Building a Safer and Better Society

AGF Group

AGF Group Inc. produces 530 400 tonnes of rebar annually and has provided rebar services for over 35 000 projects in the fields of civil engineering, commercial, industrial, residential, and institutional construction.
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When reinforced steel bars, known as rebar, and post-tensioning systems are installed in concrete structures, they are invisible, and no one admires them. However, rebar is truly the unsung hero of the concrete construction industry, deserving of recognition, because it is what keeps bridges and buildings from collapsing.

“We have no glamour in rebar because it’s hidden in the concrete, but we’re happy to live with that,” says Maxime Gendron, President of AGF Rebar Inc., Markham, Ontario. “It’s the high quality and technical aspect of its installation that sustains the bridge or the building, and that is why integrity is one of our core values.”

From its corporate headquarters in Longueuil, Quebec, it employs close to 2,700 people worldwide. It maintains offices and facilities in six Canadian provinces, including the divisions in Ontario and Alberta, led by Maxime, which employ four hundred people. It also has divisions in six U.S. states; in eight countries in Central and South America and the West Indies; and in five countries in the Middle East and Europe.

AGF offers significant advantages to clients. It maintains a substantial inventory ensuring projects will not be delayed, and because work is not subcontracted, company experts can suggest innovative solutions aimed at lowering costs without sacrificing quality.

Perhaps most significant of all is the code of ethics of the owners that influences how the company does business. “My father, (Serge Gendron, AGF Group CEO) would say being an owner is not about making money; it’s about being a good citizen. The company is a tool, and you need to make it as socially strong as you can,” says Maxime.

Integrity has been at the core of the company since its founding, seventy-one years ago by his grandfather, Laurent Gendron, who upon graduating as an engineer from Polytechnique de Montréal, recognized the potential for rebar specialization.

“In those days, consulting engineers were procuring the rebar themselves, leaving the general contractors installing it,” Maxime explained, “and he could see a conflict of interest. A lot of waste was generated. Even engineers were not clear as to who should do what, because it wasn’t a specialized trade, so this is what my grandfather decided to do.”

Maxime notes his grandfather was ahead of his time in terms of material choice, because rebar and concrete are fully recyclable, greatly decreasing the carbon footprint of any construction project. That was not a concern then, but it certainly is one now.

With a loan from his former professor, which he quickly repaid, Laurent founded Acier Gendron Ltd. in 1948, just in time to take advantage of some large-scale projects happening in Quebec. “The company also had good years with Expo ’67 and the Olympics (Summer Olympics of 1976), but then we had a slump in the 1980s, and we were producing rebar only for Montreal and the suburbs,” Maxime continues.

In 1981 Laurent’s son, Serge, also an engineering graduate of Polytechnique de Montréal, assumed the presidency and began looking for ways to grow the company.

Nine years later, a huge project requiring 105 000 tonnes of steel to build the Hibernia Oil Platform in Newfoundland and Labrador presented just the opportunity. The Hibernia Project “is the largest-ever gravity-based structure for an offshore oil platform in the world,” according to the company, “and can resist the impact of icebergs that are common in the spring in this area.”

“Hibernia,” says Maxime, “was a milestone for us.” When the four-year project was completed in 1996, he recalls his father saying that the company was “‘as good as any of them’, and this is when he started thinking, ‘if we’re as good as them, we will grow and build,’ and so we started doing acquisitions.”

In 1999, the company became AGF Steel Inc. when it merged with Fertek Inc. and then grew internationally through acquisitions and constructing new plants, which, in 2007, led to the creation of the AGF Group, with Serge as Chief Executive Officer.

Being the son of the Chief Executive Officer and a professional engineer who had graduated from Sherbrooke University did not guarantee that Maxime would automatically move into a leadership role when he began working for the company in 2003. First, he had to learn and prove himself, and he had to do it at a time in Quebec when highways and bridges were crumbling.

On September 30, 2006, a bridge in Laval, in the north end of Montreal, collapsed, killing five and injuring six others. Quebec Premier Jean Charest ordered an investigation, appointing Pierre-Marc Johnson, a lawyer who had served as premier in the 1980s, to lead it.

The Johnson Commission findings, released a year later, pointed to “improper rebar support for the design which caused a ‘plane of weakness’ where cracks eventually appeared; improper rebar installation at the time the overpass was constructed in 1970, and the use of low-quality materials.” (CBC News website, Oct 18, 2007). Acier Gendron Ltd. had no involvement in this project.

The two-hundred-page report also pointed to bad government inspection practices in the years since construction, and made seventeen recommendations including that the Quebec government spend $500 million a year for ten years on bridge and overpass repair and construction, and that there be a full review of the legal framework for bridge design and supervision of the construction work.

“That meant, in future, the engineer from the company providing the rebar needed to approve its installation, and that was my baptism by fire,” Maxime says, referring to his role from 2008 to 2011 as the on-site engineer for the extension of Highway 25.

