Since his arrival as the leader of Béton préfabriqué du Lac (BPDL), founded in 1976 by his father, Robert Bouchard has been able to quadruple the revenue and workforce of the Lac-Saint-Jean company. It’s a success he attributes in particular to his desire to strengthen the business internally.
Whoever would have thought that this little company from Alma would one day be chosen to build Yankee Stadium in New York, then create the structures supporting the trains for the Réseau express métropolitain (REM), its biggest contract to date?
“The biggest manufacturers predicted that we’d be the first to disappear, since our closest market was Montreal and all our competitors are located there, plus the fact that concrete is a heavy load to transport,” explains Robert Bouchard, who took over as head of the company ten years ago. “Since then most of those manufacturers have closed their doors, but we’re still here.”
Finding your niche in a family business
Robert started working for BPDL’s Alma plant in the summer, then officially started full-time in 1987.
“For 25 years, the company was managed by four people: first my father, who kind of supervised everyone, his brother who handled production, my brother who handled engineering and project management, and me, in sales and administration,” he explains. “For 10 years my sister managed the activities of the plant we opened in Brazil in 1992.”
Robert had long watched his father work six to seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day, for the various companies he had founded.
“I think that even if you’re the child of an entrepreneur, we don’t all necessarily have that DNA in us. In my case, I did, and I always wanted to take over the company one day.”
However, the elder Bouchard wasn’t the type to hand over the reins: He had devoted his life to his companies and didn’t have any other interests to take their place. So when Robert reached his forties he had no choice but to sit down with his dad and put all his cards on the table. After discussing the issue with the two other children, who had no interest in managing the company, the elder Bouchard accepted Robert as his successor, though he still kept coming in to work every day, even when he was in his eighties.
Solidifying internally in order to grow
Robert’s first construction site was the company itself. “While micromanaging and getting involved in every aspect of things was fine when we were an SME, once you get to a certain size it’s impossible to keep functioning that way,” he emphasizes. “You have to surround yourself with competent people who can maintain quality control.”
His father used to make it a habit to do everything himself and fill in for other people’s weaknesses. This structure was actually necessary in order to be able to fulfill all the new contracts the company had received. Amongst these major projects were Highways 25 and 30, the Mercier Bridge, the Turcot Interchange, the Champlain Bridge and the REM, to name only Quebec-based projects.
To be able to fulfill demand, the company also needed to make a number of acquisitions over the past 10 years, and consequently has hired a massive number of employees.
Today BPDL includes 10 production units, including divisions for anchoring components, transportation and casting, particularly in Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Massachusetts and in Saint-Eugène-de-Grantham. The latter is currently the largest division in terms of square footage and number of employees—230—in large part due to the Champlain Bridge and REM projects. As a point of comparison, the Alma plants employ 200 workers.
This was how the number of employees quadrupled when the company changed hands, reaching 650 workers.
“The challenge in the past three or four years has been finding motivated manual labour,” says Robert, who notes there is a lack of manual skills amongst the younger generations. “We’ll need to think about integrating technology to fill the gap.”
The next step for BPDL follows logically from the structure established when Robert Bouchard took over as head of the company.
“We’ll continue doing well at what we’ve always done, but now we’re going to tackle tracking our costs more effectively,” says Robert. “This will enable us to nail down all of the company’s strategic points and thereby improve our productivity.”
That said, BPDL’s growth will not happen in Quebec, but rather in other markets. “Our Quebec plants satisfy demand and 50 percent of our products are shipped to the U.S.,” he specifies.
This latter market has been in development since the 1990s with projects like Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden in New York, as well as the Big Dig tunnel in Boston.
Africa might be the company’s next fertile ground for exploration.
In the longer term, Robert Bouchard will also need to think about his successors, which might just be his own children… or not.
“I don’t want to push them into taking over one day,” he emphasizes. “That’s a mistake you see too often in family businesses. It’s important that it comes from them.”
Out of his three children, the only one who’s taken a position at the company is his daughter, who has worked in human resources for over four years.
BPDL in Numbers
$100 M: Approximate dollar value of the contract for 10,000 concrete slabs for the new Champlain Bridge
650: Number of employees at BPDL
10: Number of production units in Quebec, the United States and Brazil
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