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NOBA 2021: Felix Lopes Jr. is the Entrepreneur of the Year

Hard work, employee wellbeing are hallmarks of this Coniston entrepreneur

It's safe to say no moss grows under Felix Lopes Jr.'s feet.

The energetic owner and president of the Lopes Group of Companies can be a tough man to track down, especially when it comes to seizing on opportunity.  

In the 18 years since taking over Lopes Ltd., the family-owned industrial fabrication company has expanded to include a metal heat-treating service, a garage door installer, a charter bus company, a commercial truck wash, a mining equipment and vehicle outfit, and a budding homebuilding venture, with still a few more irons in the fire.

His approach to building and managing companies is to identify an opportunity with his team and take advantage of it.

"I see a gap and I go for it," said Lopes Jr. in explaining his approach, best exemplified by the establishment of Salto Heat Treating, a metal hardening spinoff company that's thrived since opening at the outset of the pandemic a year ago.

The railway-connected industrial business park he owns in Coniston, in Sudbury's east end at the site of a former INCO smelter, is the home base for his companies and a handful of tenants, and features an airstrip and a nine-hole golf course.

Landscaped with wildflowers, the property includes 10 kilometres of walking trails for his employees and industrial park tenants. A baseball field is in the works. Not long ago, a medical and wellness clinic was opened at the site, staffed by nurse practitioners, to offer a "red carpet service" to employees.

"We're turning our park into a community," said Lopes Jr. "We spend more than half of our lifetime at work. Why not make a physical outdoor environment and have those employees use it?"

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The physical and mental wellbeing of his 300 employees – a group he considers "family" – is a point of emphasis in the teambuilding culture he nurtures.

Clients are important to the success of any company, he said, but his employees rank first.

"I wouldn't be where I am today without them."

With his ebullient personality, Lopes Jr. takes a holistic approach to work and life. But he wasn't always wired this way.

His dad, Felix Lopes Sr., who founded Lopes Ltd. in Sudbury in 1976, was a first-generation Canadian who immigrated from Portugal.

A perfectionist, Lopes Sr. was a generous and hard-driving man. The company always compensated its employees well, but Lopes Jr. said his dad could also be tough on them at times.

"My father always took care of his people.”

He praised good work, but could also sternly point out mistakes, all traits he passed on to his son.

"I was not a good leader," Lopes Jr. admits. 

Unbeknownst to him, the hard-nosed company was developing a bad reputation, one that was scaring off people.

One day, a trusted employee appeared in his doorway and closed the door to deliver a startling admission.

"He said, I gotta talk to you. If you continue like this, no one's gonna wanna work for you. And it hit me, right there in that moment. It hit me hard.

"Yeah, we always paid well. We always treated our people well, financially, but it's not the money; it's about the environment, it's about so many things.

"I'm not afraid of saying that. I had to wake up at that moment," said Lopes Jr. "He made me realize something I wasn't even realizing."

Lopes said he personally apologized to his employees and asked for their guidance.

"I said, I need your help and I want you to help me, and when I'm in that character, you gotta walk up to me, and directly (tell me) or indirectly… give me the eye, and fortunately I changed that moment.

"I had to reprogram my brain, and from that day on, it was just success and it just grew from there."

Lopes Jr. said his ego isn't bruised if an employee has a better idea or comes up with a better plan or way to do something. No one will be criticized or ridiculed if they make a mistake. Sometimes it's just about going back to the drawing board.

"That's why I'm successful. We communicate. We talk about our vision, in good times and bad times.

"If I have a team or department that's made a mistake, it's not 'you made a mistake.’ We made a mistake. Let's learn from it. There's a cost to every mistake, and sometimes those costs are massive and we gotta do our due diligence and do it right." 

Always eager to share his success by giving back to the community, Lopes Jr. is known for his countless philanthropic endeavours through donations and acts of kindness for wellbeing projects focussed on children, social welfare, and accessible health care.

He has always been an ardent promoter of the skilled trades through work placements and is an inclusive employer in his support of women in the trades.

His company's transport trailers are emblazoned with a branded wrap that reads 'The Future of Trades is Female."

With the chronic shortage of tradespeople in Northern Ontario over the decades, Lopes Jr. said his advocacy in having a diverse workforce was really a no-brainer. 

"I believe strongly that we need a lot more women in trades," said Lopes Jr., estimating that 18 per cent of positions in his construction company are filled by women, working as electricians, welders, fabricators and in operations at two of his companies.

One of his supporters, Cambrian College president Bill Best, called Lopes Jr. a "community builder" who invests in and contributes to local health care, sports and leisure pursuits, and the "overall economic prosperity of the region."

In his nomination letter, Best said Lopes Jr. is a "staunch believer" in higher education, pointing to the establishment of the Felix Sr. and Maria Lopes Bursary. The bursary is awarded to students in a graduate engineering program who are in financial need.

Lopes Jr.'s parents always placed a premium on education.

"It's important for me and for my parents to have that legacy," he said.

"They taught me a good work ethic, how to succeed, work hard and be successful,; my father was extremely good to my mother and gave back to the community. 

“To them, education was No. 1. It didn't matter what form. It was always important to have the proper education, in trades or academics. I continue that legacy. I don't wanna stop and I can't wait to do more.”

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.