Mike thinks parts of Alberta’s economy are often overlooked.
Holly O’Brien – In an economy where large transnational corporations seem impossible to beat and resource extraction faces numerous obstacles, it can be difficult to operate a small-to-medium-sized business in Alberta. How can these businesses survive? Can these businesses survive? What do they do when clients cutback, oil prices remain low, and administrative burdens increase? Lorne Carson, President of LAT60explore and Carson Integrated, met with Mike Sherman, the Business Development Manager of one of Canada’s largest electrical utility companies, Midlite Powerline Construction, to talk business growth, overcoming obstacles, and Alberta’s oil & gas industry.
Midlite was founded in 1989, and not only employs 150 people in and around the Wood Buffalo Region – but is also one of the area’s major electrical infrastructure contractors. How then, did founder Rocky Bucksa grow Midlite, when he was looking to enter ‘probably the most heavily regulated industry environment in the world’? When Mike himself started working at Midlite, there were 25 employees, and he admits that it was pretty hard to grow a management team – but it was all about building capability. By operating in an area solely focused on one resource, Midlite became increasingly competitive, and was able to expand into new geographic areas and industries.
Another crucial element to the growth of Bucksa’s company, says Mike, were the people he employed – being a huge local employer not only aided growth, but also helped when it came to the drop off in gas and oil prices within the last five years. Initially, the company suffered a loss of employees, dropping from 250 to 150 – however, Midlite took the opportunity to re-establish its systems and become more competitive. Mike also explained that growing their market share within the region has helped, and that clients are happy to support a company whose employees are so largely local.
What about when clients start demanding lower prices? How exactly should a smaller company react? Administrative burdens were heavier following the increase in oil prices – however, clients actually tried to help Midlite ‘do more with less,’ says Mike, since they don’t want local businesses to suffer additional damage. Many clients have strict administrative burdens themselves, and the advantage of Midlite is that it almost solely serves that kind of company, helping them to maintain their position in the Alberta region. The industry, Mike says, is ‘an administratively intense environment’, and he believes it will remain this way. This can only be a positive, ensuring that work on infrastructure is done well and taken seriously. Not just anyone can come in and set up shop – they must have ‘a proven track record and a proven ability to execute, record, and improve’, says Mike, before stepping in and starting work.
Midlite is not a huge international company, classifying itself as a medium-sized business – so, what challenges does it face in regard to Alberta’s current economy? Well, Mike believes that this economy is underestimated! The area is ‘not stagnant’, but ‘constantly moving and changing.’ He mentions how Alberta has a significant amount of existing infrastructure that must be consistently maintained and operated – providing some opportunities for businesses, while being a large part of the economy that is typically overlooked. During downturns, Mike says that the companies that did well were those that ‘got people to the job site and executed a lot of work safely’. He acknowledges that lower margins are now required, and that it’s important as ever to be cost competitive. The biggest challenge, he feels, is ‘adapting to new ways of doing business’; for example, a notable challenge is using technology to not only increase competitiveness, but to retain it as well.
Of course, another challenge that must be addressed is the presence of international companies. Is it easy for them to compete with local businesses like Midlite? These companies do ‘bring resources to the table that Midlite doesn’t necessarily have access to’, Mike explained to Lorne. However, Canadian companies have the resources, knowledge, and adaptability to compete freely, and when it comes to Alberta, Mike is quick to point out a unique advantage… ‘Alberta’s renewable energy program is an incentive to develop a lot of renewable energy resources.’ Alberta’s program happens to be the most successful across Canada, and the region produces the cheapest renewable energy in the country – proof that Alberta-based companies can be leaders of innovation and successfully implement new technologies.
Finally, what advice did Mike have to give to first-time entrepreneurs and business-owners? It’s simple and self-explanatory, but great to hear from a man who has gone from the bottom of the utility industry at sixteen-years-old to the position he is in now. ‘Start as soon as possible,’ Mike told Lorne; ‘The sooner you start, the more of a leg up you’ll have, the more experience you’ll have, and it’s never too early to start and to learn, ‘coz there’s a lot to learn!’ He advises our readers that the biggest challenges are always unique for a first-timer, but that a bold step like starting a business can be lonely. So, ‘have fortitude to push through, seek advice, and protect your confidence – be able to shake things off and try again!’
To hear more of Mike’s insights and answers, visit LAT60explore’s YouTube playlist.