Seismic shifts in Rob and Liana Frenette’s life seem to happen over lunch.
The first time in 1994 resulted in an unexpected offer to buy a Thunder Bay materials testing lab. The second time, landed Wayne Hurley, into the position of vice-president of engineering. He has been instrumental in branching out their business.
Since acquiring the company in 1995, TBT Engineering Consulting Group has made a name for itself by diversifying into a multi-disciplinary engineering firm with a string of projects across northwestern Ontario and Canada.
The husband-and-wife team of Rob (TBT’s president) and Liana (the CEO) have expanded from two technicians to 105 engineers, scientists, technologists, technicians and drillers.
Founded in 1968 as Thunder Bay Testing, a construction material testing lab, the Frenette’s entered the picture in the mid-1990s. Rob was working at the Ministry of Transportation and was moonlighting with a small consulting firm doing small civil engineering jobs.
One project for a septic design required a material sample to be tested and Rob brought it to Thunder Bay Testing, formerly run by Conrad Hagstrom. Rob got his result back and also an unexpected offer to go for lunch. Hagstrom then asked if Rob was interested in buying the business.
“I didn’t know him from a hole in the ground,” said Rob. “It was one of those things that happen in life. You don’t see it coming and sometimes it’s good to be blindsided.”
But giving up a secure $60,000 government job to take a leap as an entrepreneur required some careful thought and much convincing to Liana, who had quit her teaching position to raise their three children. Rob felt the company was a “diamond in the rough” and never regrets taking the leap, despite the misgivings of one person.
“In the words of our accountant, ‘for what we bought, we paid too much. For what it gave us, we paid too little.’”
Back then, Thunder Bay Testing was literally a “backdoor operation” of Trow Associates, a local engineering firm, and they were crammed into an adjoining 300-square-foot office-lab. The umbilical was so tight, the Frenettes first order of business was to buy their own fax machine because all their incoming messages went through Trow. The relationship became strained when Trow tried to acquire the company.
”They insulted me. I insulted them. They showed me the door,” said Rob.
TBT moved out and opened up a lab down the street. Over time, the two companies mended fences and TBT handles all of Trow’s drilling services in northwestern Ontario.
Their first job at the Red Rock Domtar mill was an eye-opener that required on-site materials testing on a 24-hour basis, said Rob.
“We went from buying the company, not knowing exactly what we were getting into, to hiring enough personnel, training them and establishing a shift schedule.”
Today, their client list includes Trans-Canada Pipeline, Ontario Power Generation, Kodiak Exploration, Agrium, North American Palladium, Thunder Bay International Airport, Thunder Bay Port Authority and the City of Thunder Bay.
“We’re fairly pragmatic and conservative in our expectations,” said Rob. “Whenever we take a huge initiative like starting up a new branch of the business, we don’t expect profits the first year. We operate on the principle that we’ll lose money the first year, break even the second year and make money the third.”
They’re taking the same approach to their new 10-employee Winnipeg office.
The opportunity to help the province plan and design an all-weather road to open northern Manitoba for resource extraction and better connect First Nation communities was too good to pass up.
What’s important to the Frenettes is creating a fun and safety-conscious company culture for employees.
“If they understand they’re working for a company that believes in quality, believes in safety, and believes in making it fun, we’ve found we get lot more effort out of everyone.”
The Frenettes emphasize hiring locals whenever possible. Ninety-five per cent of their staff are from Thunder Bay and 75 per cent graduates of Lakehead University or Confederation College.
Teaching at Lakehead allows Rob to cherry-pick the best prospects. “One of my primary functions is to find students that have never outgrown their Tonkas.”
One of the company’s biggest personnel acquisitions has been hiring Wayne Hurley in 2000.
“That was one of the biggest stress reducers for Rob and I, to have a senior person to make decisions without us,” said Liana.
A self-proclaimed “dirt guy,” Hurley is a trained as a geotechnical engineer who has solidified TBT’s steadily growing geotechnical and environmental engineering business.