Calgary Herald with Evelyn Ackah 9 October 2019
Hank Van Weelden will never forget December 2014. That was the month business at his modular building company stopped dead. “It fell off the face of the earth overnight,” said the co-founder and chief executive of Alta-Fab Structures Ltd. in Nisku, Alta., a hamlet south of Edmonton. “We had a full production lineup to Christmas and an 18-month backlog. Then it was literally nothing.”
Before then, Alta-Fab was at the top of its game in supplying modular housing for oilpatch workers, with five plants throughout North America and 850 employees. After oil prices and the provincial economy collapsed, the company was down to 22 employees and one site.
Many others in the same industrial park that were counting on the oil boom closed their doors, but Van Weelden was fortunate enough to have some reserves to start rebuilding.
Alta-Fab began sourcing small projects and building up a rental fleet, hoping that side of its business would grow. Then a chance encounter at a bike race event with Ryan Pomeroy, who had just purchased Kananaskis Mountain Lodge, sparked some new ideas.
Pomeroy was intent on building a state-of-the-art Nordic spa in the Rockies just west of Calgary; Van Weelden was an avid spa enthusiast.
“I gave him some ideas, and he said, ‘Why don’t you do it and I will be your partner,’” Van Weelden recalled. “I realized I had found a great opportunity to use the skill sets and facilities we had.”
Since then, Alta-Fab has explored other ways to apply its expertise, including additional spa projects and converting its units for use at special events, such as trailers at festivals.
The climate for small and mid-sized businesses in Alberta continues to be challenging, said Sandip Lalli, chief executive of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s been difficult raising capital and to scale companies, as well as meet new customers — all key touch points for small businesses especially,” she said.
But Lalli said there are other success stories out there.
“We forget that there are also good stories of businesses that have adjusted their business models,” she said. “Many have been looking at the full landscape and determining where they can add value rather than chasing a specific industry.”
One of them is About Staffing in Calgary. Things had been going swimmingly for the recruiter Sharlene Massie founded in 1996. So much so, she added a light industrial division in 2012, just before the massive flooding that occurred in June 2013 and then the recession.
“After that, the problems were non-stop,” she said. “Business dropped by more than half almost overnight because 65 per cent of our business was oil and gas related.”
Massie had to cut the number of her employees to five from 25, but has since been able to increase it to 10.
“Thank goodness we had started the light industrial group. It now accounts for one-third of our business and oil and gas is only about 10 per cent,” she said. “We are fighting for every penny and every placement and watching every line item. We have had to roll back wages and benefits. But we still have some energy left. The fight isn’t over yet.”
For immigration lawyer Evelyn Ackah, founder and managing lawyer of Ackah Business Immigration Law, the reckoning started in 2016.
“We went from our best year to our worst year in 2017,” she said. “We were down almost 40 per cent.”
Rebuilding her company meant working to increasing her presence beyond Calgary. Ackah started by setting up two virtual offices in Toronto and Vancouver, then investing in a marketing consultant to build her online presence.
“I knew I couldn’t just rely on good work and referrals,” she said. “We put a lot of focus on how to distinguish ourselves and building relationships we never had before.”
One advantage was Ackah’s expertise in U.S. immigration law, a skill that ultimately increased her business.
“A lot of engineers lost their jobs and found work in the U.S. There weren’t many lawyers that did U.S. immigration so that really helped us,” she said. “It looks like 2019 will be our best year ever.”
One positive change that has come out of such entrepreneurial struggles has been a noticeable push toward collaboration, said Jeff Chase, the City of Edmonton’s director of local and emerging economy.
“Everyone is doing a lot to support each other,” he said.
Chase points to examples such as The Public, a new hub where small entrepreneurs in the food industry can rent commercial kitchen space.
Van Weelden has also witnessed a shift in how small businesses are working together to navigate the downturn.
“Our competitors are now collective partners,” he said. “We’re happy to share leads.”
As a veteran who has gone through multiple recessions, Van Weelden is happy to share his experience with others.
“While many newer companies may have folded, those of us who have been in business longer know you have to plan psychologically and financially and be open-minded,” he said. “It’s really about looking at your core competency, breaking it down, and finding new applications for what you’re good at.”
Evelyn Ackah is the founder and managing lawyer of Ackah Business Immigration Law/Crossing Borders Seamlessly.