ULI Toronto was pleased to host its 11th annual Fireside Chat with Geoff Smith, the President and CEO of EllisDon on the evening of February 20th, 2019. Over 350 attendees joined together that evening to learn more about EllisDon’s humble beginnings, the importance of company culture and leadership, and Smith’s insights into the future state of the industry. EllisDon is an employee-owned, $4 billion-a-year construction services company that has grown exponentially from its modest origins in London, Ontario. Founded by two brothers in 1951, Don Smith (Geoff’s father) and David Ellis Smith, the company’s first project was a small London, Ontario schoolhouse.
Opening remarks from Ken Tanenbaum, Chairman, Kilmer Group, introduced Geoff as a thought leader in the construction industry, noting the success of EllisDon and Geoff being driven by mutual accountability and community-minded principles. These principles were echoed throughout the evening’s discussion.
In a conversation moderated by Jody Becker, Chief Strategy Officer and Senior Vice President – Emerging Markets at EllisDon, Smith’s witty banter with the moderator captivated the audience and brought forth challenging yet relatable topics facing the Canadian and global real estate market. Although the company was originally founded by Don and David Ellis Smith, David had left the company shortly after its inception. Don’s wife (and Geoff’s mother), Joan, joined the company as the accountant. Smith cited that much of the company’s success and culture was developed from his father’s entrepreneurial spirit and his mother’s social and community-oriented nature. “My mother was my hero,” Smith said as he reminisced on the impact his mother had on him and also on the lessons his father taught him (although he jokingly denied it).
In 1986, EllisDon was awarded the design-and-build contract for the world’s first retractable-rooftop stadium in Toronto – previously and historically known as the SkyDome but now currently known as the Rogers Centre. Following years of success in the 1980s, Smith remembered a challenging time in the 1990s as an economic recession gripped the region. Difficult economic circumstances pushed a different set of skills to the fore — primarily tenacity — as the company persisted through to an economic recovery. Smith humbly recognizes that it was not necessarily leadership that brought the company into recovery, but the underlying culture that empowered and instilled leadership qualities into its core employees. “They liked each other; that was the greatest success,” Smith told the audience.
As a lawyer by training, Smith is proud of the company he has built and is proud to have built a place where people like to work. Most recently, EllisDon was named one of Greater Toronto’s Top Employers for 2019. Admitting that he is not a builder in the traditional construction industry sense, he is known to be a relationship builder. “I’m not a builder – but I work with people who know how.” To foster that entrepreneurial spirit and corporate culture, Smith suggested starting from a place where nobody trusts you. “Put all the numbers on the table,” he declared. Going back to the initial principles instilled by his parents, Smith believes that by displaying transparency and openness in profits, trust will be built and thereby a sense of accountability will be fostered. With initiatives such as #ThisIsMyEllisDon, portal messages, blog posts and performance reviews, Smith spoke to the importance of empowering the people at EllisDon to have a voice.
The entrepreneurial spirit is what drives innovation. Smith cited the importance of corporate strategy, being adaptive in a dynamic industry and articulating that underlying values stay fundamental and do not change. This innovative philosophy is also behind the company’s “Cradle to Grave” strategy. At EllisDon, there is a full suite of services that enables the company to deliver projects in their entirety, from pre-construction to the operations and maintenance. Smith spoke to how it contradicts industry advice suggesting to “stick with what you know.” He noted that EllisDon aims for the contrary and tries see what works with new and innovative ideas. Recognizing that the company can at times be change-resistant, Smith reasoned that healthy conflict is therefore necessary to facilitate debate and enable the innovation discussion.
Becker then steered the conversation towards the construction industry and what Smith perceives as critical forces to meeting client expectations. He spoke to the challenges with the construction model and highlighted that the construction industry should move towards a design-build lifecycle philosophy that Infrastructure Ontario has adopted. He also spoke of the implications facing the construction industry from tech disruption. These challenges can then be viewed as opportunities based on risk acceptance. He indicated that taking on more responsibilities through lifecycle activities is more of a survival strategy – “not because we love risk.” EllisDon is more interested in how the tech industry will disrupt the supply chain of the construction industry. “We’re a software company,” Geoff exclaimed. With over 60 programmers in the company, EllisDon is embracing the disruption by developing the appropriate software for its core services.
Smith is inspired continually by people who have real purpose and truly believe in what they are doing. Inspired by these people, he advises the future generation to get off the beaten path – “go where nobody else is.” It takes a willingness to be lonely and take those risks.
Notable takeaways from the evening included the following quotes from Geoff:
● You never grow an idea or a company through consensus.
● Go do your job. Be accountable.
● The future doesn’t belong to me. It’s a young person game now.
● Futureproofing: You need to be transparent and just work through it.
● If you’re not ready to be lonely, you’re not ready to be a leader.