An Unconventional Approach

CGI Constructors
Written by Allison Dempsey

Transforming the communities in which we live means transforming how we interact – and that’s exactly what CGI Constructors encourages in a diverse set of engineers and builders committed to meeting the needs of their clients.

“We don’t focus on projects, we focus on clients,” says Eric Zvaniga, Vice President. “Our goal is to work with clients and consultants who we admire and who have a similar approach.”

Dedicated to fighting climate change while working to help change the world we live in, CGI Constructors boasts widespread experience in a variety of building applications using energy-performance practices that support and enhance sustainability and environmental responsibility. But no matter the structures the company tackles, its clients remain at the forefront of importance.

“We’re not out there chasing projects; we’re out there working with and monitoring the needs of our clients, and then pursuing work,” explains Zvaniga. “That’s where we’re different. We’re not a big animal like some other companies. We’ve stepped away from that and gone to a smaller format so we can be more focused on client service.”

Through a vast array of projects in different sectors, including healthcare, higher education, community centres, retail and government, CGI never loses focus on the people involved and how they’re impacted, how they work, live and play, not only at present but for future generations as well.

Teamwork talks
“Once we win a job, the team sits down and goes over not just the technical side of the project, or the schedule, or the budget – we talk about why we did take this one. We talk about the client and the trades. We make sure everyone has a clear understanding about how those needs can be met,” says Zvaniga.

The team also meets with clients to get an understanding of what their individual needs are, and how these differ from their organizational needs. “We try to get an understanding so we can integrate it into our overall plan. It’s important that both consultant and client can get what they want.”

Transparency and collaboration abound throughout the entire process, with everyone from the top down involved for the duration of the delivery process. Senior workers, including Zvaniga, review the site weekly, with complete team meetings every month. The team, says Zvaniga, is always “our project team, our senior managers (including myself), the owners, the suppliers, the consultants, and the trades, all involved together,” he explains.

“We go through everything, such as relationships, the schedule, the budget, and are there more changes than expected? We go through every detail and find those little moments that are either causing us mass success, or are holding us up.”

Dividends of diversity
He emphasizes that the company doesn’t ever “send someone out there on their own to swim or die.” Instead, it’s very much an integrated, collaborative team effort right from the beginning and all the way through to the end, with a collective motivation.

Zvaniga also remarks that, with the teams being composed of 70 percent engineers and nearly 50 percent women, the company reaches a level of diversity that sets it apart from others in the market. And every step of the process is based on maintaining strong relationships between client, contractor and consultant, ensuring that they understand the priorities, and giving them opportunity to voice their needs.

“This isn’t about one person running away with all the burgers,” says Zvaniga, conjuring up the Hamburglar character from McDonalds.

“Everyone gets a burger. Basically everyone gets what they want – the client, consultants, trades, everyone. It’s important to understand what everyone’s burger looks like so we can support that as we move through the job. The focus is always the client and what their need is, but everyone has needs throughout.”

Communication – the CGI signature
It’s also important to understand the trade side, Zvaniga says, and where they have pressures from other projects and so forth that can be offset as they move through the job.

If there are any problems slowing their process, communication is key. As the company nears the end of any job, Zvaniga himself goes to the site to take a critical look at the project through the eyes of an architect or inspector, challenging the team to focus on the different issues necessary to close out the job on time.

Recent job highlights have included work done at Union Station in Toronto, at York University, and at McMaster University in Hamilton. Although all present very different concerns and challenges, the team has successfully navigated them working together as a team all the way through.

Successfully tackling sustainable projects such as these is a hallmark of the company. Whether construction management or design-build, CGI finds solutions and agreements and integrates them into the process.

“The way waste handling is done, the way the site itself is protected and the neighbourhood protected from construction, the sorting and recycling – those are all very normal practices that we do at every level and on every size project.”

Upside-down approach
Moving past conventional construction approaches has been the CGI modus operandi for some time now. The traditional approach of pursuing projects in order to achieve revenue targets, and structuring business like a monolith, with the boss on top and everyone else down below, isn’t the CGI way.

“We do things very differently on purpose,” says Zvaniga. “We’ve had experience with that type of environment and it caused us to step away, because it doesn’t work very well. We wanted to try something else. We grow the business as our people grow, and that can cause us to pass on some really good opportunities sometimes, but our attitude is that our people and our reputation are the most valuable assets we have.”

Allowing their people to flourish has created great loyalty inside CGI and great success, with less than four percent turnover within the company, down from more than seventy percent when Zvaniga first arrived.

“If an employee is ready to take on a project, then we will look at that. If they’re not prepared for it yet, we don’t push. Our people come first. We do weekly check-ins with people, not annual performance evaluations. That way our people can identify what it is they like about themselves and they’re able to move to a goal they’ve set.”

Zvaniga asks employees during orientation what they want to do and achieve within the company, allowing them to establish their own strengths and goals instead of being told what to do and when.

“When I say to them, ‘what do you want to do?’ they have to pause and think. Do they want to be a project manager? Do they want to build interiors or do large buildings? What are they interested in? They think about it, and come back and say, this is where my interest lies. They have to do the work, but we help them get there.”

The personal touch
With this unusual strategy, some employees flourish and develop quickly and are ready to move up the ladder, while others are a little slower and that’s fine, he says.

“They’re individuals and you allow them to be individuals. When the projects move toward us and we see them in the market, we know this person is ready to do a project like that and they’re suited to it.”

CGI is also open with its strategy and business plan, kicking each year off by going through and sharing all financial and practical details with all team members. If anyone has a question about anything Zvaniga’s door is always open, he says, encouraging people to come in and talk to him whenever.

“We avoid unnecessary management,” he says. “We get everyone to take responsibility for their actions, roles and duties. If you go too far, if you’re silly with it, I’ll talk to you, and we’ll sort it out. But I don’t need to set a policy for everyone because you made a mistake. You learn from it and you move on. It’s not a big deal.”

Path to growth
Being encouraged to be yourself and to grow personally is a less than traditional management technique but its practice at CGI has been highly successful – maybe because it isn’t a ‘technique’, but an all-pervading attitude.

“We try to encourage people to be themselves, and to be a better version of themselves,” he says. “We’re much less reactionary and authoritarian with our people, and that creates a more collaborative approach and team throughout. This trickles down to everyone, including contractors and construction, and they are extremely appreciative and see a big difference.”

As CGI moves forward, it is determined to continue striving consciously for a better understanding of the industry as whole, along with tackling topical conversations and engaging in dialogue about racism in society, gender equity conversations, and best practices.

The company is also deeply committed to securing good work with good clients, consistently improving its work, and bringing people on board and supporting them, while helping them grow and achieve their goals.

“In the next few years I’d like to see our talented 20- and 30-somethings take on more aggressive and challenging projects that they’re proud of,” says Zvaniga. “I’ve already done all that. I can drive around and tell my kids, I did that, I built that. I want that for my employees, too.”



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