There’s an age-old “truism” in real estate that points to the importance of location in making a decision.
For Devin Johnson, whose “born and raised in Sarnia” pedigree includes having attended Lambton College before finishing up a degree in mechanical engineering at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, coming home was at least a factor in him returning home after several years working in Calgary.
Johnson, now sole owner of MIG Engineering calls the Calgary experience a “different opportunity” that may have had as much to do with what kinds of jobs were available when he graduated from Lakehead.
But the pull of home, where his wife is also from, and the allure of being able to raise a young family (they have two children) in a community where extended family is near, took hold in 2014.
That’s the year Johnson moved back to Sarnia, which took place after conversations he had with Marty Raaymakers, now retired as MIG’s previous owner.
The move turned out to be good timing, although Johnson says it wasn’t related to what ended up being a significant downturn in the Alberta economy, related as it has occurred in the past to the volatility of oil prices.
Since landing at MIG, the decision to acquire the firm began about a one-year process that culminated in the ownership change just before the end of 2018.
Now at the helm of a firm that includes 16 employees, seven of them professional engineers, Johnson agrees that he’s in a market that’s definitely a competitive one, with various engineering firms existing locally, although to be clear, MIG is no newcomer: it will celebrate 60 years in business in 2019.
“We’re both a multidiscipline and multisector firm,” says Johnson, adding that those two areas “allows us to be involved with different clientele in industry as well as the municipal, commercial and private sectors.”
It’s a good place to be, especially in an industry known for having fluctuation with project workloads.
“Not having all your eggs in one basket is a big strength,” says Johnson, referring to a strategy that balances activity in one area against another on a year-by-year basis.
But there’s more to what Johnson sees as part of the value proposition around MIG Engineering.
“For me, it’s about the history of the company as well,” he says. “MIG was a municipal engineering and survey firm when it was originally formed and that was for the same reason: there was a fluctuation in workload at certain times over the years, so the firm became more involved with serving industrial clients.”
MIG client list would be heavily weighted toward the actual owner/operator of the facility, Johnson notes. “We don’t do as much work for the fabricators, although we might do work indirectly for the same client. What we’ll do is engineering to the final design with the fabricator then taking it over to build a specific project.”
From a business development standpoint, Johnson says he’s usually the key person involved, either work that comes in from existing clientele or complete proposals that are a result of MIG responding to bidding calls that are issued throughout the year.
Although the full scope of what MIG does in any year is varied, individual projects do stand out, one being a rail yard expansion at NOVA Chemicals Moore site, a project that included MIG working on the feasibility study and then right through to the completion of engineering and design.
While Johnson is predictably circumspect about the numbers involved, he does acknowledge that the project “was large for us.”
For the company as a whole, what’s important to note is that having a diverse list of clients is definitely a strength, although Johnson did say that rail work like that done at NOVA is something MIG has taken on regularly, although it’s not work that companies do on a yearly basis.
The company’s portfolio of projects also include various undertakings for the Federal Bridge Corporation, the Crown company that owns the Blue Water Bridge, as well as numerous area municipalities.
Examples there include road construction projects in Petrolia and various water main projects for the City of Sarnia.
“There’s certainly enough business to keep us employed in this area,” Johnson says.
As far as growth is concerned, Johnson sees opportunity but with the kind of strategic emphasis you would expect to hear from an owner.
“We want to make sure the growth is being done on a strategic basis, with the right people,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is to make sure we have a structure in place for each of the disciplines and a transition plan for our senior, intermediate and junior levels. From the learning perspective, it’s being able to grow in each of those areas and it’s difficult to know if there’s one area that’s going to be busier than the other.”
Currently, one of the larger areas would be projects that have a strong civil engineering focus, but underground work (sewers and water mains included) has a mechanical engineering component.
Johnson says his focus as an owner includes an emphasis on being transparent with every aspect of how he does business.
“I want everyone to be involved with the process and I value the input from employees on changes, whatever those might be. Allowing that information to come into the discussion means everyone has to be aware of what the plans are,” he adds.
It also includes making sure that the entire team knows and understands what the company will look like in the future.
Johnson says he sees opportunity, particularly in the industrial sector and with project work for clients that MIG hasn’t worked with, either at all or for some time.
“It’s going to be about rebuilding those relationships and getting to do work for additional clients,” he adds.
Those relationship building activities are areas Johnson will continue to be focused on doing, although he still enjoys the project work that may be at the heart of what had him take on engineering in the first place.
The fact that Johnson’s father was an industrial engineer may have been at least part of how his path included going to Lambton College, where he was able to get a better feel for what engineering would look like before finishing up at Lakehead, a school that offered one of the best formulas for credit transfer leading to his mechanical engineering degree.
Today, his approach to providing engineering services includes the same kind of thinking that he embraced in those early years—finding the most efficient ways of accomplishing a specific task and following through to completion.
“We have a preferential way of doing things,” says Johnson, referring to the way work tends to find its way to the doors of MIG Engineering. “Our clients have their preferences as well. In the end, they’re doing to get support from different areas and we do the same in our project work. By no means do we say we can do everything. But ultimately it’s about helping the client.”