Family feel keeps top talent paving at Burnaby Blacktop
In the busy southern British Columbia roadbuilding sector, Burnaby Blacktop has established itself as a capable contractor for a broad range of paving services, from residential to municipal. From its start as a one-man operation, the company has developed a large, skilled workforce and a family vibe that holds on to talented employees.
About 12 years ago, Adrian Alblas was working as a deckhand on tugboats around Vancouver, B.C., when he concluded that the jobs he was doing weren't for him. He looked around, saw that there were driveways that needed repairs, and decided he would try seal coating as a new enterprise. That was the start of what would become Burnaby Blacktop, and from there the work started to pick up.
Starting as a one-person operation, Alblas quickly teamed up with a friend, bought a dump truck, and the business started to grow. Kevin Bustard, who today is Burnaby Blacktop's quality director, was a member of the first five-person paving crew formed by Alblas.
"I worked with a wheelbarrow. We were five guys, mostly doing hand work," Bustard recalled. "We struggled for a long time hiring good people but we kept moving ahead."
Bustard recalled that after its initial foray into driveway repair and sealing, Burnaby Blacktop started buying more equipment – a CASE skid steer, a Mauldin paver, and more trucks – and moved into pothole repair, followed by growth into commercial parking lot repair and paving.
Family feel helps attract new talent
Along the way, Alblas continued to ensure that Burnaby Blacktop maintained a family feel for its employees, which helped draw more talent when it was needed. A focus on growing health and safety programs in the late 2010s made a huge difference, and the company experienced massive growth to become a contender for large jobs in the Vancouver area.
Bustard said the addition of a comprehensive occupational health and safety program made Burnaby Blacktop more attractive for talented employees who were looking for positions with companies that kept them in mind. That growth gave Alblas the opportunity to start adding more equipment to the company's fleet.
"We started bringing in better people and Adrian just started buying equipment - every cent he made, he barely paid himself, it went into the company," he described.
Better equipment continued to draw better talent, and the family feel of the company made it even more attractive to potential employees. Bustard said that continues to be a key part of the draw for Burnaby Blacktop today.
"Adrian himself is such a humble and helpful person - people recognize that if they work for him, they aren't just a number. He knows their name, he participates in their life. That's powerful, and unusual," Bustard said.
Today that attitude remains, even through the massive growth the company experienced and its continued expansion into larger markets. Fit and feel for employees continues to be a large part of employee retention.
"It's a hot market, and the labour pool is small," Bustard said. "The culture brings the people - it's word of mouth, it's other people within other paving companies who may prefer the smaller company for its dynamics. They've watched us from day one, maybe, when we had one or two trucks on the road, and now we have dozens of trucks."
Diverse mixed fleet of equipment
Today, Burnaby Blacktop employs about 95 people, who stick around thanks to the positive work environment and the ability to work on a variety of projects with a broad range of equipment types. Burnaby Blacktop has a diverse mixed fleet of machines that have come a long way from that first CASE skid steer - though smaller machines remain a big part of the roughly 150-unit-strong fleet.
"They developed an infatuation with Bobcats and other machines - the small compact loader is so important to us, so we have a load of them," Bustard described.
Caterpillar, Deere, and Bobcat are well represented in the smaller machines, and recent purchases across the board have leaned towards Cat, while specialty paving and milling equipment comes from manufacturers like BOMAG, LeeBoy, Wirtgen, Cat, and Weiler, along with Ammann rollers and others. A mixed fleet comes with challenges, but finding good dealer partners can take time and experience to get the relationship and service levels right, Bustard added.
With a skilled and loyal workforce and a substantial fleet, Burnaby Blacktop takes advantage of those strengths as key parts of its project management approach. Ensuring that employees are familiar with the machines they run is a starting point, Bustard noted.
"When a new piece of equipment rolls in, if you're going to touch it, we want you to sit down and read the user's manual, hit the maintenance intervals, and be responsible for that piece of equipment," he said.
Mobile technology key to success
Mobile technology is a big part of the process as well, with phone apps providing important data throughout the company's operations. Health and safety efforts, for example, are using SafeTApp, a mobile product that employees can use to access certifications and resources as needed, Bustard noted.
Samsara apps are used for the company's fleet management work, and a customized version of Salesforce is used by the sales department.
What these apps do is provide a way to track all aspects of the business, adding a variety of benefits, Bustard said. For example, when a new piece of equipment is added to the fleet, a first-use inspection is done and entered into the operator's phone, and is logged as part of Burnaby Blacktop's extensive maintenance program.
On the job site, these apps are used to collect items like quality control reports, near miss reports, disciplinary notes, fuelling, and other data, Bustard said.
"Now, we couldn't live without those digital interfaces. They take some time management and time with the creators of the app . . . they're a blessing and a curse," he described. "But when it comes to crunch time and you have an incident, that has a lot of meaning - whether it's underground interference, a line, or an injury. If you haven't tracked everything prior to that, you're at the mercy of some powerful forces. These apps help us track our processes and our progress, and they hold us accountable to our commitment and our word that we do things in a certain way."
Today, more than a decade after starting with one truck, Burnaby Blacktop handles jobs that run the gamut from residential to commercial, along with municipal work and more, in both asphalt and concrete depending on the need. That flexibility ensures that the business has plenty of work, but one focus for the future is to determine where they can truly use their skills.
Even so, while Burnaby Blacktop's expertise extends to things like pavement and base refurbishment, turnkey parking lots for new tilt-up structures, or other projects that are taking them further into heavy industrial jobs, the company still retains its traditional client base for much of its work.
"We still have our feet in residential, we still do hundreds of driveways a year," Bustard said. "And, we have our civil clients who like what we do, paving trenches and sections of streets around new building installations, or doing curb and gutter sidewalk work."