“Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean,” the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro once said – a simple but cogent metaphor that defines the power of collaboration in every aspect of life, including doing business.
Collaboration demands the leveraging of strategic partnerships that function for the good of all, that aim for the achievement of objectives within a framework of shared trust, respect and honesty. It’s the acknowledgement of values brought to a partnership that enable a unique and competitive edge. A prime example of collaboration at work is found at Hugh Munro Construction Limited, a heavy civil contractor headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Established by Mr. Hugh Munro in 1959, Hugh Munro Construction Limited (HMCL) has grown from humble beginnings to become a respected name in the heavy construction industry, with a particular focus on road building and site development.
The company maintains a diversified fleet of equipment capable of delivering on all aspects of construction – excavation, blasting, drilling, surface treatment and aggregate processing, for example. The company has operations in Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan with over 100 fulltime and 300 seasonal employees during the prime construction season (May through November).
Hugh Munro Construction also has two divisions – Fort Whyte Lowbedding Limited, providing freight services; and Bryan Wood Vehicle Rentals, which rents property and equipment, collectively known as The Munro Group of Companies.
It is Hugh’s daughter, Colleen Munro, company President, who has taken the helm and moves the company forward with a promise of quality, reliable service and the upholding of its exceptional reputation. This promise extends to all clients with project needs, including those in First Nations communities. Ms. Munro has taken it upon herself to ensure that First Nations are included in her joint venture partnerships – ten in total – in all aforementioned provinces.
Berens River First Nation, on Lake Winnipeg’s east shore, almost 300 air kilometres north of Winnipeg, is among the JV partnerships that Hugh Munro collaborates with to ensure a fair say for First Nations. And it is with Chief Jackie Everett, whose father too owned a construction company, that a special bond has developed – both business and personal.
Manitoba’s East Side Transportation Initiative, managed by the East Side Road Authority (ESRA), is currently engaged in a project valued at over $3 billion, for the construction of 1000 kilometres of all-season road on Lake Winnipeg’s east side. This construction will connect 30 remote aboriginal communities that rely on air and seasonal roads for travel and essential supplies and services, with the rest of the province.
Hugh Munro Construction and Berens River, as Meemeeweesipi/Munro JV have partnered in a tendered contract, valued at over $7 million, under a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), for construction of 10 kilometres of road to Berens River’s south. “They’re predicting our road will be able to have access by 2019,” says Chief Everett.
Chief Everett affirms that Berens River First Nation has worked with a number of companies that “scooped up the work and did not share the profits. When we came to Hugh Munro Construction, that really changed the definition of what joint venture really meant.”
Ms. Munro believes there is a need to work differently with First Nations communities and is implementing her objectives to ensure that these communities benefit and profit from companies working on First Nations’ traditional land. “We try to be innovative with how we work with people and First Nations communities,” she says. It’s this unique mindset of merging innovation and collaboration that sets Hugh Munro apart from the rest.
“I think that’s one of the most important things we’ve done differently than our competitors,” she adds. “There are many joint ventures out there; we think that ours is much more progressive… Since my father’s death we’ve come up with another way to work with First Nations communities.”
Investment in skills training for members of aboriginal communities in the operation of various types of heavy equipment plays a pivotal role in Hugh Munro’s business philosophy. After all, the investment in heavy equipment itself is of little value without skilled operators. “Our strength really comes from our people,” says Ms. Munro, stressing that proper training, personal development and a strict adherence to safety practices benefits not only Hugh Munro but the communities in which they work. Bonuses are available for those wanting to take training classes who pass them successfully.
Additionally, Hugh Munro Construction sends out their employees, such as mechanics and operators, for additional training and provides bonuses between different level completions. “Just because someone has graduated from a heavy equipment course doesn’t mean they’re ready to go on a half million or million dollar machine,” Ms. Munro says. “They just don’t have the experience… it’s trying to get them to learn all different aspects of how to maintain and how to operate the equipment. There’s a lot to learn rather than just taking a written course… We attract a lot of different people because we do have a diverse fleet,” she adds. “They’re able to learn on a lot of different pieces of equipment.”
Ms. Munro affirms that working with First Nations has been a learning experience for Hugh Munro as well, particularly in terms of some of the structural barriers members of First Nations can face. She relates that Hugh Munro can train people on equipment and provide safety measures but that, “We really didn’t have the knowledge and the resources [about] the everyday pressures of living in First Nations.”
Life skill type concerns such as having daycare while training or a safe vehicle to get to work were real concerns that needed to be addressed. The company turned to the Manitoba Construction Sector Council “to be able to work with Berens and Munro to try to develop [beyond] what we know has not worked in the past and fill that void to make it successful. That was one piece that we learned was still needed.”
Ms. Munro and Chief Everett stress that the operation of heavy equipment need not be limited to men. They have seen increasing numbers of women interested in the industry and in fact encourage participation by women. “Being leaders right now together on this project shows people in the industry we want women… it’s a great career for a lot of women,” shares Ms. Munro. Chief Everett concurs, “We both encourage females to challenge anything.”
Of course, at Hugh Munro, safety comes first. The company’s commitment to a strong safety program ensures that personnel, property, the environment and the public are free from accidents at all times. Employees at every level, including management, are responsible for implementation of the company’s safety program which is regulated and updated on a continual basis. “We follow the industry mandates,” says Chief Everett. “Each of our industries has a safety officer on site at all times.”
Aside from training, personal development and safety, environmental impacts arising from construction work need to be assessed as part of all decision making. Chief Everett explains that when discussing the environment, “There are a lot of meetings that occur prior to decisions being made pertaining to where the road is going to be built or land designation. We are very involved. Actually that trickles down from the government level; we have to still protect our land through our treaty rights.”
Chief Everett stresses that the traditional way of life for Berens First Nation still actively involves hunting, trapping and fishing. If any of these activities are jeopardized and not protected, “there is no deal.”
Hugh Munro asserts that any project within First Nation lands should be based on ownership share with First Nations’ prioritization on issues such as decision making, job participation, profits, training and equipment use. “True ownership to me is that they share in the profits, first of all… we only subsidize what the local community doesn’t have and we mentor,” Ms. Munro explains. Partnerships are doomed to failure, she believes, if one partner has more control over another. Her mandate instead is to “create an environment around Munro Construction and the people we work with where everybody wins… I have a community I have to keep going. Everyone has to be successful in this; otherwise, it doesn’t work for me.”
Concluding, Ms. Munro reflects that the message to the community and to other Chiefs throughout Canada is that great things can be accomplished together. “There are so many communities that need help,” she says. “These partnerships can be built on success and not on fear.”