When professionals and homeowners in Canada require materials for their projects, they look no further than National Concrete Accessories (NCA), the county’s largest manufacturer and most diverse distributor of concrete hardware, accessories and construction products.
Since 1968, NCA has offered the broadest, most comprehensive range of medium- to high-end products and the foremost in service and expertise. This year, celebrating its 50th anniversary, it has a rich history to be proud of and an even brighter future to anticipate.
“To have a company with this sort of longevity in this field, it’s fairly rare. A lot of construction distribution companies have come and gone, have been bought and sold and have been renamed, whereas NCA marches on,” explained President and CEO Mike Hardman.
The company’s roots date back even further, to 1958, when Acrow Canada Limited and the Richmond Screw Anchor Company Inc. came together and formed Acrow Richmond, a Toronto-based company specializing in the manufacture of quality form hardware and concrete accessories for the market. In 1985, National Concrete Accessories and Acrow Richmond merged under its current name and it became Canada’s first national concrete products distributor, supported by its manufacturing capabilities.
Today, steps are being taken to breathe new life into NCA in its maturity, as throughout the years as acquisitions were made and growth was integrated, the customer-centric focus it was known for found itself to be less of a focus for company leadership.
According to Hardman, everything was going well and NCA was solidly advancing in the right direction until it acquired Northland Construction Supplies in 2015, a five branch operation in Alberta. “They bought their biggest competitor in Alberta at the height of the market, so through no fault of their own, obviously the Alberta market collapsed because of the oil price and then they didn’t do a particularly good job of integrating the acquisition so those two things combined was like the classic sucker punch in a boxing match,” he said.
The company continued to struggle and eventually found itself headed in the wrong direction. Enter Hardman. He joined the company in August 2017, coming out of retirement from a successful career as Senior Vice President for Mergers and Acquisitions for Sika’s North American operations and other senior management positions to bring renewed growth to NCA. “They didn’t know how to pick themselves up and say, ‘how do we fix this?’ and a lot of short-term fixes were put into play that did not work – and this is not a short-term business,” noted Hardman.
“This is very much a relationship business and that relationship is: sales person to customer, inside sales person to customer, even myself directly with key members of our customers is absolutely critical, and that got forgotten.”
Hardman, who loves a challenge explained, “When I took this company over, it had a lot of potential but it was being taken in the wrong direction and I think we’ve got the direction; we’re going in the right direction now. This is a classic turnaround situation. The company had sort of stagnated for several years and the ownership wanted to get it back to growth, get it back to improving profitability, really give it some stimulation and they brought me in.”
Hardman endeavours to position NCA as the leader in the Canadian market. “Our goal is to be THE preferred supplier of concrete accessories to the Canadian construction industry. We’re already the largest but I wouldn’t say right now we’re necessarily the preferred. I want to get us to that status,” he said.
NCA’s range of product offerings include mechanical devices for formwork, such as snap ties and other mechanical accessories, construction sealants, waterproofing, rigid insulation, repair materials, hand tools and other building supplies, and much more from premium brands like Acrow-Richmond, Sika, Mapei, Makita, Dow, W.R Meadows, CTM Adhesives, Marshalltown, Bosch, Bartell, and many others. As it serves the largest contractors, like Graham, PCL, Ledcor, and Ellis Don, as well as the homeowner working on a small project around the house, anybody who is placing, working with or repairing concrete can benefit from NCA’s one-stop shop approach.
“Our goal is to be like a one-stop sort of shop for a contractor, but we obviously don’t do the big stuff; we don’t sell concrete. We don’t sell the formwork. We sell the accessories,” said Hardman.
What makes NCA unique in the market is its size. It has an expansive geographic footprint that spans from the West Coast of Canadian British Columbia to Ontario, and while it has no locations in Quebec, the market can still be reached by its network of distributors. With 18 locations currently, the company is undergoing a transformation that will see the number of locations reduced.
“We have two locations in Edmonton and we’re combining the two and moving into an overall bigger location in Edmonton and we’re doing the same in Calgary. We’re closing the two existing locations and we’re moving into an overall bigger facility in Calgary,” explained Hardman. “This year, I think we’re closing seven and opening five.”
In 2017, the seven locations in Alberta were merged under one new brand, NCA Northland, a rebranding effort that is intended to unite the Northland Construction Supplies faction and NCA. Acquisitions have been a big part of the company’s history and are likely to remain a part of its growth strategy in the future.
NCA also has two distribution centres, one in Edmonton and one where it is headquartered in Toronto. The various branches are fed from the distribution centres using a hub and spoke approach. This is also where its production facilities are located, a plant that Hardman referred to as impressive in terms of its capacity. Production is based in Toronto, located adjacent to NCA’s distribution centre. “We are the largest producer of mechanical construction accessories in Canada and we have significant resources,” he said. NCA is fully equipped to produce products like snap ties, light and heavy duty forming systems, bridge hangers, and specialized products like rock anchors for clients like Hydro Quebec and Hydro One in Ontario.
To satisfy the varying needs of the countless geographic markets it serves as it always has, NCA will, according to Hardman, “rely on the individual branch managers who have a very good knowledge of their local market and they tailor their product offering to the local demands of that market.”
