There’s little question that one of the largest—perhaps THE largest—engineering firms in our region is SNC-Lavalin, the Canadian-based but global powerhouse that is, notably, the lead firm behind the $2 billion expansion of NOVA Chemicals’ Corunna site.
It would be odd at the very least not to acknowledge that the firm has been in the news lately, with allegations of bribery related to activities half a world away and whether politicians here in Canada had improperly, perhaps illegally, sought to interfere ahead of any domestic legal actions against the company that may be forthcoming.
This is not, however, a story about those issues, but rather how SNC-Lavalin’s office of some 200 employees and its leadership remain positioned to bring their clients the kind of value the firm has delivered since its founding in 1911.
We sat with two of its most senior officials in Sarnia, Alastair Perry, an electrical engineer by training who joined the firm about seven years ago and who now serves as general manager of the Sarnia office, and Andrew Stoesser, a chemical engineer with 30 years’ experience at SNC Lavalin who serves as vice president of Business Development for Eastern Canada.
As certainly many others would describe SNC-Lavalin, Perry says what differentiates the firm is its full-service capabilities, providing a turnkey solution for clients and in a manner that remains flexible in the way it delivers and executes those services.
In Sarnia, the business is focused (not surprisingly) on the oil and gas business that forms the nucleus of so much of the area’s industry, but as Stoesser points out, the depth and breadth of the firm’s operations that stretch out to every aspect of engineering and in almost every area of the world count for quite a bit when firms like NOVA Chemicals look for both expertise and capability.
For the NOVA Chemicals expansion, for example, SNC-Lavalin created a consortium that includes TechnipFMC. Under an agreement announced in March 2018, TechnipFMC will have primary responsibility for the detailed engineering and procurement aspects of the work, while SNC-Lavalin will be responsible for the modular fabrication, erection, construction and pre-commissioning of the work to deliver two gas cracking furnaces.
The consortium is evidence of a long history of SNC-Lavalin collaborating with other partners, the key motivation being whatever drives the most value to the client.
Further to that, as Perry points out, the firm is in the problem-solving business.
“What’s enticing about this industry, and part of what makes recruitment to SNC-Lavalin, is the well-documented challenges that the construction industry faces and the fact that it lags behind manufacturing,” said Perry. “We’re now starting to see solutions being proposed, some involving technology, training and different people skills, and the question is how do we change the engineering that we do to get improvements in productivity. And how do we increase collaboration. The skill sets of a designer might be quite a bit different in the coming years than they are today.”
What that means is that people like Perry are finding themselves remaining focused on the technical side of the business but also putting an even stronger focus than exists today on the people side.
“It’s about change management, collaboration and innovation,” he says. “It’s about driving people to that different approach that will provide a different value to the construction side of the business.”
Naturally, any discussion around growth will include how people—engineering being very much a people business at its heart—are brought into the organization.
While Perry says SNC-Lavalin sees the coop model as being a great one and the firm has been able to leverage that to its benefit, he sees that being an introduction to the business, which is in itself, a good thing.
But what may be even better, Perry would say, is to attract someone who is graduating from university and who wants to enter the space that SNC-Lavalin occupies.
“With a coop, sometimes you only have a limited time of interacting with the individual,” notes Perry. “But when we engage with someone who has finished their studies, you’ve got a sense of continuity and you have that much more time to help them develop.”
As popular as the coop experience may be, at least a few current engineers in the firm have never been in a coop, at least in part due to SNC-Lavalin’s emphasis on hiring directly from schools in addition to its interest in the coop route.
Stoesser, a native of Sarnia who joined the firm after just a couple of years working elsewhere in Toronto and Boston, says SNC-Lavalin offers the opportunity of staying in one place (which he has for nearly three decades) or going abroad.
Both say Sarnia is somewhat uniquely positioned when it comes to the engineering community, with its close proximity to the owner base, especially compared with locations such as Montreal or Calgary.
“They don’t have the opportunity of walking out the door and seeing what they’ve designed being in the construction process,” notes Stoesser.
The NOVA Chemicals expansion aside, a sustaining part of SNC-Lavalin’s business locally is the kind of sustaining capital project work that are part of what keeps companies throughout the Chemical Valley in operation, year after year.
Locally, SNC-Lavalin’s reputation as a provider of engineering services related to the oil and gas industry continues to grow, notably through acquisitions like the one it made in 2014 for Kentz, an Irish-based firm with a global reputation.
With that acquisition, Stoesser says SNC-Lavalin, which had made another key acquisition in the form of Kilborn in 1996 (the firm Stoesser worked for) had the effect of further leveraging its presence locally.
As part of its contract to provide Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) services to NOVA, there is a heavy emphasis on building modules for the expansion, that work being done by CIMS, which bought the former Chemfab Industries facility at the end of 2016.
“Doing it this way will positively impact construction productivity by moving as many construction hours out of the site, but there has to be good collaboration between construction and engineering in order to make sure those concepts are built into the design,” adds Perry.
Here’s where the size of a firm like SNC-Lavalin starts to pay off.
“With a company this size, there’s a lot of learning that’s taking place,” says Perry. “It absolutely carries over to other jobs. Knowledge management is a hot topic and being able to share what we’ve learned on previous jobs is part of that.”
That kind of thinking, on the part of SNC-Lavalin and its various clients, goes beyond Sarnia-Lambton, one example being the longstanding relationship that exists with Imperial Oil, which is owned by ExxonMobil.
In fact, the Imperial Oil connection began the same year Kilborn was acquired by SNC-Lavalin and since then various standards, processes, and tools have been standardized across various sites. And because SNC-Lavalin has similar relationships in the U.S. and western Canada, the common language and processes are widely shared, back and forth.
Perry acknowledges that one of the reasons he was attracted to SNC-Lavalin (remember he came to the firm from Imperial Oil) was the rich history of the firm and its Canadian roots.
He was also attracted to the firm which he saw as having grown in scope as it took on work and in places where other companies might not have gone.
As SNC-Lavalin continues to grow, the argument that its size facilitates even more growth is a compelling one, with capabilities that not many companies would bring to the market.
One example of that was the famed Highway 407, the Greater Toronto Area toll road that would likely not have become a reality had SNC-Lavalin’s capital group not taken an equity position ahead of construction.
That doesn’t mean that the firm is closed to collaborating with others, although clearly the motivation would be to do as much work internally as possible.
That said, Perry says the firm would tend to focus on the obvious—what ultimately brings the best value to the project.
Looking at the NOVA expansion and the impact that project will ultimately have in the community, Perry says it’s good for business and the community.
“We want to see new NOVAs established in the community and support those initiatives. And one of the biggest things we can do toward that is to execute efficiently, which paves the way for further investment.”
This feature originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Lambton Shield magazine.