Ecora was launched in 2010 as a forestry and environmental services firm thanks to the vision of four established businessmen: Kelly Sherman, Dan Bernier, Dave Myers and Shijun Ran. The quartet had previously combined their skills with another company but they each held a strong belief that a new direction was needed to attain more predominant success and so they branched out on their own. The decision proved to be a wise one as their former company eventually went out of business and Ecora is thriving. The initial four co-founders each remain engaged in daily operations and have seen their Kelowna-based enterprise expand to 130 people over the first eight years.
Ecora then joined forces with Mike Young, a civil engineer who has a deep resume of completed projects in the Okanagan region dating back to 1995. Young joined the firm as an equal partner, and it was at that time when Ecora officially expanded into the engineering space. With Young onboard, Ecora purchased Chesapeake, an engineering firm in Penticton, B.C.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Sherman, who serves as Ecora’s President & CEO who began by telling us about the company’s core operations.
“There are engineers in civil, geo-technical, structural and we just purchased a mechanical engineering testing company. We have biologists and other environmental professionals. The forestry team is very strategic. We’re not doing operations in the bush. We’re resource analysts that do a lot of forest estate modelling and geomatics, so basically processing mass data and mapping,” he says.
The company’s professional services originated in Kelowna but the firm has since branched out across Canada as well as 16 countries crossing five continents.
“Our engineering team is closer to home – they are mostly in British Columbia. Civil and structural tend to be in southern B.C. Geo-tech is all over the province and our environmental team is throughout western Canada. Our forestry team is all over the world. B.C. is incredibly strong in forestry and some of our experts are among the best in the world. We’ve been able to leverage that talent pool into the international market,” says Sherman.
On a macro level the other countries may see it as Canadian experts who can provide the best in the way of project development, but to define it more closely it’s really almost entirely B.C. forestry experts who are leading the charge.
“Many of the procedures adopted around the world started in B.C. We’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how strong our talent pool is compared to the rest of the world,” Sherman proudly says.
The professionals at Ecora offer a full spectrum of consulting services in natural resource and engineering to their diverse clients in forestry, oil and gas, municipal developments, environmental, alternative energy, and other industries. In addition to these clients, Ecora takes tremendous pride in providing services and support to meet the unique needs of various First Nations communities.
There are constant sophisticated challenges for Ecora in British Columbia because of the fact they are always managing for many different values. They are managing not only for the trees but for hydrology and old growth and traditional use.
“Our team gets really good at analyzing these complex situations. For the rest of the world it’s more about the value decisions. A lot of our work is data management,” explains Sherman.
“A company that we were with developed a data management tool called the Forest Manager and it essentially became the dominant tool in the world for all the large forest managers. We helped implement that tool. Once we have a relationship with a client we do all the other services for them as well,” he continues.
A significant focus for Ecora is its ongoing commitment to working closely with First Nations communities. Ecora’s philosophy is that facilitating and training the community and its members is the key to long-term sustainability and protection of the land and traditional information. Every project that Ecora works on considers the need to collect, maintain and use high quality data.
As of now the company is engaged with about 35 First Nations bands as the communities continue to evolve and develop business opportunities.
“One is the Ayelstexw partnership, which is a partnership between Cheam First Nation and Ecora,” says Sherman.
“We offer all our services in their traditional territory through that company. They had a landfill that had closed 50 years ago. They had settled and the landfill was all engineered. They had a proper cap but that cap had settled over the years so it became level. It’s supposed to be at about a 2% grade to allow the water to run off, and so it was quite an environmental liability for them,” says Sherman.
In response, Ecora then designed a project plan to restore the original slope. In order to do that they removed the cap off and took on accepted material. By following that strategic process, it’s likely going to generate $20-$30 million in revenue and a large chunk of that goes back to the community.
“To date, we’ve given $3 million back to Cheam. They didn’t have to spend a penny and we’re removing an environmental liability for them,” reveals Sherman.
Meanwhile at the Halfway River First Nation Ecora is engaged in an exciting project in the community pertaining to Site C including some fish-stranding projects. Sherman will have his group of experts and about 12 community members to try and best understand where the fish will get stranded when flooding happens or if water levels drop and implement the best method to mitigate those problems.
Ecora also has several important partnerships where the company will assist with development projects. Oftentimes there will be a First Nations band with valuable land, but they may not have the know-how for moving development forward, but they are otherwise keen to proceed.
