Dave Filipchuk graduated with a civil engineering degree from the University of Alberta on a Saturday and started work with PCL the following Monday. “I thought I was going to be here for a little while and then do an MBA or Masters degree in engineering,” chuckles Filipchuk. That was 35 years ago. He never left and today he’s the president and CEO of PCL.
PCL is a group of independent construction companies with projects across Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and Australia. The company’s annual construction volume of $9 billion makes it the largest company of its kind in Canada, and one of the largest in North America; and Filipchuk, it seems, was always on a path to helm the brand.
His grandparents were farmers in eastern Alberta. As a boy Filipchuk would spend hands-on weekends in the country, being fascinated by the people, machinery and processes that made farm life work. At 13 he got his first taste of construction when he helped to build the family cabin.
“From farming and early construction, I got a real appreciation for the value of hard work and tremendous admiration for the people that do physical work. It is demanding. I treasure the experience I had learning that young in life,” he says.
The labour and hard work were values Filipchuk would embrace from the start of his career.
“I loved what I did,” he explains of why he never left PCL. “I can’t say I was a visionary that said, ‘one day I will be the CEO of the largest construction company in Canada,’ – it was one day at a time. Over the years I’ve made seven moves to different locations in Canada and the U.S. I’ve had exposure to the different parts of the country and sectors we work in. This has not felt like one job for 35 years. It feels like a new job every time. I love the variety.”
When asked to describe what PCL has come to mean to him, Filipchuk says it is, “Great people that are joined in employee ownership that work together creating amazing things every day. We create a built environment that is so tangible, [our people] can show it to their kids and reach out and touch it.”
Like Filipchuk, PCL is local, approachable, and actually pretty humble. You know, despite having a tremendous impact on communities locally and abroad.
“When people think of PCL, they think of us as a big project company,” Filipchuk smiles, “but the reality is, we do a tremendous number of smaller projects; we do projects of all sizes. Most of our projects are under a million dollars in value.” He points to examples of retrofitting a local coffee shop interior and remodelling a bank’s teller area.
PCL’s projects are diverse, and for Filipchuk, focusing on diversity for all aspects of PCL is where the strength of the company begins.
“We are geographically diverse, sectorally diverse, and have diversity in our employee base across our footprint,” he says with pride. “We never want to become complacent about our position in our market. We work hard to be market leaders wherever we operate. I’m driven to be sure our clients can expect a predicable level of service from PCL everywhere we operate. We do work for many clients on a national scale and they should expect a similar level of PCL service. That is one of the ways I will always work, to be sure we continue to serve our customers’ needs and never be complacent in this highly competitive industry.”
The customers he speaks of are not just the thousands of clients PCL enjoys working with. It also means the staff.
“Our internal customers are our employees. Among our 4,000+ team, about 3,700 are employee shareholders. I want to create an environment where they love what they do every day. For our internal client base, the process is similar to what I said about how we seek to be that leading contractor; for our people we strive to provide consistent, exemplary service. Reliability and predictability are a big part of what defines success.”
Success, for Filipchuk, also means leading the industry and being an example of what a top level construction firm can achieve, not just on projects, but for the marketplace as well. To this end PCL has been very proactive in integrating technology into building practices, as evidenced by recent partnerships with AltaML and CopperTree Analytics.
Filipchuk explains, “Mark Bryant, our CIO, is a strong leader and great at forming partnerships with Microsoft and many others. Construction has sometimes been seen as a slow-to-change industry. In reality there has been a lot of progressive change in deployment of technology and benefits like efficiency and speed to market. Our reasons to embrace tech is to get better and better at leveraging technology for safety, efficiency, and value for internal and external customers.”
After 35 years, Filipchuk remains inspired every day by the people, processes, and projects at PCL.
“Seeing new leaders grow within our organization,” he quotes as one of the things he finds the most inspiring. “We have our PCL Leadership Academy that has a suite of leadership growth opportunities. All employees in the organization, with the support of their supervisor, can enter the program and take part in broad leadership training. Seeing people grow – that is very inspiring.”
“We operate in a challenging industry. For me, personally, a key is to focus on driven and passionate employees that we want to set up for success. We have clear boundaries in which we are going to operate while always allowing for creativity that leads to our business flourishing. We are always finding ways to communicate without becoming overly restrictive.”