Because of the deep knowledge of the behaviour of the markets it serves nationwide, Hardman and NCA are re-evaluating their operational footprint to better understand where growth potential is strong and where resources are being wasted. To be more profitable and to more efficiently and effectively serve its customers across Canada and even into the United States, Hardman and NCA are making strategic decisions to make the most of target markets nationwide.
This is the case with Prince George. The Prince George location was established to support a number of major projects that were taking place in the region that have now come to a close, making it a small market that could still be serviced from the Edmonton and Burnaby locations. A year prior to Hardman’s arrival, NCA closed a location in Regina that was operating much like Prince George: it was a small market that was established to support some large projects but when those projects came to an end, it was the third player in the market.
“We closed Regina and consolidated back into Saskatoon and here’s the surprise: our business is actually doing much better without Regina this year,” because its customers can be supported by its existing footprint without compromising service.
By the time of publication, NCA will have opened a new location in Whitby, Ontario to take advantage of the growth in the construction market taking place in the Greater Toronto Area. Already located on the west side of the city because of traffic and gridlock, the new eastern location will better serve the market and optimize the company’s resources. “The whole eastern side, I think, is poised for substantial growth for at least the next five years, so there is no way that we can service that market from the western side of Toronto,” said Hardman. “Customers are not going to make that trek across the city and also our trucks – right now they can do two deliveries a day out of here, but to go to the east side of the city, I lose a truck for a day, so we’re going to station a delivery truck out in the east as well.”
Last year, NCA opened a Langley location to augment its Burnaby operations for the same reasons that have driven it to establish a presence on the east side of Toronto: traffic, congestion and the impact on productivity this has in busy markets. As Hardman noted of the Langley branch, “I would say that it has been outrageously successful. It’s blown the doors off our expectations and we feel the same about Whitby, so we’re looking at other markets like that,” which could be London or Windsor in Western Ontario or Barrie, which would expand NCA’s reach into Northern Ontario.
A company doesn’t look at geographic expansions of this magnitude and survive for half a century without being innovative, and in the case of NCA, innovation takes place in three ways: products, vendors, and expertise. The ideal outcome for Hardman is to lead NCA to becoming a preferred supplier, a preferred vendor and a preferred employer as well. The company can achieve this by remaining focused on safety and quality in its own operations and ensuring it partners with vendors who share this commitment to quality.
“We have a rigid quality control department here for our manufacturing and obviously when we look at the vendors that we distribute, we’re looking at quality vendors,” said Hardman of the calibre of products it carries. NCA represents over 100 different product lines and Hardman and his team scour the world attending trade shows for innovative product lines, new innovations and emerging vendors that it can bring to Canada to help the national construction market remain competitive on a global scale with advancements and best practices as time and technology changes.
This is also true on the manufacturing side. “We manufacture a lot of our own mechanical concrete accessories ourselves in-house so we’re constantly looking for opportunities for new products, new innovations to drive growth in our business.”
The next move innovation-wise for NCA could be the online frontier. Acknowledging that the construction materials market is not yet an online market, Hardman would like to take it there, introducing a classic B2B (business to business) online approach for the market it serves.
“The struggle is, this is a relatively low-value, high-volume material; a bag of cement or a bag of repair material is probably $30 and weighs 25 kilos so it doesn’t lend itself to being couriered,” said Hardman. “We have to go down the accepted business model for the future which is the online approach and if we can do that, we can really become more cost-effective.”
Regardless of whether or not NCA moves online, none of this would be possible without talented professionals behind the scenes. People make all the difference and as Hardman noted, “it’s a real challenge to find people and it’s also critical to make sure you keep your key people because head hunters are constantly calling my people trying to steal them.”
Securing talent is a challenge for NCA, as it is for so many companies in the sector these days. Hardman identified the irony that he had to come out of retirement to take this job because the demand for expertise is high in the market. One of Hardman’s strengths that NCA can leverage is his ability to find and develop talent, helping them grow internally, especially into management roles, and he will certainly leverage this expertise to grow the company’s human resources base and its future.
With the changes that have taken place at NCA, there has also been a marked culture shift. For Hardman it is important that it is a place where talented individuals want to come and take part in the exciting opportunities there and grow alongside the company to ensure talent isn’t a challenge in the long term. He explained that efforts have been undertaken to make NCA “a place people want to work and where the enthusiasm is infectious within and to our customer. We want to support them. We want to help them grow.” He has a policy of promoting from within to ensure talent is not lost.
“One of my goals is to make sure that there are opportunities as the company grows for people to move up, so I look at bringing people in at lower levels and developing them,” said Hardman. “You don’t want to bring people in and block their advancement. If you provide the right environment for someone to work, people will flourish; they will enjoy coming to work and you won’t lose them,” and the customer will be satisfied when their needs are met which is the real cause for celebration as the company celebrates its milestone anniversary.
Hardman believes NCA is turning a corner and he has good reason for doing so: the business will soon be back to levels of profitability and steady above-market growth for the long term. Everything is in place and the groundwork has been laid for future growth.
NCA is returning to its full strength and as it grows it will continue to improve its efficiency and the breadth and depth of its service offerings, be it through innovations, acquisitions or new geographic target markets to better serve the needs of the customer as the biggest and the best source of high-end concrete accessories.