Company Reports - RJ Burnside
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R.J. Burnside Engineering Design and Consulting: Leadership in the Making
RJ Burnside is an engineering design and consulting firm that specializes in various aspects of infrastructure development, including: civil; hydrogeology; building sciences; environmental; water and wastewater; geomatics; solid waste management; drainage; transportation; and electrical, structural and mechanical engineering.
FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
From the humble beginnings of his kitchen table in Orangeville, Canada in 1970, RJ Burnside founder, Bob Burnside, conceived of an engineering design firm based on integrity, honesty and care for one another. Now, with $40 million in annual revenues, 340 staff members and 10 offices throughout Ontario and Manitoba, RJ Burnside has enjoyed steady growth thanks to a focus on leadership and a unique relationship with Canada’s First Nation (aboriginal) communities.
In his sixth year, John Burnside succeeds his father—who retired in 1999—as the third president of the company. It was the 1990s that saw the greatest expansion for RJ Burnside, and John has for the last six years been working to move the company into the 21st century with vigor. For the last decade, RJ Burnside has made its way into the international arena with numerous projects in the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa.
FIRST NATION RELATIONSHIPS
Approximately 15 percent of the company’s business represents work done with Aboriginals through RJ Burnside’s sister company, Neegan Burnside, which is one of the largest Aboriginal owned companies in Canada. Neegan Burnside’s largest shareholder and CEO, Mervin J. Dewasha, is a member of the Wahta Mohawk First Nation in Ontario.
These two companies work together on many fronts. RJ Burnside owns 49 percent of Neegan Burnside, but majority shares reside with Dewasha and his First Nation employees. Their relationship has afforded unique business opportunities to RJ Burnside, especially considering that many public sector corporations and governments, and increasingly private sector firms, are seeking to promote diversity when evaluating and procuring engineering services. John Burnside himself garnered much of his early engineering experience working with First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, and he maintains that “constructing infrastructure in these communities is not enough, there needs to be training, mentoring, and role models to aid in their progress... they need employment and economic opportunity.”
This is where Neegan Burnside comes in, employing several First Nation members. John Burnside adds in regard to his First Nation relationships that, “we’re trying to be more than just an engineering company.” A thoughtful insight from a thoughtful man.
LEADERSHIP SKILLS A PRIORITY
According to John Burnside, “maximizing leadership potential is a personal path that needs to be customized to each person.” With this philosophy in mind, RJ Burnside approaches leadership training very seriously and it is extended to all management and ‘high potential’ junior staff. Approaching it from a holistic perspective, Burnside asserts that, “leadership is as much about attitude and clarity of values as it is about market strategies and revenues.” RJ Burnside has historically had a very low employee turnover rate, and employees are trained, encouraged and evaluated, in part, on being effective communicators - something John Burnside jokes as “not necessarily a strong suit for most engineers.”
While senior executives in the company have a leadership coach that works with them one-on-one to help stylize and fine-tune their abilities, younger employees are certainly not excluded. Noting the looming retirement of the baby-boomer generation, John Burnside believes that younger employees (35 and below) need focused and accelerated development to help the company stay relevant as senior employees retire.
CULTURE AS THE HEART OF THE COMPANY
When asked if RJ Burnside would ever go public, John Burnside sternly replied, “no, we’re pretty protective of our culture. Because we’re employee owned we don’t want to put that culture at risk through public investment and short-term imperatives.” Besides, it seems as though RJ Burnside is doing pretty well with their employee-owned culture, seeing as how their steady top-line growth of 15 percent per year over the past 6 years has been exceeded by steeper growth in their bottom-line. In furthering their “one-culture” mindset, all of RJ Burnside’s offices are connected via fiber optics. Video conferencing is on the horizon, and the company just recently invested in Deltek Vision business management software.
THE ECONOMY AND THE FUTURE
The company’s First Nation and African projects have also helped them keep afloat and strongly diversified in uncertain economic times. The Ontario government initiated the Green Energy Act to provide economic incentives to renewable energy projects and investments, including initiatives within First Nation communities to develop green infrastructure, providing RJ Burnside, and their sister company Neegan Burnside, even more business opportunities, particularly in wind energy infrastructure development.
2010 was RJ Burnside’s busiest year to-date, and John Burnside assures that the company will expand its presence outside of Ontario and across Canada, with further development into the Caribbean and Africa, maintaining its status as one of the largest employee owned firms in the region.