Family-owned steel fabrication and construction company Walters Group Inc. designs, fabricates, and constructs commercial and industrial projects throughout North America. Even as the firm grapples with tariffs on steel and aluminum, it is looking ahead to mega projects in New York and Toronto and the workforce of the future. We spoke with Walters Group Inc. CEO and Chairman Walter Koppelaar.
This is a good news/bad news story, so it is best to get the bad news over with, as there is no denying twenty-five percent tariffs on steel and ten percent tariffs on aluminum will have a detrimental effect on the bottom line.
“The tariff negotiations are stressful for our industry. It has created a tremendous amount of uncertainty and unprecedented pricing increases and clouds our clients’ minds,” says Koppelaar.
Hamilton-Halton Construction Association Manager Sue Ramsay echoes his words, saying, “Uncertainty is the new normal.”
Koppelaar is concerned that the federal government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, is focused more on the effects on steel producers such as Stelco, Algoma and one or two others when the steel industry is far broader than that. “It’s not a large industry in this country anymore, but they have an outsized image, and they are considered a core Canadian strength. But the people who are really affected by the tariffs are not the steel mills; they are the consumers of steel downstream, of which we are one. And there are hundreds of companies like us, where steel is the primary input into the product and service we sell, and they are being forgotten and ignored while the steel mills are protected by our federal government. There are tariffs put in by the U.S.; there are counter tariffs put in by Canada; there are other tariffs talked about and/or implemented by the rest of the world, and this serves to restrict the free flow of material and drives up prices,” he says.
“It’s basic economics. When you constrict supply, you artificially increase demand, and the price goes up accordingly. I don’t think our federal government is paying adequate attention to the unintended consequences of their actions. We’ve been participants in trying to make that point, but the ‘steel industry’ has a long-standing lobby in Ottawa, while the rest of us are small players. Even though there are many of us, it’s difficult to find a cohesive voice,” says Koppelaar.
“It’s been a huge frustration. We’ve participated in roundtables with the Ford government (Ontario provincial government led by Premier Doug Ford); I’ve spent time in Ottawa meeting with various ministries, along with others like us, downstream consumers, and I’ve sat at a roundtable with Minister (of Foreign Affairs) Chrystia Freeland. I think she understood, and in my opinion, she’s the one bright light,” he shares.
“We’re in our sixty-third year, and we’re pretty resilient. Will we be hurt by it? Absolutely. Will it stop us? Certainly, not for the moment. We’re still investing. We’re doing a plant renewal project right now; we’ve recently purchased some state-of-the-art equipment, and we’re not throwing in the towel by any means, but should this continue for several years, I’m not sure what the landscape will look like. It’s going to be difficult.”
Even so, Koppelaar is upbeat talking about new projects. “We are starting on the tower at 81 Bay Street, Toronto, at the foot of the financial district, near the waterfront, which will be CIBC headquarters, and we were awarded the next tower for Brookfield Properties in Manhattan.” This will be a sixty-floor tower, twinned with one the company just completed, fabricated in Canada and constructed in an arrangement with Metropolitan Walters. This division of the Walters Group performs installation and erection services in New York City and was formed following 9/11 when Walters Group joined with Metropolitan Metals for rebuilding.
Walters Group Inc., of Hamilton, Ontario was named by Deloitte as one of Canada’s fifty best-managed companies (in both 2016 and2017). And it is one in which women are finding a place in this traditionally male-dominated industry.
“When I joined the family firm,” Koppelaar recalled, “we had one female employee, and she was answering the phone, a stereotypical role, but over time, we have women in all aspects of our business, in accounting and marketing, in engineering, detailing, procurement, and on the shop floor. We have wonderful women working as welders, and they are so enthusiastic about what they’re doing, and they’re there because they really want to be.”
A year ago, Marketing Manager Ruby Bowry approached Koppelaar with an idea to create an initiative called ‘Women@Walters’ to provide group support, mentorship, and a social connection for the women who make up approximately twelve percent of the 380-member workforce.
“In finance and marketing, it’s almost ninety percent women,” she told us, “but the others, in estimating or sales, project management, engineering, detailing, welding, or fitting, were all scattered. I did a soft kick-off with an invitation to mix and mingle, and there was one hundred percent attendance, other than the few on maternity leave. That said to me there’s a need for something like this, to have a supportive mentorship.”
Next, Bowry sent out a survey, asking the women to suggest topics they would like to have addressed, and the results indicated the women’s issues were around confidence, leadership skills, and visibility in the workplace.
“Let’s say there’s a meeting with nine men and one woman,” she says, “and the woman feels uncomfortable speaking. It’s not because the men would make her feel that way, but it’s human nature (to think that might be the case), and I want both men and women to feel empowered to share ideas and work collaboratively and be recognized for the work they’re putting forth,” says Bowry.
“We’ve just had our first workshop on visibility in the workplace, and I’ve developed a three-part series on leadership skills that will be open to men and women, and it will be an opportunity for them to learn from each other.
