Built in Yellowknife

photo courtesy of Clark Builders

Since starting his business in the NWT capital in 1974, Andy Clark has grown Clark Builders into a $500 million a year operation

by Brent Reaney

Andy Clark always liked building things. What he didn’t like was the idea of spending four years studying engineering at university with the chance the field wouldn’t interest him after graduation. “Just knowing how to solve problems and build things, that was sort of ingrained in me from the time I was probably five. I kind of took to construction like a duck to water,” he says.

Clark grew up on a farm in the small Quebec town of Brownsburg, and came West in 1969 to work for his uncle’s company, Nason Construction. Later transferred to Yellowknife, he arrived on the 1973 Labour Day Long Weekend with a gravel-punctured gas tank and hungry to work.

Still working for Nason, Clark led two projects; the construction of the YK Motors dealership and the City of Yellowknife’s Civic Works garage, both of which are still around today. “I was a young guy, 23 turning 24, piss and vinegar, used to working 12 hours a day on the farm, seven days a week,” Clark says. “Not only did I take to construction pretty naturally, I took to Yellowknife pretty naturally. I liked the fact that it was the last frontier, a place of opportunity.”

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When Imperial Oil asked him to construct a shop for their trucks, Clark leapt at the opportunity. He took the $22,000 he’d saved working for Nason and used it to start his own business. “I was estimator, project manager, accountant by night, superintendent and carpenter by day. It just felt really natural,” he says. “But there were slow spots the first year. I think at one time, I built a dog house for somebody to keep busy.”

Clark was “a straight shooter, approachable and not much of a show-off,” says Elias Saravanja, who first met Clark in the early 80s, adding “he was always well-dressed and soft-spoken. I never heard him say a bad word.” Even today, as the founder and executive chairman, Andrew Clark still goes by Andy.

With children around the same age, Saravanja and Clark soon became friends. A mechanic by trade, Saravanja serviced Clark’s fleet of vehicles until the construction business outgrew his operation. They’ve been in touch on and off over the years, and five years ago Clark hired Saravanja to work on a job in the Yukon. “He belonged to a group of people who continued to build this town, helping people without being boastful or trying to get recognition,” says Saravanja, remembering a time when Clark sent over a crew with materials to finish the front doors of his new Old Town mechanic shop. Months later, Clark sent a statement showing the job as paid.

Construction of the Echo Bay gold mine is one of Clark’s favourite northern projects. It helped the company forge a reputation as able to handle larger jobs. To get the work done, Clark lived on site for a year, slept in camps, and dealt with near-blizzard conditions and enormous logistical challenges on a regular basis. “You get it right, you make money. You get it wrong, it costs you a lot of money,” he says of the importance of project planning in the North. “What we found when we came down to Edmonton and started competing with larger, more established companies is we could eat their lunch on jobs that needed to be done on a short timeline.”

photos by Brent Reaney

Along with logistical planning expertise, starting in the North helped Clark develop a love and respect for people. “Maybe the North country gave me a great gift in forcing me to try harder because good talent was so scarce up there and even average talent was scarce,” he says. “You really had to figure out ways to get the best out of the people you had and frankly, I’ve probably never thought of it that way, but I suspect that’s the case.”

But while Clark has fond memories of the town where his business started, there were also some tough times, such as the construction of Centre Square Mall. The City wanted a mixed-use development downtown, Clark says, but didn’t have the bylaws to accommodate it. He also remembers a number of local businesspeople who worked to slow the progress of what was slated to be the biggest and best commercial facility in town.

“There was a lot of misinformation in the newspapers about what the City was doing to help our project and for somebody who’s always tried to do their best for their community and for their clients, to see your name in the paper kind of as a corporate welfare bum was pretty painful,” he says. “In the end, because of all the interference, it cost our company $5 million and gave us a black eye in the process.”

But that was a long time ago, and today Clark Builders has a well-earned reputation in local construction circles for completing projects on time and on budget. Clark Builders project signs are so visible in Yellowknife and across Western Canada that many Yellowknifers assume the company started down south.

Clark hasn’t lived in Yellowknife since 1987, but the company maintains an office on Old Airport Road, and employs as many as 100 field staff across the North when things are busy. Some of the company’s local projects include the new Gallery Building, the St. Joseph’s School renovation, St. Pat’s/Weledeh School and the Vital Abel Boarding Home in N’dilo.

Clark Builders has grown into a $500 million a year operation with more than 700 employees. Along the way, it’s completed projects around the world, and been named one of Canada’s 50 Best Employers and 50 Best Managed Companies multiple times. To help it take on even larger projects, late last year the company partnered with American mega-firm Turner Construction, which handles roughly $8 billion per year worth of work.

“I wanted to build a company that was going to be a company that would go on long after I was of an age that I could provide good leadership,” says Clark, now 61. “Somebody once told me that anybody can build a building, not everyone can build a team. While I’m proud of most every building I’ve built, I’m most proud of what I think we’ve done best around here, which is building an extraordinary team of talent.”

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