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Company of the Year (51+ Employees): J.L. Richards & Associates Ltd.

"In Northern Ontario, we're big enough to serve and do these projects, but we're small enough to care."

In an age of mega-firms, in which larger multinational companies are buying up smaller enterprises at an accelerated rate, J.L. Richards & Associates Ltd. is a bit of an anomaly.

With offices in Sudbury, North Bay and Timmins, the Northern Ontario arm of the mid-sized, multi-disciplinary planning, engineering and architectural firm functions with the personalized approach of a mom-and-pop operation and the finesse and know-how of a larger entity.

A focus on service and people comes from a sense of pride instilled in the firm's employees, who are also shareholders, said Bryan Parkinson, company vice-president and branch manager of the North Bay office.

"We find, with the very broad ownership, it gives everybody that sense of being part of the business, and we feel, as our business model, it gives us more of a loyalty, more of an ownership, more of a presence of being who we are," he said. "We find it's really important to us and our employees."

J.L. Richards, which has been operating since 1955, opened a Sudbury office specializing in structural engineering in 1974. Sixteen years later, the firm broadened its mandate to a multi-disciplinary approach, offering clients the full range of engineering and architectural services, from planning and designing through to the supervision of project construction. Offices in Timmins and North Bay followed, in 2001 and 2005, respectively.

"In Northern Ontario, we're big enough to serve and do these projects, but we're small enough to care," said Georges Quirion, Timmins branch manager. "I think that's where we stand out from the other guys, and we see that as a long-term business opportunity, a competitive advantage for us."

The company has provided fertile training ground for up-and-coming architects and engineers. Starting at the high school level, the firm welcomes students on placement who show an aptitude for, and interest in, the industry. University students are hired on as summer students, gaining valuable experience as they complete their formal education.

Once they graduate, a job is often waiting for them at J.L. Richards.

"One of the things we've tried to do is hire as many young professionals and technicians as we can from the northern area, because we realize that it's hard for them to get jobs in the North," said Stephen Langille, Sudbury branch manager. "There aren't as many jobs as down south, but the people that are here want to stay here."

Mentoring is valuable for the students and the company, said Langille, who believes fostering Northern youth early on stems the brain drain to the south and gives them opportunities to stay and work up North.

For its efforts, J.L. Richards was recognized by the inaugural Young Professionals Awards, hosted by the Timmins Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals Committee, as the best place to work for young professionals under 40. Flexible hours, opportunities for professional development, performance-based bonuses and cross-training opportunities were listed amongst the company's perks.

A heartfelt submission sent in by its Timmins-area employees touched Quirion, who said the company appreciates that happy employees make a happy workplace.

"It's not just about making money and going after work; we realize getting employees is difficult," he said. "There's good compensation, but also job satisfaction, and providing a proper work environment is really important for employee retention and also quality of work."

The company is proud of its accolades, especially when most of its work goes unseen.

"The engineering side of the business is unglamourous," Parkinson explained. "The CN Towers and the big bridges are few and far between. The day-to-day engineering you see is all buried: steel columns, beams, ventilation ducts — that's what engineering's all about."

But employees take satisfaction in providing clients with high-quality designs that offer practicality, energy-efficiency and aesthetic appeal, and come in on time and on budget.

"We've come along way in a short period of time, and we're only partway there," Parkinson said. "We still see lots of growth in Northern Ontario."