How I did it: Darby Kreitz

To maintain company culture despite corporate sprawl, Allnorth engineers from Labrador to Tucson collaborate on projects as part of cross-pollination strategy

Business in Vancouver's "How I Did It" feature asks business leaders to explain in their own words how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant entrepreneurial challenges. In this week's issue, Darby Kreitz, CEO of Prince George-based Allnorth Consultants Ltd., discusses the challenge of maintaining corporate culture in a company that has grown from a four-person office to one with more than 570 employees from B.C. to Newfoundland and Tucson, Arizona.

"I came out of university in 1992 and moved to Prince George and started with a company called Allnorth Engineering. They were structural engineers in the pulp and paper industry. I worked with Allnorth for two years, at which point I approached the owner, Mike Tkachuk, who was close to retirement, and said I'd like to buy the business.

"We came up with a plan to start Allnorth Consultants, and we focused on bridges in the forest sector. We would use its profits to allow me to buy Allnorth Engineering. We had so much success that by mid-1996 I said I'm more interested in Allnorth Consultants than Allnorth Engineering, so I bought Allnorth Consultants.

"We had one office and one engineer. We now have 16 offices across Canada and 570 employees. As a founder, I'm not touching all the people every day, so maintaining culture has been a challenge because of the geographic separation. The way we've overcome it is to ensure that we're hiring like-minded people and having an absolutely rigorous schedule of communication. We're using technology more and more to do videoconferencing, and I do a tremendous amount of travel.

"When we started, we were just bridge people. We now operate in four sectors: pulp and paper, oil and gas, mining and infrastructure. At any given time, we have two, three or four offices working on a project. That's another way to spread culture – keeping the offices working with one another.

"Consulting engineering tends to be cyclical. It's boom and bust. By using all our staff across the offices, what we're finding is workload balancing. If you're family – we use the word 'family' – you don't lay off family members. By cross-pollinating from office to office, that helps us with regard to the workload balancing.

"Probably 75% of our growth has been organic and 25% through acquisition. Nova Scotia we did in 2007. We were quite active in Fort McMurray, and we had a lot of people from the East Coast that were loyal to us, and I felt that at some point, they're going to want to move home. I built a landing pad for them in Halifax. As a result of that office, we started working in Labrador City. That's what led to the acquisition in St. John's.

"The Tucson office was opened in March. The bulk of our revenue stream is in mining, so we have been looking for additional talent in that sector. There is a mining sector in Tucson, so we went there to attract talent. They would stay in Tucson but work on projects that the Canadian offices are working on."

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