Next, he was appointed on-site project manager for the completion of Highway 30, a huge divided highway project on the south shore of Montreal, involving three bridges, one tunnel, and twenty-seven overpasses.

“On this project, I had my own team of three engineers, and it was a great learning experience because I was able to understand what is happening in the company, everything from the sales department to the detailers, fabricators, shippers, and installers to developing relationships with clients. It was very interesting to me, as I am curious by nature, and I learned a lot about the people who work here and what they do. It was a real eye-opener. I loved being on the job site because there is so much energy there.”

Meanwhile, AGF Group had been acquiring facilities in Ontario. Although these all produced rebar, the values and cultures varied, and it soon became obvious that to provide better service to clients, they needed to be blended, a role Maxime took on in 2015.

Today the Scarborough, Kitchener, London, and Val Caron branches have been amalgamated as AGF Rebar, with the Ottawa facility joining the Eastern Canada division. “This allows us to serve our clients much better and provide better communication because you don’t have two or three different messages going out. It also means we can work on bigger projects in Ontario.”

Amalgamation he explains is also a way of dealing with retention. “We want to be world-class, and so we needed to integrate training to be given to everyone because that’s essential for retention. A lot of our training involves teaching managers how to be people managers, how to improve communication, and how to improve the accountability of our people.”

The amalgamation process has resulted in the opportunity to motivate employees by giving them room to grow and flourish. “Through centralizing, there are opportunities for people to move to other branches, to have all the tools they need, and for older, experienced managers to act as coaches and mentors,” he says. “We want everyone to feel they are involved in growing the company.”

Recent and current projects for AGF Rebar include three Eglinton Crosstown LRT stations, residential and commercial buildings, reconstruction of the parking garage at Yonge and Sheppard, and the TTC’s McNicoll Bus Garage, all in Toronto. In Waterloo, there is the Barrel Yards, an urban community featuring two ten-story office towers, a 194-room hotel, seven residential high-rises and townhouses, built on a two-level underground parking garage. And in London and Sudbury, there are wind farm projects.

Maxime is especially proud of the AGF Group Foundation, led by his sister Catherine Gendron who reports to a board of directors. The foundation was established six years ago with three missions. “It’s to give back to communities where AGF is present, build ties among the AGF Group’s employees and partners – and we’re able to do that because we have foundation ambassadors from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador – and to increase the culture of philanthropy among our people,” he shares.

“My father has served for a long time on the board of directors of two hospitals (Verdun & General Hospital) and on the engineering school at Polytechnique de Montréal. He’s a very generous person and gave a substantial amount to the school which named a classroom after my grandfather.”

But the foundation, he continues, is unique, in that it does not involve only the company owners, but as many of the employees as wish to get involved. “We felt a need to give back, but instead of just the company giving back, my father is teaching all our employees how to give back.”

There is a large annual event in Montreal, but “we ask our employees ‘who in your community do you think we should be helping?’ Someone could say ‘I want to help a local charity that provides foodbank assistance in my community,’ and they will create an event to gather money, and the foundation will match it. We also have partners like La Tablée des Chefs in Quebec – which collects food and provides home-cooking and budgeting training for people in need – and with CAMH.” CAMH is a centre for treating addictions and mental health.

“One of the greatest challenges we have is to attract young, motivated people and give them a sense of ownership within the company. After we started the foundation, our people realized they can make a difference as they create their own events, so it brings them a sense of belonging. It wasn’t our intention in the beginning. The purpose wasn’t to improve the company; it was to give back to the community, but now we see that it’s helping us as well.”

Over six years, the number of employee-created events has gone from fifteen to ninety-six per year, for a total of four hundred individual projects, while over $2.5 million has gone back into communities where AGF has a presence, and only one percent of the funds have been spent on administration.

Maxime says research into the longevity of family-owned companies in construction shows that only one in 10 000 has been able to sustain what AGF Group has done when it turned seventy-one this past May. “This is very special and something we want to sustain. We are putting a lot of effort into achieving it because this doesn’t happen by chance, and we need to plan,” he says.

“We created a family board where we can discuss important matters as owners, and we created governance procedures, education, mentorship, and a succession plan for our family as owners. I have a brother living in France; he’s not part of the business, but he is a strong part of the family board. Every quarter he comes to Montreal for a meeting, and every month, we talk about the business, so he’s always in the loop.”

The eighties, he says were tough times economically. Of the founder’s four children, only Serge followed in his footsteps, with the other three enjoying successful careers in other areas. “But we feel blessed that our father became part of the business. He is very modern in the way he thinks and wants to leave a legacy by teaching us about the responsibility of ownership. He says you don’t make money on the backs of your people; you make it with them. You need money to survive, but after that, you need to be a good citizen.”

With such a philosophy, AGF’s future looks bright indeed.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 18, 2019, 4:43 AM EST

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