Terri-Jane Yuzda

Meet Tom Brown, P.Eng. -— Canada's 2003 Construction Boss

Freelance Writer

As this year's chairman of the Canadian Construction Association, APEGGA member Tom Brown, P.Eng., G.S.C., finds himself at the helm of Canada's largest industry. With 20,000 affiliated firms, which combine to employ almost 900,000 Canadians while generating 12 per cent of our GNP, CCA provides a national voice for road, heavy construction and all structural contractors other than single-unit home-builders.

The senior vice-president of Ledcor Alberta Limited brings to his elected CCA post a familiarity with building, road and heavy construction gained during the three decades since graduating in civil engineering from the University of Alberta. His varied background is particularly valuable, given that CCA serves as the umbrella body for the provincial and local construction organizations representing both integrated (industrial, commercial and institutional) contractors, as well as road and civil firms.

In 1989 Tom Brown joined Ledcor in Edmonton as general manager of its building and road construction division, after rising through the ranks to become a general manager with CANA Construction Ltd., another firm with deep Alberta roots. In the late 1980s, Ledcor - whose first contract was to build the road to the historic Leduc No. 1 wellsite in 1947 - was expanding its commercial and building division.

"It was an opportunity for me," explains Mr. Brown. "Ledcor's building division was still in its early years and they were looking for someone with a mix of skills in the building and civil disciplines."

Certainly Mr. Brown filled that bill. Following graduation in 1971, he started as a surveyor on a CANA power project in Grande Cache, moving on to become a junior engineer during construction of the world's then-largest earth-fill dam, the Mica in British Columbia. Later he assumed responsibilities as an estimator and project manager on numerous CANA building, bridge and road projects in Western Canada.

When the Ledcor Group restructured in the mid-1990s, Mr. Brown, by then a company vice-president, was able to concentrate on managing road-building. This was significant, since Ledcor's heavy civil and highway division was plowing in new directions. The diversified contractor, already active on numerous fronts (including civil, pipeline, building, industrial and commercial) in Canada and the United States, was one of the successful bidders as Alberta Transportation began outsourcing routine highway maintenance, including snow removal.

Under Mr. Brown's direction, the highway maintenance division, with 30 depots and about 150 full-time employees, currently maintains 8,000 kilometres of Alberta's primary and secondary highways fanning out from Red Deer. As a traditional road-builder, the highway division also remains active in new road construction and rehabilitation ¾ yearly putting down half a million tonnes of asphalt and 600,000 to 700,000 tonnes of granular base coarse.

Ledcor's restructuring also coincided with Mr. Brown stepping up his volunteer involvement as chair of the Alberta Construction Safety Association, the Alberta Roadbuilders & Heavy Construction Association (two years starting in 1995) and the Western Canadian Roadbuilders and Heavy Construction Association. The Ledcor executive became the ARHCA representative to the CCA board.

With 75 members, Canadian Construction Association board membership provides no guarantee of attaining the top office. Other CCA leaders soon recognized his dedication and commitment, however, and one of them is Barry Brown, P.Eng., (no relation) who preceded his namesake as CCA chairman. Explains the president of Maple Leaf Construction Ltd. of Winnipeg: "Tom brings a lot to the table -- everything from a good sense of humour to dedication to the objectives of the association and the will to achieve them. He's knowledgeable about the industry and principled about what he says. That's what the association needs."

Tom Brown earned his stripes through active participation on a number of CCA committees, notably membership and finance. He chaired CCA's Road and Heavy Construction Council for two years. That strengthened his appreciation of what remains a significant CCA concern: Canada's chronic shortfall in infrastructure spending.

"We've lobbied for 20 years for the federal government to take a leadership role by starting a long-term national highways program with some scope, some vision and some money." In the CCA chairman's opinion, there are some signs that the federal government has responded in recent years to repeated calls to fund municipalities. However, he adds, federal assertions that roads are a provincial responsibility provide too easy an exit for Ottawa.

The February federal budget showed some sign that the national government is ready to move on what CCA estimates is a $50-billion-plus infrastructure deficit in Canada. However, in concert with the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada, the Coalition to Renew Canada's Infrastructure and others, CCA, through its offshoot TRIP Canada (The Road and Infrastructure Program), will press for action.

CCA is not just looking to others for work or to do the work. The national construction group recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its Gold Seal Certification program, under which some 6,000 construction project managers, superintendents and estimators across the country have upgraded their skills through a curriculum involving courses and written exams.

The added professionalism, pride and mobility that result from the certification not only make the $134-billion-a-year construction industry more efficient and safer. The program's success also serves as a beacon to attract new talent.

Various initiatives under way through CCA constituent associations alert young people in schools, colleges and universities of career opportunities in construction. "One of the industry's challenges is having a sufficient manpower pool. There is likely to be no shortages of job opportunities in construction for young people coming out of colleges and universities," Mr. Brown predicts.

Yet he admits his industry sometimes may suffer from being perceived as low-tech and having few barriers to entry. "The fact is that there are a lot of highly skilled people and a lot of rewarding, challenging careers in construction."

Tom Brown's own career and success provide a convincing example.

"We've lobbied for 20 years for the federal government to take a leadership role by starting a long-term national highways program with some scope, some vision and some money."

Tom Brown, P.Eng.


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