Certainly, there are bricks, mortar, concrete and structural steel involved – but the real building blocks of Hendriks Construction are a strong work ethic, honesty, integrity and a drive to give back to the community that has supported the firm.
Based in Edmonton, Canada’s sixth largest city by population, and the nation’s largest metropolitan area, Hendriks Construction is celebrating 45 years in business. The family-owned company, which specializes in design-build projects, was founded in 1975 by Dutch immigrant A. J. (Al) Hendriks and is now led by sons Perry and John.
When Perry tells the story of Hendriks Construction’s beginning, he goes back way beyond 1975 to Holland and starts with the Second World War. He tells how both his father and his mother Agnes, a nurse, grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland, “so there was no childhood for them, and they lost that portion of their lives.
“But after the defeat of the Germans and the liberation of Holland, they got wings under them and went on to enjoy their lives.”
But it wasn’t that quick and simple. The Dutch city of Nijmegen, close to the German border, where Perry’s grandfather was the train station master, had tragically been all but flattened by misdirected bombing in early 1944, which led to his father’s first construction job – rebuilding the original target, the train station.
Have work ethic, will travel
Following their wedding in 1958, Perry and John’s parents crossed the Atlantic aboard the Groote Beer (Great Bear), docking in Halifax, NS and travelling, the following day, hundreds of miles west by train to Edmonton, then a comparatively small city.
“When they arrived, they could hardly speak English. They only had a few dollars to their name, but they had an amazing work ethic, which has continued to this day,” Perry told us.
Edmonton was a fortunate choice for a man looking to find construction work as the city was on a growth trajectory. “Dad got onto a construction project right away and worked on one of the first oil refineries to be built here. When the site superintendent of the job he was working on moved on to another job, he took my father with him. Over time, my dad became the site superintendent and that man, years later, became an employee of Hendriks Construction.”
Birth of a company
Before forming the company, Hendriks worked on some big projects in Edmonton: the Golf & Country Club, St. Joseph’s Basilica, the Londonderry Mall, at the time the largest mall west of Toronto, and the Kingsley Garden Mall.
Following those experiences he founded his own company and, says Perry, “got active with the design-build style of construction and that has been our forte ever since and what makes us unique.”
Now aged 86, Al Hendriks still attends Monday morning meetings and keeps up with what’s happening. Adds Perry, “We have to mention our mother, affectionately known as our ‘VP’. She’s a true saint, quiet and unassuming but with a moral strength. She recently got her 3000 Pin for volunteer work with Meals on Wheels. “
For a number of years, all four of the Hendriks offspring worked for the company, including son Alan, who retired recently due to health issues and daughter Angie, who moved when her husband’s work took him further north. Today Perry and John run the company on clear managerial lines, as Perry explains, “with John looking after everything in the field and me looking after everything in the office.”
How it’s done
We asked them to take us step by step through a typical design-build project, from the first meeting with a client until the keys are handed over. Here’s what we learned.
“The first step,” says Perry, “is to establish the ask. What are you trying to accomplish, based on style, purpose, and project type? Generally speaking, clients have assessed and purchased land, but we can also help them find it. In fact, we currently have a client we are doing that for,” he explains.
“Once we get the ask and the land, we go through the performa — that’s an exercise on paper as to what we’re allowed to build on that site, given the zoning requirements and what the net return would be to the owner, depending on what they are building,” he says.
“If it’s a condo or an apartment building, for example, they would know what to expect, so we would establish how many units we could build on that site and establish the cost to build and calculate their rate of return – that is, the rental rates they would have to charge to make it work,” he says.
“Sometimes we have to apply for re-zoning to get an extra floor or a parkade to make the project work, and that may involve multiple meetings with the government. And we’d look at a market feasibility study to make sure the market will support those numbers. We’ll also stickhandle the financing. So, my job is to get the project to that point,” Perry says, but it can take up to two years of negotiating re-zoning and development and building permits before Perry hands the project over to John.
John takes up the narrative. “I oversee the construction from start to finish and work in every phase of the project, starting with excavation, foundation and framing, all the way through to the finishes. We do start to finish with every job,” he says. “We subcontract out the architectural work and the mechanical, structural, and civil engineering, but they work for us. Architectural firms are unique in the sense of what they can do well, so we choose the right groups for each project,” he explains.
“There are architects who are institutional architects and they want to do schools and other public buildings. There are others that are very good at housing, condos and such, and others do commercial and light industrial work and those are all different styles.”