“We’ll partner with them and make it happen. It’s a win-win situation,” says Sherman. “Typically, we’d give them money up front for that land to which they’d retain part ownership. We’d fund the project and then use our services to implement it and contract out the other pieces, including sales and marketing and construction. It’s a model that works very well for us.”
The experienced professionals at Ecora (biologists, foresters, engineers, cultural, etc.) understand the importance of high quality data collection and maintenance because First Nations also use that data in environmental assessment reviews, land use planning exercises, impact benefit agreements and treaty negotiation support.
Ecora has taken on the responsibility of facilitating and training many members of those 35 First Nations bands in technology services.
“The drone training is really quite cool and we were also able to add on the mapping piece. To make it even more exciting they actually did a ‘Drone Games’ where they engaged the youth and had racing drones. While they were having fun they were also learning about the rules and skills of flying drones,” says Sherman.
“Some of our First Nations clients have some of the best technology. They have data and will be out in the fields with their iPads with their drones. It’s really neat to watch and they’ll generally have better information than the government,” he continues.
Safety and the Environment
Two of the core values at Ecora are an unwavering commitment to the environment and safety.
“We have a full business in environmental services. But more than that it’s often developers and people we’ll work with will spend a lot of time providing solutions that are much better for the environment. With our company being able to influence larger projects we don’t take a preaching position but rather we look to find a solution,” say Sherman.
The leadership at Ecora stands by what it says. Sherman is a carbon expert who is ISO certified and has always addressed environmental matters with utmost importance while at the same time being a strong proponent of responsible business development that will serve to enhance the economic well-being of each of its clients.
Each of the owners at Ecora drive electric cars and the company owns four hybrids.
“We certainly do what we can,” says Sherman. “We are never looking to stand in the way of projects, but rather to have them done in the best possible way. It’s always about a balanced approach that leads to the best solutions-based outcome.”
The safety of Ecora’s staff, its sub-contractors, client’s representatives and members of the public is always top-of-mind for Sherman and his executive team and is something that is repeatedly addressed to avoid complacencies from setting in. The company is certified as a Safe Company under the BC Forest Safety Council’s Safe Certification Standard.
“We’ve had no safety injuries to date at Ecora – knock on wood. Our only WCB claim was actually a mosquito bite. All of our safety audits have all come in well over 90,” he proudly says.
Ecora strives to create a proven and respected reputation of providing outstanding client services and developing enduring relationships with clients and employees. Sherman believes the competitive edge that Ecora holds can be defined by the excellent skilled workers who always put client satisfaction first.
“Surrounding yourself with great people is the secret. We have a strong partnership group that has seen five guys stick together for 10 years. We’ve got a diversified combination of skillsets with our founders. Some come equipped with a high level of business acumen, others are skilled in technology. It’s resulted in a very strong leadership group,” says Sherman.
Ecora makes it a point to be involved in a number of community-related initiatives and charitable foundations and also gets involved with First Nations initiatives by sponsoring pow-wows, rodeos and support fundraisers. The company sponsors five different sports teams and Sherman manages to find the time to sit on two youth soccer boards. Hard work and effort led to securing an indoor bubble with two playing fields and it was Ecora that provided the engineering and geo-tech work.
“We’re taking a group of 25 people to Guatemala in January for eight days. A volcano took out five villages. We are going there to help build rebuild homes and will provide financial support. We find that the same amount of money goes much further in Third World nations so that’s where we’ve primarily focused our attention in terms of giving back,” he says.
The incredible generosity shown by Ecora in giving back to the community also helps in attracting the very best talent to work at the company. Those who are most often engaged in their careers are also quite often the same individuals who manage to donate their personal time to help those who are less fortunate. It’s about far more than just working in a 9-to-5 environment. The ability to not only work in one’s own profession but to assist others provides a better-rounded working environment and a greater sense of satisfaction is what helps to create a complete culture.
Looking to the future
Sherman says the goal for Ecora is to continue its impressive business growth by attracting highly-skilled people, but growth will never supersede the outstanding culture that has been established.
“If we can maintain this family environment where we don’t have barriers between the line of business and we’re providing solutions as a team and keep that culture and grow,” he says. “We are at 1,000 times the growth rate of other firms in our space right now. It’s about maintaining the culture and keeping the exceptional people as we grow.”