a three- to five-year time horizon.
“And that came down to a very succinct strategic pivot that we began to execute in late 2016,” Haynes explains. “To create a very diversified business using modular buildings, but for all purposes, including supporting oil and gas.”
The intent was to generate revenues from many different end markets and geographies; it has worked. Today, BDG has three distinct businesses: Modular Space Solutions (MSS), Workforce Camps (WFS) and its newest business – LodgeLink, which leverages technology to deliver efficiency and cost control for complex workforce travel and logistics.
The MSS business involves modular buildings, rental and sales support for any purpose other than remote work accommodation. “Construction sites, offices, schools, disaster recovery, government projects of all types,” Haynes says. “It’s a big engine for us today and over the last couple of years, has been our largest business unit by revenue and contribution.”
The WFS business too has diversified into different markets, particularly in the mining industry and for U.S. government agencies involved in disaster recovery, border services and military. “We’ve spread the asset base of that business out,” he explains. “There are lots of different purposes, lots of different uses for modular buildings.”
LodgeLink is an entirely new business. It offers end-to-end crew travel management, from accommodation to transportation. The platform has approximately 697,000 rooms and more than 7,300 hotel and lodge properties listed on it, with access to properties throughout Canada and the U.S.
“We saw the inefficiencies of workforce travel, which includes lots of handshake points, different service providers, airlines, busing and accommodations,” Haynes says. “There’s a lot of wastage. And the industry was aware of it. Our questions was whether with our skillset, we could solve some of that inefficiency and therefore create value.”
BDG started the proof of concept for LodgeLink about three and a half years ago, then began to build the digital platform and write software. “We’ve been connecting businesses that move crew and accommodation and travel providers that have the capacity to support them,” Haynes explains. “And the business has been scaling really quickly. It takes us into an interesting new world where there’s an obvious connection to BDG but a very different type of product and solution.”
Like the city in which it’s headquartered, BDG has pivoted by using its core skill set and entrepreneurial spirit to find new ways to add value, using new tools and supporting industries other than oil and gas. “We’re on an interesting path right now,” Haynes reflects.
In fact in 2021, upstream oil and gas represented only about 10 per cent of the company’s revenue. Construction of all different types is currently BDG’s largest market at a little over 25 per cent, with education, government, mining and energy infrastructure rounding out the bulk.
The company’s focus – on owning the buildings and being superior asset managers – is carried out via 27 branch locations (yards and terminals) across Canada, the U.S. and Australia. “We’re very focused on the asset and providing the building solution to our customers,” Haynes explains. “Ensuring that they’re operational and meet the quality requirements. We don’t self-perform on the lodges, and we’re not a food services company. Our expertise is in managing the assets – quality, permitting, codes, those sorts of things.”
Though always changing, the net value of BDG’s current assets is somewhere in the range of $400 to $450 million. “It’s a question of whether we’re adding assets as fast as they depreciate,” he says. “Generally speaking at this point, the business is performing well and we’ve been adding to our balance sheet the last couple of years.”
Roughly 400 employees are spread out geographically among the three business units, yet a strong culture binds them together. “We focus on values,” Haynes says. “On collaboration, on recognition. We try to build the type of environment where the best people want to come to work and feel rewarded for their work.”
“For people to be most creative they have to feel confident and comfortable that their ideas will be welcomed,” he continues. “So we try to empower our people and make them feel comfortable taking risks. We need to be creative in our business.”
The company also supports its employees’ communities. Haynes describes a program where each salaried employee is encouraged to direct $500 per year to a charity or community group with which they have a personal and meaningful connection, particularly to do with family, youth and sport. “Because the biggest impact is local and through individuals,” he says. “We’re quite spread out and a lot of our employees are in smaller towns and remote areas, so it’s a great way to connect and show our support. What’s important to them is important to us.”
As a Calgary company, BDG also supports many local causes: Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (CSHF), the United Way and the Shaw Charity Classic, to name a few.
It also supports Indigenous communities near its operations, most notably through a number of partnerships with First Nations. These partnerships are located across Canada.
“We entered our first partnership [an equity-based agreement with the Fort Nelson First Nation called Black Diamond Dene LP] in 2009, and have been very successful with it,” Haynes says proudly. “We partner with the entire community, not just the economic development corporation, which requires that we be engaged with the community and for them to get to know us and our values.”
Apart from substantial financial benefits, the partnerships have produced great tangible benefits, including connections, friendships and community initiatives. For example, BDG is the presenting sponsor of the Indigenous Sports Heroes Education Experience, launched last year by CSHF, working with 16 Indigenous Hall of Famers to put together their stories in a way that conveys many things, including the benefits of sport and personal perseverance for individual potential. It has been rolled out to 7,000 K-12 teachers across the country.
With a passion for creating, Haynes remains focused on the creative side of the business, always looking for ways to build and create differently. “I also believe that good discipline and clean processes are really important to a well-run business,” he adds. “I like to get involved in all details of the business. There’s no part of it that doesn’t interest me.”
An active and engaged Calgarian – Haynes is a governor with Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, involved with the Business Council of Alberta and increasingly involved with in Calgary’s tech scene, through platforms such as Calgary Economic Development and the Opportunity Calgary Investment Fund – he thinks Calgary is one of the best business cities in the world.
“We’ve been through a difficult period and had to rethink, reposition and rebuild,” he reflects. “And now we’re starting to see the success of that. The whole concept of risk sharing in Calgary, historically, around oil and gas and agriculture has informed a willingness to work together and take risk – this makes our city one of the greatest entrepreneurial cities in the world. I think there’s a renaissance underway in Calgary and Alberta.”
And to a certain extent, a similar renaissance is happening at BDG. While it maintains the same core DNA that helped breed success from the start, the company has repositioned itself to be a lasting part of Calgary, and Alberta’s, future. Whatever the next 20 years holds, it will be ready.