He estimates that the company has done over 500 projects since 1975. “Our range is quite significant. We’ve done some really large projects: built two sub-power stations; the 66,000 square foot YMCA facility with an aquatic centre; 14 churches of all denominations, including St. Vitale’s in Beaumont, which won a design-build award out of all of Canada. So all styles and types of projects.”
Along the way some projects presented unexpected challenges. When renovating the notorious Edmonton Max (Edmonton Institution, a maximum security prison operated by Correction Services Canada and the scene of six major riots since it opened in 1978), John was asked by Warden Linkletter of Edmonton Max to help with what he referred to as a “significant debt problem.”
John explains, “Fights were breaking out between inmates and guys were going out in body bags, so he asked us to hire the prisoners to do as much work as they could and pay them cash, at the rate of $6.35 an hour,” he shares.
“So part of my routine, every day, was to meet with the gate keeper, who would send me to the prisoner’s union group to see who’s next in terms of needing cash, and then walk through the cell blocks and ask through the door, ‘Do you want to work for us today?’ If I got a ‘yes,” they would be released and I’d take them to where we were working, which was at the back end of the prison, where we were gutting the former kitchen and turning it into a teaching kitchen.”
Perry describes a job at the other end of the spectrum – a convent for a group of retired teaching nuns. Following a meeting with the bursar and another nun to present what he thought was the final proposal, the nuns requested a number of changes.
When he asked for them in writing, they appeared to be offended. He protested. ‘Even Moses got it in writing… but I don’t need a stone tablet. Paper will do.’
“We had a lot of fun with those nuns,” he says, recalling the boxes of sucre de crème they regularly presented to him, and which his wife only discovered when the nuns attending their daughter’s baptism asked her if she liked it. It turns out Perry had eaten it all. “I was busted!” he said.
From convents to prisons and from condos to light industrial including welding shops, it seems there’s nothing Hendriks Construction is not prepared to design and build. Among the firm’s projects are the Castledowns Electrical Substation, a synagogue renovation, a Marriott Hotel and Holiday Inns, seven shopping malls, schools, luxury apartments and townhouses, retirement residences in Winnipeg and Calgary.
Responding to need
There are also a number of projects on which the company has partnered with non-profit agencies in the downtown core of Edmonton to construct affordable housing, shelters and other services to alleviate homelessness.
From the enthusiasm in the brothers’ voices it’s easy to tell just how passionate they are about social justice and equality issues.
“We’ve built a health centre for Hope Mission that is run by volunteer doctors and nurses who look after the disenfranchised and there’s Operation Friendship where there’s a kitchen and general community space for those who are marginalized because of mental health issues,” says Perry.
“And there’s what we call the 103rd Avenue Project — living quarters for people who had been living on the street. And these allow people who were on the tipping edge of mental health issues to live independently.”
But at the same time this is the area of construction that causes them the greatest amount of frustration, as they deal with the ‘nimbys’, the residents who are saying ‘not in my backyard’.
Neighbourhoods, according to Perry, are pushing back, saying they’re saturated with shelters and affordable housing. But since services for people needing affordable accommodation are centralized, it makes no sense, he says, to construct housing units in outlying areas, because then the residents can’t access services.
Parked at the red tape
Another frustration is bureaucratic red tape. “We did Stollery Place and the zoning required paved parking areas for each unit, but the people who will live there won’t have cars, they are pushing carts. Still, we were forced to pave the lane behind that site and that took a lot of cash that could have gone into the units,” says John.
“It makes no sense. It’s a constant struggle with bureaucracy and political will to get people off the streets.”
Perry adds that when cities like Edmonton (and the other municipalities that make up the census area, including Beaumont where he’s served on the council for over 20 years) “step up to the plate and do amazing work, people hear about it and they migrate here, because there’s a better chance to get off the street here than in other parts of the country. But I don’t think homelessness and mental health issues should be a provincial or a municipal problem, it’s a Canada-wide problem and it should be looked after by the federal government. Everyone should be treated equally across the country because everyone deserves a place to live.”
But, John says, in the meantime, “we want to work on social solutions, and we enjoy that because then our work is a double win. We keep guys employed, and we make a few dollars, but the important thing is we’re helping people in need. We just renovated the Bissell Centre, a homeless drop-in centre, so we tackle all those sorts of projects and we’ve got more coming, so we just keep going ahead.”
(For more information on Edmonton’s proactive approach to ending homelessness see Homeless Count – Homeward Trust Edmonton – homewardtrust.ca)