Old-Fashioned Effort and Innovation have made Southwest Contracting Ltd. a Leader in the Civil Construction Sector

This feature was prepared for Southwest Contracting Ltd. by BCBusiness. Writer: Robin Brunet

THE ORIGINS OF SOUTHWEST CONTRACTING LTD. (SWC) can be traced back well past its 1972 inception, to when founders Lloyd and Wes Geransky were youths gaining practical skills by toiling for their father Phil on the family farm in Hepburn, Saskatchewan.

Today, SWC's staff exhibits the same tough and honest work ethic that was required to keep the Geransky farm operating smoothly throughout the decades. But SWC has evolved dramatically from its early days when Lloyd and Wes, with younger brothers Cliff and Richard, armed with a D6 dozer and a 955 track loader, created a solid client base in Greater Vancouver by excavating and moving earth.

Unfortunately, as his dreams were coming to fruition, Wes Geransky passed away in 1997. Lloyd Geransky carried on for five years as sole owner and transferred ownership of SWC in 2002 to longtime employees - and now partners - Scott MacCara, Rudy Froese and Kevin Ronning.

Complex Projects and a Casual Camaraderie

The trio presides over a civil construction firm that has the means to successfully undertake excavation and shoring projects as complex as the Canada Line, the new Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre and the expansive Suter Brook residential community in Port Moody. SWC is also a site services and preparation specialist, and its clients are a who's who of B.C. developers, including UniverCity at SFU, Concert Properties and Wesbild Holdings, among others.

But despite the company's high-power portfolio, the partners exude a casual camaraderie as they welcome guests to their Surrey headquarters. MacCara, Froese and Ronning proudly show visitors the office containing Wes and Lloyd Geransky's desks where they developed SWC's range of activities.

Always Taking on New Challenges

"In some ways, nothing's really changed," saying Ronning. "We've always been keen to take on new challenges, and we're proud of the fact that we adapt to market conditions instead of being locked into a single type of work for a limited scope of clients. We're also proud that we have such a strong and longstanding network of companies that work for us on our projects, as well as our many long-term employees.

"Southwest has more than 35 employees who have been here more then 10 years and 20 who have been here more then 20 years. You can't over estimate the value of all that experience in this line of work."

An Old-Fashioned Culture of Loyalty

MacCara adds another constant in his attempt to summarize the company's 35-year history. "We're loyal to the people who have helped us get to where we're at," he says. "If that's not an old-fashioned value, I don't know what is."

The partners discuss SWC's project in a good-natured manner that is typical of seasoned professionals who remain undaunted in the face of a challenge. Ask about how work is progressing on the Canada Line, for example, and MacCara replies, "Well, the wettest winter on record didn't exactly help when it came to water accumulating in the trench. But they pumped it out and work proceeded smoothly." The "trench" he refers to is not a typical urban dig, but a massive channel stretching from West 41st to West 65th Avenues in Vancouver.

Challenges at the Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion

Similarly, SWC's two-year stint excavating and site prepping for the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre expansion is described by Froese in an almost off-hand manner: "We were excavating in the tidal foreshore of Coal Harbour that required lowering the ground by an additional three metres around the piles upon which the Centre will sit."

Most of the work took place at night during low tide and included placing a riprap rock cover over the five-hectare site to control erosion, and installing saltwater intake lines, chilled water lines, and a network of bioswales to support marine life.

Successful Shoring at Suter Brook

As for the five-acre Suter Brook site, all three partners smile when Froese remarks, "The area was total marshland, just saturated clays, silts and water. Over the years numerous developers had looked at the site and said it couldn't be developed economically. Through the use of shoring techniques new to the region, along with utilizing ocean-dumping scows for the disposal of the excavation material, the project was successfully completed."

Holding On To Their History

While each of the partners already had considerable engineering prowess when they joined SWC, they frequently mention the four Geransky brothers in conversation and hold them in fond regard.

"Their father Phil made dug-outs for water and Lloyd, Wes, Cliff, and Richard all had performed brush clearing and other labour intensive tasks on the family farm," says Ronning. "They were old-school labourers who worked under tough conditions, nothing like what youngsters are exposed to today. And I think the accompanying mindset that this created added a great deal to the kind of company Southwest was to become."

A First for Excavation

Although SWC's initial success was based partially on the skill with which the Geranskys operated their D6 and 955, the company eventually helped change the excavation market by being one of the first firms to use excavators instead of track loaders on job sites. "That occurred in the 1970s during a period of rapid development, but by contrast, the early 1980s was a disaster because of all the work for engineers in B.C. dried up," recalls Ronning, who earned his engineering degree in 1980 and joined SWC in 1985.

