1948 was a quiet year in Canadian history—but a good one. With prosperity returning to the country, nation-building was underway, and businesses of all stripes were busy shaping what the future was to become. AGF was one such business.
Founded as Acier Gendron (Gendron Steel), the young family-owned company initially focused mainly on its home province of Quebec, but was soon taking on projects in Newfoundland. In 1999, the business merged with competitor Fertek to become Acier Gendron Fertek (AGF), significantly expanding the number of its business units.
Today, the AGF Group is one of the world’s leaders in rebar, post-tensioning and concrete accessories. Its turnover has doubled every five years.
Growing over the decades mainly through acquisitions, AGF comprises 27 business units worldwide in locations in Canada, Latin America, India, France, and other nations. For the past 20 years, AGF has done one acquisition or has opened one new division per year!
While some of AGF’s growth is organic, such as its Calgary start-up, the company prefers to expand alongside other trustworthy business entities. “If they fit with our values, it’s going to be easier to do an acquisition than start from scratch,” says Maxime Gendron, AGF Group’s Chief Operating Officer.
“We can double up the value of acquisition with the proper help and purchasing power that we have,” says Maxime. “So we work more as a group. Once we do an acquisition, we give our new teammates all the tools they need to grow, and keep growing.”
As the preferred rebar supplier to many of the biggest construction firms, AGF is involved in projects ranging from multi-residential buildings to bridges, hospitals, tunnels, rail, and other massive institutional or civil works. These include the light rail Confederation Line in Ottawa, the new automated Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) light rail line in Montréal, as well as the Sky Concord building, the Coxwell Bypass Tunnel, and the Finch West LRT in Toronto, just to name a few.
“Being part of such great constructions that reshape our cities is a real source of pride for our employees!” says Catherine Gendron, Chief Culture Officer.
A typical condo of 25 to 30 stories requires about 2,000 metric tons of rebar and may take just a year to build, while projects like Highway 30 out of Montréal—with 30 overpasses, tunnels, and bridges—require a four-year commitment and 44,000 MT of rebar.
Expanding into other markets, AGF is also responsible for supplying rebar for the bulk of Calgary’s wind farm projects. In the past four years, AGF has built over 400 wind turbine bases of about 60 MT of rebar each in Canada and abroad. As part of its ESG (environment, social, governance) program, AGF really wants to position itself as a leader in “green” projects. In the past, the company completed a few generating facilities like Muskrat Falls, La Romaine, and Churchill Falls, and thus has a strong expertise to deal with the complexity and the deadlines of those major projects. The emphasis the federal government has recently put on the future construction of new hydroelectric power stations is clearly something that AGF is watching for in the coming years.
AGF can count on the synergy between all its divisions across Canada, totalling a monthly rebar production capacity of 35,700 MT.
“When we have a project that will last for three years—and with all the volatility of the supply chain, interest rates, and shortage of labour—there are some huge risks in our industry,” says Maxime. “But I’m proud to say that AGF is solid enough to counter all these risks and give our clients everything they need. We’ve been there for 75 years, servicing our clients and allowing them to achieve excellent results on the rebar side. We faced all those challenges in the past and have always been successful. Our long-term vision is about the sustainability of the business; short-term, our vision is to be leaders in Canada, both to our clients and our employees,” says Maxime.
For AGF, 2023 is a landmark year, as the company celebrates its 75th anniversary. It is, says Catherine, a time both to reflect on past achievements and evaluate the company’s direction and succession planning.
As Chief Culture Officer—as well as General Manager of the AGF Group Foundation—Catherine knows the history of the company founded by her grandfather intimately, and also knows the importance of future-proofing the business.
AGF was not initially intended to be a family business, she says. Thirty years after it was created, her father, Serge Gendron, was asked to join, a transaction that took all of 15 minutes. At AGF Group today, things are very different. About six years ago, a Family Council was put in place, an idea Serge started working on long ago. “With a 2,500-employee business, you think about transition years ahead,” says Catherine, and Maxime agrees.
“In a transition, the full company is involved. Obviously, governance in our company is important, with executive committee meetings and major project committee meetings. We have our in-house experts on the topic, always work on the structure of the business to be sustainable, and have a great focus on team players,” he explains.
Celebrating 75 years in construction, especially for a family-owned business, is an enviable milestone. With about 40,000 projects under its belt, AGF has built a strong technical knowledge of rebar and post-tensioning through its engineers, project managers, operators in the shops, and foremen on worksites.
AGF is proud of its legacy, one that started with one man and a pickup truck all those years ago. To mark this milestone, the company is planning special celebrations starting in May. Divisions in Canada and internationally will organize parties for employees as well as business partners.
For years, AGF has believed in giving back to the community and fostering a culture of philanthropy among its employees. As General Manager of the AGF Group Foundation, Catherine says the company is going to use its 75th anniversary to make a major donation. “We want to recognize all the people who are part of our success and thank the community that gives us work and is also part of this success,” she says.
“What’s very particular about our Foundation is that it’s our employees and our business partners who choose where we want to have an impact in the community,” says Catherine, “so we sponsor the request of our employees. No matter how much we donate, the amount of money is not as important as the sense of purpose it gives to our AGF team members, and we strongly encourage our employees to organize fundraising activities.”
Since 2012, the AGF Group Foundation has been part of about 650 fundraising activities, with the numbers growing each week. “We’ve been able to help over 250 different charities, and that’s how—one activity at a time—we’re at the impressive amount of $3.7 million given back to the community.”
Operating in the construction sector, AGF recognizes the importance of safety and physical health, but what about the stress of meeting tight deadlines?
The company began asking managers and employees if they felt they were equipped with the right tools to ensure their mental health. The timing of the initiative was auspicious, since it came in 2019, shortly before the pandemic. “Mental health is also health,” says Catherine, adding that AGF has an employee and family assistance program that covers physical and mental health, and reimburses a part of physical activity expenses. “Employees perform well if they have all the tools, including mental health, in good shape.”
Other efforts nurturing physical and mental health include a gym at the head office open to all employees, and partnering with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in a program to ensure signs of mental illness are recognized. An important part of this program is to combat the stigma around mental health in the workplace. For AGF, adopting such an approach is simply the right thing to do.
“There’s a lot more integrity in family business because it’s not just making deals, it’s the family itself that’s showing up,” says Maxime Gendron. “We embody our values and they are the root of AGF; I think people feel it. We are entrepreneurs, and we push our employees to show their entrepreneurial skills as well. It’s all based on respect, and it’s all about people. We have been reinforcing the future since 1948 and we’ll keep on doing it as a strong team for many more years.”