People Make the Difference

Kilmarnock Enterprise
Written by Claire Suttles

At Kilmarnock Enterprise, people make the difference. “People are our greatest asset,” states President and CEO Isabelle Graveline.
The industrial service company has always made workforce development a priority and, as a result, boasts a team of dedicated employees who make it a point to exceed client expectations.

The Ontario based business got its start in 1981 as a one man consulting / design / engineering firm. In 1996, the founder passed the company on to his three children and within four years they had increased sales from $783,235 to $3,245,622 – a growth rate of 314 percent. Twenty years later his daughter, Ms. Graveline, remains at the helm of the family owned business and continues to spearhead its phenomenal growth.

As a multi-trade industrial services provider, Kilmarnock performs a remarkable variety of work for multinational blue chip industries. “We work in pretty much every sector – alternative energy, food and pharmaceuticals, forestry, packaging – the whole nine yards,” Ms. Graveline reports. “We do everything from custom machining and fabricating, design and engineering, millwrighting, and welding, to specialized services such as inspections and after-process work like painting. We are a real turnkey service provider.” On call 24/7, the team is fully capable of taking care of clients from the design stage all the way through to completion.

Whatever the job, Kilmarnock’s core values – ¬¬which emphasize employee development and a family-like culture – are always at the forefront. “Our mission statement is to be the best and most innovative industrial service company by our commitment to employee development in a family atmosphere,” Ms. Graveline explains. “The values that we have differentiate us and our clients recognize that we are different. We have such a caring atmosphere, and that goes out to the clients.” Whether strategizing in the boardroom, engaging with clients, hashing out a new design, or working to get an order out fast, “our family atmosphere is always there. It is an intentional culture that we have. Every decision that we make is based on those foundational values.”

These values have helped the team form strong, lasting relationships with clients. “Our employees really understand the value of developing long term relationships,” Ms. Graveline reports. In many of these relationships, Kilmarnock enjoys the enviable position of being the client’s supplier of choice. Often, shared company values help seal the bond. “We [want to be] aligned with what their values are,” Ms. Graveline explains. “So we are very specific about the types of clients that we want. They need to share our level of ethics.”

Kilmarnock’s emphasis on employee development is integral to the company’s values. “We value our people. And if we value them, we have to give them every opportunity to grow and develop. We make sure that every single tradesperson who works for us has every opportunity available to them to become better at what they do.” The policy is good for the company as well as the employees. “It is probably the biggest reason why we have grown so quickly and so profitably,” Ms. Graveline estimates. This is because of the remarkable diversity the policy has created. “We encourage all our employees to get as many certificates as possible so we have a lot of tradespeople who have multiple qualifications.” For example, welders have the ability to work as millwrights, and millwrights as welders, providing an unusual level of flexibility and expertise. “We have a very small machine shop but all of them can go out and do millwrighting and three quarters of them are able to go out and do any welding. So when a client calls for support and we send people, we are not just sending a welder, we are not just sending a machinist, we are not just sending a millwright. The client is going to get a very certified tradesperson who can cover any problematic situation.”

Ms. Graveline herself was named one of Canada’s top 100 female entrepreneurs in 2014 for her role in Kilmarnock’s success. The recognition was determined by a variety of considerations, from Kilmarnock’s volume of business to its profitability. While Ms. Graveline is grateful for the award, she prefers to shine the spotlight on the entire team. “It is nice to get that recognition, but it was even better for us as a company that we were recognized as being one of Canada’s top 500 fastest growing companies,” she explains. “That was huge.”

She views this success entirely as a group effort. “It’s about all of us; we are all in this together. To keep it a successful company you surround yourself with the best people. You can’t be strong at everything so you identify those people who are better at the things that you are weak at. Our strategy is to hire really good people.”

With 20 years under its belt, the company has been through its fair share of industry ups and downs. Kilmarnock has weathered them all, however. “You have to identify what is causing the [industry challenges] immediately and really look at everything inside your company, from your cash flow to your clients,” Ms. Graveline says of the company’s strategy. The Canadian manufacturing industry can be “volatile,” she adds, so it pays to be prepared. As soon as times get tough and the industry begins to cut back, clients often begin by cutting out work that Kilmarnock performs. Therefore, the team has to be able to guide clients back on track. “We educate our clients to understand that, even though things are tough out there, they still need to keep their plants running. They still need to be productive.”

Even during tough times, Kilmarnock maintains its commitment to employees. “We could have easily laid people off [during the latest slowdown] but we said that we would not do that because we spent so much time and energy getting the right people inside the company. To let them go now would be going against a lot of what we value [since] what we value most is our people.” It was not easy, but the commitment certainly paid off. “The fact that we can say we did not lay people off during that period goes such a long way.”

Looking ahead, Kilmarnock is committed to maintaining the values and culture that have brought success thus far. With growth reaching a remarkable 75 percent in recent years, the team is doubling down on its efforts to maintain a family atmosphere in the face of rapid expansion.

A new Performance Management System will also guide growth and ensure top notch performance. “We have a lot of initiatives on our plate right now,” Ms. Graveline reports. Keeping employees 100 percent engaged is at the core of many of these initiatives. For instance, the team plans to focus on “getting the right people and having regular team huddles with them to address obstacles and frustrations. We are really focused on having an intentional culture where everybody is engaged, and engaged in such a way that that engagement is acutely felt by our clients. That is one of our strategies.”

Of course, keeping clients engaged is just as important to Kilmarnock’s future plans as keeping employees engaged. “We want to make sure that we have regular client relationship meetings,” Ms. Graveline reports. “We want to get information firsthand from them in terms of what we are doing right, what we are doing wrong, and what we can improve on.” So far, new initiatives in this area are “going incredibly well. It is really important for us to understand how we can improve.”

Another strategy is to increase the company’s focus on sales and marketing. “We are really working to identify the sectors that we are currently in, and what sectors we need to branch out in,” Ms. Graveline says. With strong client relationships already in place, and a dedicated team eager to form new client relationships, it should be easy for Kilmarnock to reel in new work and continue its remarkable growth.



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