Setting their sights on growth

The first step is knowing what kind of business is right for a firm like Rally Engineering

Mike Thompson, left, and Paul Croft are co-managers of the Sarnia office of Rally Engineering.

It’s clear from speaking with Mike Thompson and Paul Croft that it was the structure of a business plan that they presented to the senior management team at Rally Engineering, headquartered in Edmonton, that has been formational in the success of the Sarnia office the pair co-lead.

That plan, which took shape with the opening in late 2016, remains key to Rally’s future success, say Thompson, the business development lead, and Croft, who serves as senior project manager.

In the case of Croft, he’s seen a career that included working for smaller engineering firms, then a much larger one, where he eventually worked on what he calls a “mega-project,” the type of work he now says he’ll avoid at all costs.

“It’s like pushing a boulder up hill,” says Croft. “The minute you take your foot off the gas, it rolls you over. There isn’t a lot of satisfaction involved in getting things back on track.”

Thompson, whose career has included various stints at engineering firms, mostly in the business development role he now has at Rally, reconnected with Croft at a firm they both worked for before setting their sights on what a local Rally office could bring the larger organization, which also has offices in Calgary and St. John, New Brunswick, in addition to Edmonton.

Both Thompson and Croft were assisted by a former colleague who had left the same firm they had left prior to forming Rally’s Sarnia office but again, what was key to the proposal they made was to “right size”—focusing on business that could drive value for customers on a consistent basis.

It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to call Rally’s approach a variation of the “Goldilocks” strategy—not too big or too small but just right.

“That’s exactly right,” says Croft. “As an organization, with a reach across Canada, we’ve got the horsepower to accomplish what needs to be done but we don’t have the policies and procedures that a megaproject requires. But we don’t want to do that kind of work anyway.”

From the perspective of Thompson and Croft, who say they’ve achieved their original business plan numbers, being flexible while having a team that represents the full line of engineering disciplines allows them to engage customers in a way that builds lasting relationships they expect to reap the benefits from over time.

“When our customers come to us and say ‘that’s what we wanted’ we know we’ve hit the mark,” says Croft.

And that kind of success, he adds, doesn’t happen by accident.

“In the past,” says Croft, “we’ve seen instances where the IFR [the Issued for Review part of the engineering lifecycle] has come back and the customer says it’s not what they wanted. Now with the process we have in place, there’s typically very little comment. It’s our belief that if we do our job, the customer is going to get what they wanted in the first place.”

Thompson adds that the Rally approach is one that is built with a focus on early engagement.

“It’s not only early engagement but continuous engagement for the life of the project,” he says. “We don’t throw it over the fence and hope it’s what they were looking for afterwards.”

The relationship between Thompson and Croft, the employees who call Rally Engineering their preferred place to be, and representatives from the firm’s head office in Edmonton is an ongoing one that emphasizes regular conversations around strategy and keeping up-to-date on various projects.

Skype video calls are a regular part of what makes the entire system flow smoothly.

Those connections include conversations that take place between designers and engineers in Sarnia and their counterparts in Edmonton.

In any business, understanding who your customers are (or should be) is key and for Rally Engineering in Sarnia, that’s no different.

“Our niche now is the brownfield capital projects that every plant in the area has,” says Croft. “They’re the site sustaining projects, like an upgrading of a piece of equipment.”

It’s work that both Thompson and Croft say will continue to be the bread and butter of Rally.

And for good reason.

“We’ve seen far too many companies take on projects that end up having them ramp up followed by having to slash staff when things slow down,” says Croft. “They’ll balloon up, then shrink down. Those projects don’t happen every day in the industry and we have no interest in chasing those mega projects.”

Thompson agrees.

“What we want to focus on is the long-term relationships that come from us working on site sustaining capital projects,” he says. “Every January, those numbers reset and we’ll get a proportional share of that work. While the big guys are ramping up, we’re doing what we do, giving good service. When the big project goes away, we want to be the people a plant turns to, recognizing the good work and good service we have provided in the past.”

What’s also key is just how important the people in the office are to the future success of any company, Rally Engineering included.

“It may be a trite expression, but your people are what you have,” says Croft. “When we bring someone on board it’s for the long term. We’re not a ‘hire and fire’ type of company and one reason is that we’ve seen that kind of thing happen over and over.”

Indeed, both Thompson and Croft have been on the receiving end of that kind of downsizing, which is one reason why they talk regularly, making sure that there is the kind of sustaining work, with a limit on the “crazy hours” that end up creating undue stress and overloading of staff.

Currently, Rally’s Sarnia office has a complement of 36 staff and while future growth is anticipated, the intention is to maintain a relatively flat organization, with many of the back office type of services that are able to be performed in Edmonton remaining there, although there are some basic locally based positions as well.

Today, Croft and Thompson say their early results are “bang on” with what they originally proposed to Rally’s owners.

“They’re extremely happy,” says Croft. “Mike and I are happy with the support we get out of Edmonton and things are even better than we anticipated on all sides.”

Thompson echoes what his colleague has just said, adding one key point:

“Without the support of the senior management team, there’s no way we could have gotten this big this fast.”

Still, when it comes to growth, Croft makes it clear that growing at a pace that’s sustainable will be clear.

“We knew if we were able to execute our vision, which is to provide good quality work at the right price and the right time, to predict what our customers were going to spend on engineering services, we would be in good shape.”

And one key word there is “predict,” adds Croft.

“Cost predictability is a big thing,” he says. Part of it is getting more projects done for the same money, which is something Croft and Thompson say they are focused on achieving.

“We’ll look at all the processes,” notes Thompson, “tweaking them and allowing our customers to reap the benefit. If our customer has a $10 million budget and we can do 20 projects compared with our competitors doing five projects with the same budget, we can improve their asset more efficiently and they can focus on higher targets.”

And although neither Croft or Thompson are themselves engineers, they’ve been in the business long enough to know and understand, both from the perspective of the contractor and the owner, what’s required. Both have the field experience that is helping to sustain the business over time.

“We have a vision for how we can do business better,” says Croft. “We’re constantly challenging each other and at the end of the day, we know we’re doing the right thing.”

Looking ahead, Rally will be remaining on the hunt for good people.

“We’re very focused on hiring at this point, at all levels,” says Croft. “We think it’s very important to have the full range of professionals, including senior, intermediate and juniors and we have a strong mentorship program that we want to keep going.”

At the same time, Croft and Thompson are both determined not to fall into a cycle of “hire and fire.”

“We’ve got to look ourselves in the face and know that there’s going to be work to keep people working in the long run. What we’re looking for is the young, talented people that are energetic about how projects are being run. And if we’ve got them on our radar, Mike and I can go out and look for work for them.”

This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Lambton Shield magazine.

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