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Company of the Year (51+ Employees): Cook Engineering, A Division of Genivar

“We don’t have a lot of turnover, and there’s a core group that has been here for a long time and are enthusiastic about what they’re doing.”

The economy of northwestern Ontario and the history of Cook Engineering have always been intertwined.

As grain elevators on Thunder Bay’s waterfront have been abandoned and demolished, and the struggles of the forestry industry have closed one mill after another, this dynamic 130-employee engineering and architecture firm has always found new opportunities and been on the leading edge of change.

Established in 1962 as V.B. Cook Co. Ltd., the company’s growth has mirrored the progress of the grain, pulp and paper, and transportation sectors of this city on the north shore of Lake Superior.

With a foundation of expertise in heavy industry and public infrastructure. Cook has always been flexible and insightful enough to be able to shift gears and make bold choices in diversifying into growth areas, including the region’s emerging biomass economy.

That kind of ambition and a huge Rolodex of clients as Northern Ontario’s largest independent multi-disciplinary engineering company was attractive to Genivar Income Fund, a major Canadian consulting firm who acquired Cook earlier this year.

As the former president of Cook and now Genivar’s director of operations for northwestern Ontario, Dave Knutson has witnessed the company’s evolution first-hand since 1987.

“When I joined, we were just finishing off the last significant grain-handling project in Thunder Bay.”

While they have always maintained a strong competitive edge in pulp and paper projects, bridge design and highway work, Cook is diversifying with a slate of green energy projects.

Their expertise in designing and building grain elevators has translated into erecting concrete headframes and hoists for the potash mining industry in Saskatchewan.

The automation experience gained from pulp and paper work is now in use in mines across Canada. Their familiarity with steam turbines in forestry mills lends itself to designing biomass boilers and energy-efficient co-generation plants.

The quality of work and the relationship they’ve built with clients over the decades has meant retrofits and expansions to projects they carried out as long as 30 years ago.

In recent years, Cook has developed a deep appreciation and understanding of Aboriginal people through the formation of its First Nations Business Development Group.

The firm prides itself in providing culturally sensitive and personalized services in architectural, environmental, engineering and development work for First Nation clients.

They have worked on a diverse range of projects with health clinics, day care centres, schools, business centres, water treatment plants and remote diesel generating stations.

In some cases, it’s meant improving lives by repairing and rebuilding entire blocks of mould-infested homes in First Nation communities.

But having multi-faceted abilities is nothing without attracting and retaining skilled and talented employees.

Cook Engineering has developed a first-class reputation as an employer that is committed to its staff. They have fostered an environment that is respectful of people’s talent, experiences and input.

“A new employee once made the comment that she really enjoyed working for us because it was the first place she worked where if she admitted she didn’t know something, it wasn’t her last day at work.”

With an industry-competitive remuneration and benefits package, the company takes pride in their low attrition rate by showing respect for employees at all levels.

Through financial assistance from the company, staff are encouraged to pursue professional development options to help with cross-training and qualification in multiple fields and tasks.

“We’ve tried to make sure our employees are as flexible in their skills as they can be,” said Knutson.

“We don’t have a lot of turnover, and there’s a core group that has been here for a long time and are enthusiastic about what they’re doing.”

The company has also shown a willingness to invest in research and development projects that are initiated by staff. “We’re not shy to encourage a little exploration and expansion of knowledge,” said Knutson.

Whenever employees dive into philantrophic and charitable endeavors, Cook management is not afraid to pitch in with their support of Thunder Bay Regional Health Science Centre, George Jeffrey Children’s Centre, Shelter House, Lakehead University and Confederation College.

The company has stepped up to the plate in matching employee fundraising efforts for earthquake relief in Haiti. Staff have also volunteered their weekend in packing – and paying for – a shipping container loaded with used hospital equipment destined for Cuba.