Three Decades and Counting…
Pro-Can Construction Group
Full-service general contractor Pro-Can Construction Group specializes in public and institutional work. It provides construction management services including pre-construction, post-construction, de-construction, and budgeting.
Pro-Can typically operates in the five- to twenty-million-dollar project range and can complete projects within stipulated price or construction management contracts. Pro-Can Construction performs some of its work in-house; however, ninety percent of the construction is subcontracted out to specialized firms.
The firm was originally established as a residential contracting company in 1985 by Ben Perez and Tony Alonso. The focus shifted to commercial building in 1986, and by the 1990s, it transitioned into institutional construction. Ben’s son Leo Perez and Tony’s niece Sara Pou joined the business in the early 2000s and became minority partners in 2007. They both moved up to become majority partners in 2009 when Ben and Tony retired.
The head office is located in Burnaby, British Columbia, immediately to the east of Vancouver. Pro-Can employs thirty five full-time employees year-round, and the majority of them are relatively young – between the ages of thirty and forty – which makes for a fun, casual atmosphere around the office and on the job sites. Professionalism always comes first; however, no one at Pro-Can Construction wears a suit to work. “We have a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality around here. Construction is such a stressful business that if one does not know how to detach and decompress, you won’t survive long-term,” says Leo Perez, president of Pro-Can Construction.
The staff have very heavy workloads, and for that reason, the company instils the importance of spending quality time away from work with family and friends. Leo and Sara are both known to be workaholics, and they attract like-minded people, which while good for business, can also increase the risk of staff burnout. The company encourages exercise and leisure to keep its employees healthy and happy. As part of this, it organizes annual teambuilding events such as go-karting or paintball for the entire team to enjoy together.
The firm has maintained its family-oriented culture even through recent growth. There are a number of family members working together at Pro-Can, and many assume that Leo and Sara are also related. “Considering a big group of us are in our thirties and starting young families, the importance of family is definitely felt throughout the company’s culture. In a nutshell, I would say we have a family-orientated culture that is as relaxed as possible in what is a very stressful and fast-paced industry,” says Leo.
Pro-Can has doubled its size in the last two years, and that growth has come with some considerable challenges and growing pains. Most of the struggle has revolved around hiring the right people and managing costs on bigger projects, which can be quite intimidating. “When the projects and subsequent volume increases, the risk increases. Essentially, a zero is added to everything. What used to be manageable $10,000 problems now become $100,000 issues. $100,000 problems from the past now become ‘firm killers,’ so it is scary,” says Leo.
Reaching twenty million dollars in annual sales was a benchmark that Leo and Sara discussed when they took over the firm in 2009. The original plan was to reach that goal in five years, and when that did not happen as planned, Pro-Can took a step back to re-evaluate its direction and growth. It is now projected to hit twenty million dollars in sales this year, and it aims to execute and manage that growth consistently for several years before considering any more growth.
Similar to all other construction companies today, the labour shortage has been a problem for Pro-Can. The high cost of living in Vancouver only exacerbates the issue, since it is difficult for young people to live here while making twenty to twenty-five dollars an hour. Vancouver has a busy construction market with a lot of residential and commercial development, which takes up much of the available workforce. To compensate, Pro-Can has found it necessary to hire workers for projects, based on location. The time and cost required for one employee to travel all over Vancouver for different projects is not worth the travel stress, hence Pro-Can has found that keeping workers on projects that are close to home very beneficial.
“We really have to hire people per job, around the job. If we have a job in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, then we have to hire people in Surrey to do that job because the people in Vancouver aren’t going to want to commute to Surrey and vice versa,” says Leo.
The smaller size of Pro-Can allows it to be more flexible when compared to larger firms, and its lower expenses also give it an edge. “Even though we are a smaller firm, we go after larger projects, which puts us into competition with larger firms who have big overheads. With our reduced overhead, it gives us a competitive advantage,” says Leo.
Another distinguishing detail is that it does not shy away from complicated, messy projects that other firms tend to avoid, but rather enjoys the challenge of larger, more intricate construction. Pro-Can has also developed meaningful subcontractor relationships over the years that give the contractor access to cost savings to which its competitors are not privy.
Pro-Can follows the adage which it calls the ‘Three Pillars of Construction’ that states a project can be built well, low-cost or fast, but clients can only have two out of those three. “If something is built fast and well, it is not going to be cheap; however, if you want something built well and cheap, it is not going to be fast,” explains Leo. The firm always determines which two of the three pillars are more important to the client and establishes the budget and schedule accordingly.
School construction is a market in which Pro-Can is particularly interested. Vancouver’s Seismic zone requires schools to be regularly upgraded, and that provides a consistent, stable workload for the firm. “We have done numerous school projects, and it is something I am constantly attracted to. Schools, although similar, tend to have different designs from one project to the next as they represent the communities they serve. As such, the work itself is interesting,” says Leo. Schools tend to be gathering places for the community, and Pro-Can takes extra care to ensure that the buildings are designed in a way that suits not only the students and the faculty, but the community as well.
Sustainability is important to Pro-Can, and most of its projects have green certifications such as LEED or Passive House. The firm even attempts to be environmentally conscious in smaller areas; it uses a four-cylinder pickup truck to reduce fuel consumption, and it has a ‘think first before printing’ policy to help reduce waste and energy. “Construction occurs in the physical world, and being a contractor, you are outside a lot, so there is a connection to the natural world that is felt on a daily basis. Weather affects productivity, so we are very mindful of the changing climate and the importance of doing something about it,” says Leo.
The short-term goal at Pro-Can is to find a new office since it has outgrown its current space. The long-term goal is to continue growing at a measured and sustainable pace that benefits the entire team.
Pro-Can Construction Group considers the challenges it has experienced in the last two years of rapid growth to be humbling and great learning experiences overall. “We have definitely made some big mistakes in the last two years that have put us in uncomfortable situations. However, we have persevered and hopefully won’t make the same mistakes again,” says Leo. Many companies prefer to only discuss the positive side of business, but Pro-Can is proud of its entire journey.