For our April issue of CBJ, we had the pleasure of meeting David McClellan and Thom Kewen from Aqua Terre Solutions Inc., Canadian leaders in environmental consulting. Aqua Terre is a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group, and operates offices in Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, Lethbridge and Saskatoon.
McClellan and Kewen were kind enough to share with us how business has changed over the years.
Sara Kopamees: Your business has been around since 1974. How has it changed?
David McClellan: [chuckling] Well, I haven’t been here since 1974 but I have been here for 18 years, so I’d say I have a pretty good idea of the shifts we’ve experienced.
In the early ‘80s, Aqua Terre was the environmental division of a larger company doing remote sensing work, airborne geophysics, and aerial photography. The environmental division was focused primarily on radioactive waste repository studies. In the later part of the decade we started getting involved in a broader range of contaminated sites. We were originally an Ontario company but eventually saw business branch into western Canada.
SK: So the business has certainly seen a lot of change since its humble beginnings. I can imagine things were different when SNC bought the company.
DM: For sure, but everything has worked out well. We really saw more opportunities when SNC bought the company.
Thom Kewen: SNC offered us an opportunity to become part of a larger entity. At the time, we recognized that there was significant consolidation happening with environmental firms. We were looking at ways to either grow or become a partner with a larger company when SNC came along.
DM: Yes. With SNC, we were given the opportunity to be part of a large company but maintain our focus on the environment. SNC was interested in having an environmental division – which also suited our interests.
SK: How did your culture change when you joined SNC?
DM: It was important for our management team to make sure it was the right fit. When we contemplated the SNC move, we looked at the culture there first and saw that even though they’re a large firm, they operate in a small-team way. Their commitment to health and safety, and their business philosophy of “do quality work, but enjoy it”, showed that they were a good fit for us.
SK: Businesses are focusing more and more on environmental sustainability. How have your environmental services evolved?
DM: Our forte was originally just earth sciences. Now, we’ve grown to suit industries’ needs as the environment has become a larger focus. We now provide services in air monitoring and permitting, waste management and facility design, building science, and industrial hygiene. We work with clients to develop suitable health and safety measures, and all in all offer much broader services.
SK: So where is the most demand for your business?
DM:Our traditional demand has been in contaminated site assessment and remediation. However, there is a strong demand for our services in many other areas now. Air-related services, especially Certificates of Approval for new or expanding facilities, is a busy market largely because of regulatory changes in the past several years. Public awareness is partly driving it – that’s where our business started from in the first place. People have become more aware of greenhouse gasses and emissions, and that has driven our business. Risk assessment and more cost-effective ways to manage contaminated sites are also of interest.
SK: What about the economic landscape right now? Is there a certain element of being well-practiced when you are going through a recession like this, but have experienced a downturn before?
TK: We’re doing well. That is because part of our business model is to develop strong client relationships. We’ve developed strong, long-term relationships and that’s what’s got us through the ups and down of the marketplace. We invest in what our clients need and they invest in us. That’s really the success of Aqua Terre.
DM: Absolutely. Our company grew through the last recession. We managed that by offering the right services, and having the right people.
TK: The relationship with SNC has helped as well. We are supporting the existing work of SNC but also bringing them new work.
SK: Obviously, having the right people with the right skills is critical in your industry. How do you make sure you attract the right employees for Aqua Terre?
DM: Employee development is a constant activity. We’re always looking to find and develop the right people. Those people that we already have, we continue to invest in their skills.
TK: The other part of employee development is judgement, and learning how to make the right call. This takes time comes from our mentoring process. There’s a lot that our education system provides but often when new employees get on the actual job site, it can be quite an eye opener.
DM: Yes – new employees are quite often astonished by the learning they need to do, but also by the opportunities we can give them. We have certain approaches to common issues that are unique – even the way we manage and collect our data is unique.
TK: I can vouch for the fact that we have one of the best training programs around. Our training process is continual and thorough, with strong emphasis on health and safety as well as technical skills.
SK: What are some of your goals for Aqua Terre? This year, and beyond?
DM: Well I think in the short term, we want to continue to provide high-quality service for our clients, and also try to service them more fully. We want also to service a broader range of clients through our relationship with our parent company. Long term aspirations? Our goal is to be the premier environmental consulting service in the country, proving expertise to all of Canada’s blue chip companies.
For more information on Aqua Terre, visit their new website at www.aquaterre.ca.