A good day at the office for Filipchuk is seeing the team take pride in their roles and knowing the employees can walk around Edmonton and point out projects to their children while saying, “I had a part in that.”
He has much to be proud of as the CEO of PCL, but the very humble Filipchuk sees his role as one in a line of leaders that came before him and will come after him. He is honoured to count his place among the likes of Ernest Pool, Bob Stollery, and Paul Douglas.
“Leadership is a journey. Okay, that sounds cliché, but it really is a process of lifelong learning about how to be a better and better leader. I am on that journey today. My vision around leadership is being passionate about what I do and setting that example for others. If I am effective in doing that, others will step up to replace us in those roles. We are focused on strong succession in our organization, and our leaders do a good job of that.”
“Strong leadership is necessary because construction is a very demanding career. We have many opportunities in our business and with each opportunity you are faced with a choice. In my own experience with that, every individual needs to find what works for them. We refer to this as work/life choices as opposed to work/life balance. My belief is that with our support, the people at PCL find that balance for themselves and what works for them and their family. If I can get them to where they love what they do every day, that makes it easier for them to make those choices.”
While many leaders can measure the success of their work by the awards and accolades they receive, Filipchuk takes a different path.
“When employees see us recognized for ethical business practices and employee culture, that helps them appreciate where they work,” he smiles. He won’t point to the many awards bestowed upon PCL, but instead counts the sum of the company’s recognitions as proof that PCL is doing right by its team and clients.
One of the aspects that Filipchuk greatly enjoys is the longstanding policy of giving back to the communities in which PCL operates.
“We are certainly quite public about our 50-year support of the United Way,” he says with pride. PCL has also committed $1.25 million to the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada over five years and supports, among many other initiatives, both the Canadian and American Red Cross.
PCL also has a direct connection to a very special, local non-profit organization. Edmonton born and raised Bob Stollery was president and CEO of PCL during the 1970s. Bob and his wife, Shirley, provided the founding donation for the Stollery Children’s Hospital.
It’s not easy, being the president and CEO of one of the largest construction companies in North America, but as with everything else he does in life, Filipchuk has found ways to do more than cope. He thrives under the pressure.
“The greatest clarity of thought I experience is through physical activity,” he points out. “I’ve always been active. I’ve done a lot of recreational racing – five marathons including the Boston Marathon twice. My number one sport was cross country skiing. I’ve completed international Birkebeiner marathons including ones in America and Norway. Now my physical regime is more about maintenance, but I still love to be active. Cycling is a passion, as is skiing on both snow and water.”
Filipchuk also loves to cook and looks forward to Edmonton’s (always too short) summer season when he can fire up the grill. He is kept further busy as he and his wife Delphine indulge their children, Eliza and Tess, in their latest sport – cheer.
“About three years ago they both got into cheer.” Parents with kids in dance and sports know the pride and joy of seeing their child excel in an activity that will help them succeed in life. “They are both fliers and they love it!” he smiles.
PCL has a long history that stretches back over a century, and thanks to strong succession plans and leaders, it has a great future too.
“We have a legacy as an Edmonton headquartered company,” says Filipchuk. “In 2017 PCL secured a record $10 billion in new work for the first time in our history and we can expect plenty of continued success thanks to a strong backlog across our footprint.”
“The exceptional leaders we have in the organization remain focused on growing leaders to grow the business in a responsible way. Growth is never driven by outside influences; we don’t have the pressure of hitting targets to please external shareholders. We are responsible to our employee shareholders. That is the main driver for us. Being private allows us to take the long view.”
He closes by thanking those that have helped him achieve his and PCL’s goals.
“I always had good mentors in the organization that I trusted, who had succeeded in the company before me, and every one of those moves I made within PCL brought new surroundings, experiences, and new ways of thinking. I learned a lot from that, but I know there is still a lot for me to learn. Part of that is to be willing to take a chance, trust the advice you are given, and go for it.”
He pauses to think back to his 13 year old self, swinging a hammer and learning the value of hard work on a farm surrounded by his family. Filipchuk is very grateful to his parents and grandparents for teaching him the value of hard work, and how to value the people you work with. He smiles as he looks out the window of the top floor of PCL, seeing that the view from the office and the view from the family cabin are quite similar, after all.