Surviving the Lean Years

SWC survived the lean years thanks to the Geransky's securing grading and utilities work in Prince Rupert on the grain and coal terminals sites and then on the Coquihalla Highway, a $9 million multi-year job that Ronning regards with considerable reverence.

"It was a huge coup made possible by Lloyd and Wes' survivor mentality, which, like diversification, you absolutely had to have in order to keep going," he says. "We became a much better company as a result of these times and those projects, one that was much broader in the kind of work we undertook. Utilities rapidly became an integral part of what we offer to clients."

A Southwest Innovation: Bringing together Excavation and Shoring

During the latter part of the 1980s, SWC was responsible for another industry innovation - the amalgamation of shoring and excavating services under one roof. This may strike outsiders as unremarkable, but MacCara says that prior to the merger, excavating and shoring contractors were frequently at odds with one another, which resulted in conflict on job sites. "By combining these two services under one umbrella, we were able to schedule jobs more efficiently and look after the interests of the project in question," he explains.

By the 1990s, SWC was well poised to take advantage of monster projects that the Geransky's could have only dreamed about when they first fuelled up their D6. "For example, we helped develop Westwood Plateau in Coquitlam, a residential development for 15,000 people including a championship golf course," says Froese. "That single project was worth over $60-million for us and kept a lot our utility crews pretty busy for 10 years."

Trains and Planes: Major Transit Projects for Southwest

A major shoring project for SWC during this time was the Grandview Cut for the SkyTrain Millennium Line, which required the installation of over 1,200 rock and soil anchors and shotcrete for a permanent retaining wall system. All of SWC's expertise was brought into play with the $6.5 million West Apron expansion of the Vancouver International Airport. This assignment required SWC crews to excavate and relocate over 600,000 cubic metres of native material, install six kilometres of sewers and grade the 26-acre site to a tolerance of five millimetres in preparation for the apron expansion, all whilst not disturbing the airports around the clock operations.

Such projects are in addition to the bread-and-butter work that forms the backbone of SWC, namely, building infrastructure such as roads, providing sewer, water and site preparation for residential developments, and shoring wherever shoring is required.

"It doesn't matter the size of the job, it matters that we do it well," says Froese.

One recent project of note involved constructing over one kilometre of David Avenue for the City of Coquitlam. This project was worth over $10-million and required a 135-metre bridge to span the Coquitlam River. Also of note is the ongoing work on SFU's UniverCity project, a sustainable development that will eventually support up to 4,500 homes and 10,000 people.

A good example of the company's venturesome spirit and devotion to staff is an assignment that required repair to a caved-in wall in Bermuda. "We're always looking for something different and this was a great chance to send staff who had been working with us a long time - along with their families - to a beautiful part of the world," says MacCara.

Digging Through History

Even at home, the nature of SWC's work often sparks intrigue. "When we were excavating for the Coal Harbour redevelopment in Vancouver we uncovered an old barge at the 35-foot depth and it was so massive we had to leave it there," recalls Froese. "We're always peeling back layers of history."

By MacCara's estimation, SWC is currently "going full bore with all sorts of jobs, with no end in sight", however that doesn't prevent the partners from further developing the company to better meet worksite conditions and the evolving needs of clients. A case in point: When Southwest took on the micropiles for a seismic upgrade extension to the Lions Gate Hospital, a new drill rig had to be flown in from Italy since the larger ones in town didn't fit in the hallways. These small drill rigs have been instrumental in preparing older buildings for earthquake preparedness by attaching the existing thickened walls deep into the earth.

A joint venture between SWC and Seattle-based Condon-Johnson & Associates Inc. has allowed MacCara and his colleagues to introduce a specialized shoring system to B.C. that is ideally suited for marsh-like conditions. Specifically, it was used at Suter Brook and involved SWC crews using a rotary drilling machine that mixes cement with water and soil to create soil-cement columns of engineered strength, consistency and dimension.

"Our joint venture with Condon-Johnson allows us to stay current with the techniques from Europe that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive for specialized jobs here in B.C.," he says.

In the meantime, there is no end of earth to be excavated and moved, utilities to be installed and retaining walls to be built.

Feeling Confident in the Future

"We just want to keep adding to our portfolio of things we're able to do, keep our equipment updated and keep our long-term clients happy," says Ronning. "These are the good times and because we've undergone so much growth and have overcome so many challenges, we're confident about our future."