Govan Brown is a construction management company headquartered in Toronto that specializes in interiors for high-profile corporate and commercial clients across Canada. The company has completed millions of square feet of interior projects from its offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa. Business in Focus spoke with Jon Taylor, senior partner in the company, to learn more.
Started by Ralph Govan and John Brown, Govan Brown has been doing business for over twenty years. It began as a small Toronto-based interiors company and progressively grew in and around the Greater Toronto Area. When Jon came aboard as the third partner around eleven years ago, the company decided to expand operations, starting up offices in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary and Ottawa. Work was originally almost exclusively in corporate office interiors, but the last five years has seen rapid growth in the retail and hospitality markets.
Jon explains that when it comes to future growth, the company is not a market maker, but rather will respond to evolving market requirements. “As for ongoing and future growth, we will continue to expand geographically,” he says. “We have project offices in Edmonton and Halifax, which will become permanent offices. We will continue to expand in the retail and hospitality sectors, while continuing our work in commercial office fit-outs.”
Govan Brown has become one of the go-to players for complex retail interiors specializing in upscale work. The team recently completed a Holt Renfrew expansion at Yorkdale and is building Nordstrom and La Maison Simons stores in a number of Canadian cities.
“We do a lot of large upscale retail organizations,” shares Jon. “Through good work and good fortune we have been able to grow that part of our business significantly. We have seven large retail store projects in the works: in Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and four in Toronto. It is at least a couple of hundred million dollars of fit-out on the retail side.”
Indeed, Govan Brown occupies a unique position in the Canadian marketplace. It is the only interiors company that operates on a national basis which is advantageous when dealing with clients who have multiple projects across multiple regions. The company is probably one of the largest interiors firms in Canada and can call upon the 150 to 175 people within the Govan Brown family to support projects irrespective of location. This also leads to greater purchasing power; says Jon, “We are able to buy efficiently from sub trade partners because they do a lot of work with us. Buying efficiently translates into lower costs for our clients, ultimately.”
Govan Brown purchased a state of the art building in Toronto to house its largest operating company. Jon describes it as a “really hip, converted metal stamping factory. It will attract industry leaders and young construction professionals to the Govan Brown family because it is a great place to work.” The space boasts great work/life balance with its own gym, outdoor space, free parking and a “funky office environment.”
Another selling point for people who may want to work with Govan Brown is that the company allows the possibility of moving to other offices within its network. There is a lot of potential for advancement within the organization or switch to other operations within the company family.
Another competitive advantage, as Jon explains is that, “We have tremendous capacity and capability in terms of budgeting and estimating – not just in terms of personnel, but in terms of data and history of data when it comes to what it costs to build across the country – in terms of value engineering, which I prefer to call value enhancement.” Value enhancement is simply another way of looking to get more for less. Govan Brown employs a lot of architects and engineers who look for creative ways to help clients and design partners and consultants who look for better and more cost efficient ways to build projects.
The company strives to ensure that it can replicate what has made the company great at its home base and ensure that this translates to the regional offices. Govan Brown recently hired a Senior Vice President of Corporate Development to ensure consistency and continuity with the Govan Brown brand throughout all offices. “That doesn’t mean to say that it has to be a cookie cutter, but that it needs to have a consistency across the entire platform.”
One of the main challenges that the company faces is dealing with the speed of growth. Growth requires bringing in the right type of people who have a good cultural fit within the organization; people who buy into the Govan Brown way of doing things. The company spends a lot of time interviewing and being very selective with whom it brings in to be a part of the team.
As Jon puts it, “It’s not a robust economy, but it’s not dead either. Depending on what you read or see, your opinion can change on a daily basis, but finding good people in our industry is a real challenge along with keeping them. It is far more important for us to keep good people for a productive, exciting workplace.”
Currently, Govan Brown is in discussions to expand into Halifax. It does have some work there for some of its national clients, so this would be the next logical step. “The overall objective is to have a permanent national presence so we will be setting up a new office in Halifax early in the new year.
Jon likes to think about expansion as an ‘NHL strategy’. The company wants to have an office in every city where there is an NHL team, and he is hoping that Halifax gets one soon. Construction is all about local hands on site. A project can’t be run from Toronto if it is in Red Deer; it has to be managed in Red Deer; that’s part of the Govan Brown way of doing things.
Competition within the interiors industry is a difficult hurdle to get over. It is a highly competitive market with many small and medium sized local and regional players. Govan Brown is not necessarily the cheapest provider, so it competes by promoting its depth of resources, expertise, the talents of its team, and delivering high quality products to its clients.
Govan Brown is an award winning company in the use of integrated project management accounting software for the tracking and monitoring of projects and there have been awards aplenty doled out for its interiors work. It has been part of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for over six consecutive years; it was the Canadian Business Journal’s Company of the Year in 2010; and in October of this year, it won its second Constructech Vision Award for the team’s continued use of innovative, industry-leading technology. Govan Brown is also very much involved in the communities in which it works, winning the Corporate Commitment award for Leaders for the Cure in support of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.
“We are living and working in communities, so we need to support them. We were recognized for our long-term commitment to Queen Victoria Public School, an inner city school, for various programs that we run, including a breakfast initiative where our staff volunteer to cook and serve breakfast to students every month. This is important to us because, working in a fast paced environment like ours, we can provide people with the added benefit of giving back to the community and participating in things that really make them feel good about our business and what we are doing for the community.”
Jon says that, ultimately, the company’s business is all about people. “Govan Brown is blessed with well trained, committed, thoughtful, honest, safety conscious people. That’s what makes our business and that is the biggest value here!”