Sometimes what you can’t see is the one thing that is supporting everything. A&H Steel is proof of this because, as company principal Glenise Harvey notes, “Reinforcing steel is seldom seen by the average person. It is put in place as the skeletal structure of something that is built in concrete. After the reinforcing steel is put in place, the concrete covers it and it is never seen. A lot of people don’t know that it even exists or why it is used.”
The company itself was founded in, and built on, passion and purpose. None of its success today is by accident or luck. Hidden in its core is a story unlike any other, and it is this story that grounded and grew the company for nearly half a century. It’s time to look below the layers and see the company’s heart.
A&H Steel was founded in 1970 by brothers Andrew and Hank Kotun. From the start, things weren’t exactly smooth sailing.
Hank left A&H Steel in 1971 to start his own company, so Andrew asked draftswoman Olga Chebuk to join the company as a partner. The small firm had just a handful of employees, with Andy working in the office, yard and field, and Olga doing the drafting. They made administrative decisions together.
The duo brought a general manager on board, but he passed away unexpectedly that same year, leaving a crucial gap in the team. So, management asked 28-year old Nestor Puchalski, Olga’s nephew, to be mentored into the role of general manager. He had some reservations, but he rose to, and excelled in, the challenge.
In 1973 a steel shortage rocked the company, and clients were threatening lawsuits when steel was not available for their jobs. Andrew and Olga took this very personally. So personally, in fact, that they flew to the States to speak with their steel suppliers in person. Both had used their personal assets as collateral to buy the steel they needed to start the company, so they were not going to let this challenge take them down! The gutsy move saved the company…just in time for the recession of the 80s.
Again, the company was threatened, but the dynamic duo was far from finished. Rather than lay off their valuable staff, they kept everyone on board. There wasn’t much work to do, and the staff had agreed to a pay cut, but the strategy was successful. A&H came out of the recession with their staff, and their reputation, intact.
The company quickly became well known in Western Canada for its dependability and quality work, which lead to the opportunity to work with Shell North America on the Muskeg River Mine project in 2000. It was, at the time, the largest project for A&H to date, and their success on this job opened the doors to many more of this caliber.
Things changed again for the company in 2006, when Andy and Olga survived a serious car accident. Realizing the need for succession planning, Andy’s son, Craig Kotun, and Olga’s daughter, Glenise Harvey, were made shareholders in the company.
In 2007, Marvin Olansky stepped into the general manager role, following Nestor’s tragic passing from cancer. A long-time employee who had worked in several different position since joining A&H in 1976, Marvin helped the company secure projects with Rogers Place, the Kaye Clinic and North LRT in Edmonton; Suncor Voyageur and the Fort Hills projects in Fort McMurray; and Eighth Avenue Place and Eau Claire in Calgary.
Marvin retired in 2015 and was replaced by Rahim Adatia, an engineer with an MBA and a former leader with ATCO Electric. Rahim was the perfect fit to move the company forward with fresh ideas and different perspectives.
A year after Rahim joined, A&H Steel moved into a new three-story building, which was built on the site of where the company’s story began. The move ushered in a new era for A&H Steel.
“I have been the champion of a shift in culture in our organization,” says Glenise. “One thing I have learned is that shifting culture in an organization is not a project, it is a process that is ongoing and intentional…and challenging. A&H had a good culture; however, it was also reflective of the overall culture of the construction industry. My vision was of a culture that honoured authenticity, integrity, people being responsible for their own actions instead of blaming and shaming, and one where we were up to making a difference for each other and in the community–while having fun, too. I connected with Vik Maraj of Unstoppable Conversations to work with leadership first, and eventually with all of our employees, on making my vision a reality. I also connected with Bea Bohm-Meyer of Bohm-Meyer Group, who helped us to measure how we are leading the culture and to align our culture with strategy.”
Craig was an employee of A&H Steel before moving into ownership.
“I understand the challenges our people face every day, and I just want to jump in and take care of the situation for them, but one thing I have learned about being a good leader is to let them find a solution on their own,” he says. “The most rewarding thing is when I walk through or drive by one of the projects we had a major role in constructing. Knowing the hard work and dedication demonstrated by our employees to get that done gives me the same feeling of pride that a father may feel when one of his children has done something amazing.”
Glenise agrees, “All that we are today, and all that we have accomplished, has been because of the amazing people that have worked for us over these 47 years. We stand on the shoulders of many others who worked hard in the office, the shop and the field.”
Being the children of the company founders has had a profound effect on both of their lives, and the principals are happy to channel this effect into the goodwill of the company and community.
Glenise notes, “A&H has been a part of my life since I was a child. I saw what my mother and Andy lived in the early years: the sacrifices they had to make, the tough decisions, as well as the successes they got to celebrate and the pride they had in their people and accomplishments. Others would sometimes comment on how wonderful it must be for them to own a business, but those people didn’t seem to understand the huge risks and ever-present worry that came with the honour and privilege. Since stepping into leadership, I am constantly aware of the fact that I am responsible for the safety, well-being, security and happiness of a large number of people. Not me alone, as I have a business partner and a team of people working with me to make important decisions; however, entrepreneurship is about taking that responsibility personally, and to heart.”
“What I have learned is that the decisions I make not only affect myself and my family, but they also affect everyone in the A&H family,” adds Craig. “What A&H has taught me about leadership is: (1) Lead by example. Whether it be by living our core values every day, or by being helpful in any way I can. (2) Empower our people to be the best that they can be.
A&H supports the community with involvement in the United Way, and by donating rebar for projects by organizations such as iHuman Youth Society and Amiskwaciy Academy.
“What’s next?” muses Glenise. “I have a deep desire for A&H to be the company that everyone wants to work for, and the one everyone wants to work with.”
For Craig, the future involves, “First, growth in this existing economy. Second is to keep finding strong people to help us with that growth and to carry the torch that the great people before us have passed on.”
Andrew passed away earlier this year. Glenise and Craig express their deep gratitude to Andrew (Andy) and Olga for laying the foundation for the company’s success, and for never giving up, no matter what the economy, or life, brought their way. Andy is missed every day; the principals are thankful that the value this founder brought to the company is now an enduring legacy that will last for generations.
Glenise and Craig also wish to thank their staff, the clients, vendors and all those that have been with them on this journey that has been nearly 50 years in the making so far. Like the reinforcing steel they supply, fabricate and install, the legacy of A&H Steel isn’t readily apparent, but it is the core of the company, the silent structure that has enabled its past, current and future success.