Allan Lanzador is the corporate marketing manager for Houle, and he spoke to me from the company’s head office in Burnaby near Vancouver, British Columbia. He described a company growing beyond its origins into new opportunities and new markets and being recognized for excellence.
“We’ve branched off of just electrical and now are a full service provider for any type of structure where we integrate the telecommunications, which forms the backbone for other aspects of the building such as security and controls and automation for lighting, heating, air conditioning and ventilation.”
Lional Houle started Houle in 1944 when he opened shop as a small residential electrician with his father in Port Alberni. “We’ve been around for over seventy years, starting out as a residential electrician and now have grown to electrical contracting and integration services for major industrial, institutional and commercial projects, and that includes hospitals, mills, plants and ports,” explains Lanzador.
Eventually Houle opened offices in Burnaby, where its corporate headquarters are now located today. Additionally there are now several offices across British Columbia to that allow strategic mobilization and service throughout Vancouver Island, the Interior and the B.C. North region.
At the height of the Rio Tinto Kitimat Modernization project, Houle peaked to 1400 workers but on a regular basis typically employs about 1000 staff and earns approximately $260 million a year in sales.
“We have more locations across B.C. to serve the market. We’re unique in the market in our ability to mobilize our resources and our manpower across the province. When you start thinking about the emerging energy projects within B.C. alone, such as the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Houle clearly has an advantage given its infrastructure and experience.”
Further to electrical contracting and integrated systems, Houle has further grown in the last year, adding managed services and monitoring through a 24-hour Operations Centre. “This new component in Houle’s operations further increases our value offerings, particularly for the ability of our service and security divisions to meet facilities maintenance needs,” says Lanzador. “In addition, resources have also been established in our lighting division that allow us to expand into the LED market and we have also added a new Audio Visual division to further enhance our integrated system services.”
British Colombia enjoys one of the best economic growth records in the world, and Houle has grown right along with it. “The B.C. construction economy looks very promising with the various projects ahead. In the recent year and a half we’ve seen quite a boom in the commercial space because of all the store upgrades and the new shopping malls.”
The company just finished work on the Tsawwassen Mills Mall and the McArthur Glenn Designer Outlet at YVR (Vancouver International Airport) mall. Other commercial projects on the horizon include Lougheed Town Centre and Oakridge mall, with the re-construction of Brentwood Mall already underway.
“The hospital market continues to remain very strong for Houle, with our team just wrapping up at Comox Valley hospital in Courtenay and now on the verge of starting the new P3 Penticton Regional Hospital in the interior.”
All this growth could see a company lose sight of its origins, but Houle stays connected with an emphasis on family and a healthy relationship between the demands of the office and the demands of home. “The workplace culture is very family-oriented because it came from those roots. In the office, we acknowledge the need for a work-life balance. We’ve got a lot of people with young families, and especially on the executive side, we’ve got a lot people whose sons and daughters are working in the company too. We want to keep that family atmosphere.”
“The president’s door is open, and we want to keep that level of communication across the different levels of management and employees. It is a culture of respect; no one is looked down upon for his or her position, and everyone is on equal footing.”
Keeping a staff of at least 1000 requires an ever-changing matrix of education and professional development. “For special training programs, we have an extensive employee orientation that every new hire goes through. We’re also developing a sales training program that looks at how every front-line employee deals with a customer. ‘The conduit to shared success’ we call it – a strategic training project to make sure we execute our plans with our sales team. Also, we have a mentorship program where senior foremen and senior project managers work with younger employees on projects.”
Generating the leadership required to maintain the explosive growth Houle has enjoyed is a daunting task as well due to the increasingly complex projects integrating multiple fields. “Part of that too is how do we transfer the knowledge from our senior people so that it remains intact even after they’ve left? Our VPs are hitting the retirement mark, so we need to make sure that we have the people to come in at the top and in the middle to sustain our growth.”
The economy has certainly seen its share of lean times as well including the recessions of the early eighties, the dot-com implosion at the turn of the millennium and the Great Recession of 2008. During these times, many companies will cut corners and even cut profits out completely in order to survive.
“In essence you’re buying a job, as we call it. You price a job at cost so you’re not making any money on it. We don’t do that. We can be reasonable in our pricing but not to the point where both parties are not benefitting. The customer often ends up losing under those circumstances as well because if you cut back on costs, you’re going to lose something in the process. We haven’t done that even when times have been tough and that part of our business culture has been a cornerstone for our success and continued growth.”
British Columbia features some of the most spectacular natural vistas in the world, and environmental health is upmost in the consciousness of the people who live there. Houle designs controls for its lighting, heating, air conditioning and ventilation networks, monitoring and managing the energy they use. “In terms of sustainability, we help customers save money and energy with our controls division. We install the systems and measuring tools that you need to become a more sustainable building.”
In an era of accelerating change and increasing automation, Houle is well positioned to capitalize on the integration of more and more electrical and data networks into centrally controlled systems it can design, install and maintain. “So instead of just getting the contract to install the electrical system, which we want to continue to do, we also want to be the complete end-to-end facilities services and maintenance company.”
Contracted by a company called Global Roadway Maintenance and teaming with TELUS, Mobotix Corp. and Sierra Wireless, Houle helped build a camera system – Connected Snow Removal Camera Solution (CSRCS) – that would provide real-time weather information at snow removal sites. The visual information the camera collects is synthesized with weather information such as a drop in temperature, so operators can dispatch equipment with optimal efficiency.
Houle contributed the design, the algorithm, integration specialties, in-house prefabrication, nation-wide installation and on-going remote monitoring services. Realizing the original design, which was made of PVC plastic, would limit the technology’s effectiveness, Houle’s engineers switched to metal. This change in material allowed for the grounding of the antennas and limited interference as well as protecting the electronics from lightening and power surges during storms.
This project won a Vancouver Regional Construction Association Award (VRCA) for innovation and was a top-three finalist along with NextGen and Nokia for the Global Telecommunications Award, putting Houle on the global map not just as a large-scale electrical contractor but also as a major player in technology and innovation.
“We also won security integrator of the year for our work at the South Shore Corridor with Port Metro Vancouver. This was another significant leap forward for Houle in demonstrating our footprint beyond the electrical contracting world and into the technology integration industry. Traditionally we won awards for our significant electrical projects that were industry recognized. We continue to win those awards but being recognized in other aspects of our business tell us that we are making big strides forward.”
The South Shore Corridor project involved a number of port area upgrades and additions including a pedestrian overpass, rail crossing warning systems at several crossings, access control gates, an elevated roadway, road improvements and hardware and software systems upgrades.
Being on the cutting edge of a growing market is the perfect place for a company as grounded and ambitious as this. “We are more than just an electrical contractor; we’ve grown over the last seventy years into a full-service integrator, and we’ve clearly demonstrated that we can be successful in that market through the recognition we have gained.”
“Our values are safety, which is our number one priority; ethics, dealing ethically with all of our customers; quality; and integrity. We’re not always the low price, but we will always aim to deliver the highest value for our clients.”