“We also know there’s a skilled trade shortage, and to mitigate that, we need to increase the profile for women… and show women they have the ability to work their way up and excel at this company because their input and contribution are valued. The executive team is all for this initiative and understand the vision is not to make it a separate entity. We want it to be collaborative and open to men and women to join the seminars and workshops and strengthen the employee bond.”
Senior Project Engineer Alexandrina Pavlova has been at Walters for fifteen years. She completed an engineering degree in her native Bulgaria, where she says it was more common for women to study engineering than it was in Canada, eighteen years ago, when she arrived.
“But I’m glad things are changing, and there is a very good trend of women going into the engineering profession. I like this, and I think it is beneficial to companies who hire women engineers. When I started, I was the only female working in detailing, but now we have more female colleagues, and I hope they continue. Women@Walters is a good opportunity for mentoring and providing role models for new girls. That was something I missed, but now I think things are much better.”
The projects Pavlova has engineered are too numerous to list she says, but the outstanding ones which come to mind include the 125,000-square-foot Abilities Centre in Whitby, Ontario, an internationally renowned community hub; Pier 27 in Toronto; Calgary’s iconic Bow Building, a fifty-eight-floor, crescent-shaped skyscraper, and the stunning Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, part of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum’s renovation and expansion project. The museum’s website describes it as “one of the most challenging construction projects in North America for engineering complexity and innovative methods.”
Detailer Aleksandra Bis says because she enjoyed art and math in school, interior design seemed a good career choice, but after a year at Ryerson, she was disappointed. “I went to Mohawk College and switched to civil engineering as I had more of an engineering brain than an architectural one. After my first year, I got a co-op placement at Walters, and I never left. My first job was in the field services department, ordering and tracking tools, and then I asked to do a co-op in document control, and I liked that, so I asked if they needed a detailer. I’ve been here for two years, and I really like it as I get exposed to professional development opportunities.”
Detailers, Bis says, “get the structural and architectural drawings and use those to create the 3D model. This is an information-based 3D modelling program because not only are you modelling how it appears, there is a lot of information integrated into each part to streamline the process from engineering to production.” To date, the only project she has seen from start to finish is the bridge joining the Eaton Centre Mall with The Bay across Toronto’s Queen Street, and she is proud to have helped with it. “I get really excited when I hear the pieces that I’ve coded go together on the job site!”
Welder and Fitter Kaylyn Roloson graduated from McMaster University with degrees in fine art and art history before enrolling in a metal fabrication program at Mohawk, intending to learn more about metal for her art. “Then I started the co-op program at Walters. I really enjoyed it and thought maybe I could make this a career. They hired me right out of school and gave me an apprenticeship,” she says.
“Art and fitting are the same process,” she continues, “and it just naturally occurred to me. My artwork was made out of metal, and I welded sculptures in a similar process as I do here. We make structural steel, and the fitter is responsible for making the prefabricated parts that make up the building or the bridge. I read the blueprint, and I file all my pieces and build, say, an I-beam with hardware coming off it, or it could be a frame or a piece of hollow steel hardware. It depends on the project. So the fitter builds the pieces, and the welder seals and fuses them together.”
After three and a half years, Roloson has come into her own, says Bowry. “When we go to trade shows, she’s talking to young women about the construction industry, and she’s a really good spokesperson.”
“I was passionate about the artwork I did,” adds Roloson. “So I took that passion and brought it into the shop. Welding is an art, and there is a finesse to it. The buildings Walters creates have engineering challenges and are pieces of art, in my opinion, so everything, art and construction, ties together in the end.”
Health and Safety Coordinator Jolene Kostick brought a different skill set to Walters. She had a diploma in social service work and worked with seniors. “They were amazing, but it was too easy, and I wanted something that was challenging,” she says. This led to a Red Seal certification as a welder and metal fabricator. During her apprenticeship in Edmonton, she was required to write to a company for which she wanted to work.
“I picked Walters,” she recalls. “I liked that it was a family company. I was working for an international company, and it seemed soulless in comparison with what Walters showed on their website. And I appreciated that Walters was building state-of-the-art landscape buildings, art sculptures that spoke to the future, and they pushed boundaries.”
“Jolene applied to work on the shop floor,” says Koppelaar, “and the people interviewing her said we think you’d be awesome at health and safety, so she ended up in a job she had no intention doing. But her trade is helpful, especially working among older males. The older they are, the more likely it is they could look at her and say ‘Who are you to tell me how to do my job? What do you know?’ And she can say, ‘I’ve done it. I’m a welder fitter, Red Seal certified,’ and that brings her a lot of credibility. She’s doing great.”
But it is also Kostick’s softer, interpersonal skills that are effective. “I ask them, from their perspective, what we can do to improve safety. And then I put those ideas in place. And I tell them never to make yourself less important than the job you’re doing.”
Ramsay is pleased. “I think there is a massive opportunity for women in construction. We have a skilled trades shortage, and we have to reach more women and let them know what great opportunities we have.”