November 24, 2011
Ball in the family
Cousins Jason and Cameron Ball represent the third generation of owners of what is now Ball Construction Ltd. As president and vice-president respectively of the thriving Kitchener, Ont. business, they maintain a healthy respect for the company’s tradition of hard work, while looking to the future by embracing newer models of delivery, including design-build.
Ball Brothers General Contractors was founded by Harold and Frank Ball in 1923, becoming Ball Brothers Limited in 1930. Following World War II, Harold’s sons Jack, Jim and Thom, and Frank’s son Bill joined the business.
Today, Ball Construction boasts more than 100 field staff, two dozen office staff and a reputation for taking on some of Ontario’s toughest construction challenges.
“As a teenager I worked every summer as a construction labourer with the company and I considered it a great job,” says Jason Ball, Jack’s son. “I realized how much I loved construction and working with the industry.” Jason graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1985 and joined the company soon after.
Jim’s son Cameron likewise worked in construction during summers, then joined the firm in 1990 after graduating from Queen’s University.
Jason and Cameron, purchased the company outright in 1997. Thirty-year company veteran Gary Hauck, vice president and estimating manager, joined Ball as a partner in 2005.
“Our culture here is customer service,” says Jason. “Our activity is building, but the real product is the testimonials we receive from our clients. Entering the design-build and construction management fields has helped us to take that level of customer care to all aspects of the business. We enjoy a tremendous volume of repeat business and that’s part of the reason for our longevity.”
Ball Construction covers the Ontario market, with contracts ranging from Windsor to Ottawa and north to Timmins and Thunder Bay. Projects cover a wide range from recreational facilities and hockey arenas, to long-term care facilities, seniors’ buildings, institutional facilities, commercial projects, industrial buildings and military contracts.
“What’s great about this business, is that every project is different,” notes Cameron. “Different personalities, different contracts, different owners, and at the end of the project, there’s a building that demonstrates the extent of the relationship between all of us.”
Diverse projects undertaken by the company range anywhere from $1,500 to $50 million, with work shared across two company divisions.
The Major Contracts Division handles larger contracts ranging from $2 million to $50 million.
Larger construction management contracts include this year’s Stephen Hawking Centre, a 55,000-square-foot addition to Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the entire University of Waterloo Health Sciences campus, including the School of Pharmacy and the School of Medicine in downtown Kitchener.
Design-build projects include this summer’s expansion of the Milton Sports Centre and last year’s significant expansion of Loyalist and Durham colleges. Durham’s student services centre was completed on budget and ahead of schedule, the first federal stimulus program completed under the Knowledge Infrastructure Program.
“Our goal is to provide a single source for design and construction,” says Hauck. “On design-build partnerships we work closely with consultants, architects and engineers on anything from hockey facilities, recreation facilities, seniors complexes and student residences. Another of our strengths is our ability to partner with the trades, simply treating them well in a non-adversarial relationship.”
The company’s Specialty Projects Division takes on anything from relocating a door in an industrial facility to building a retail outlet like a Tim Hortons restaurant, or taking on a $2-million plant addition.
“We can handle a couple of hundred smaller projects each year, lasting from four hours to four months, and we have emergency response staff available 24/7,” says Jason.
Retaining a large staff of well-trained union construction labourers and carpenters helps the company to deliver projects on time. It also increases the company’s mobility as it takes advantage of a highly skilled union workforce in any Ontario location.
“The biggest risks on a project occur at the preliminary stages of construction, including excavation and foundation work,” says Hauck. “By self-performing carpentry work on a $5-million forming project we can control the schedule, react to changes and give our clients good value for their money.”
The company maintains an open-door policy, with employees encouraged to innovate. “Recently some of our workers told us they’d developed a new way of rubbing concrete to match it up with other concrete used on a wall,” says Jason. “Details like that help us to continuously improve on quality.”
The business partners each have a slate of favourite projects, but the Stephen Hawking Centre at the Perimeter Institute tops each of their lists.
“That’s our most complicated marquee project,” says Cameron. “The mandate from the client was to create a unique space that would not only act as office space, but also provide a home for visiting researchers, doubling as a recruiting tool to help attract researchers internationally. We were honoured to accompany Stephen Hawking on a tour of the facility one evening and his attendant indicated that he was very pleased with it.”
Each of the partners tags other projects for their lists of favourites, ranging from the recent redevelopment of the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre for the city of Brantford, to construction of a million-square-foot Loblaws distribution facility in Cambridge a few years ago.
As an estimator, Hauck’s favourite projects are those that come in significantly under budget.
“Some buildings go through a lot of value engineering and those are among our most successful jobs,” he says. “For me, it’s still the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery for the City of Waterloo, in which we cut more than $1 million from the original tender and still provided the client with a signature building.”
Ball also undertakes charitable construction work. It recently installed footings and piers to support a monument incorporating an artifact of structural steel from the World Trade Centre on behalf of the Kitchener Fire Department.
The company recently completed another significant project: construction of its own new office, warehouse and equipment facility, replacing an office built during Canada’s Centennial.
“We’re sustainable builders,” says Jason. “And we’ve gone over the top in environmental details, from a high-R-value roof, to a tight building envelope, to LED lighting. We’re showcasing our concrete work by incorporating 16-inch thick exposed concrete walls throughout our entrance lobby — even our reception desk is poured concrete.”
The company is sharpening its pencil for the coming decade, and the partners are optimistic about construction opportunities.
“The federal stimulus program was very good for the entire industry,” says Cameron. “I think it’s safe to say everyone in the industry is concerned about what will happen over the next 12 months. A lot of the infrastructure stimulus work is being completed and everyone is looking to the private sector to take up the torch. But there are good indicators out there regarding jobs in the design and planning stages.”
Jason says he agrees. “A look at the crystal ball indicates that perhaps heavy civil infrastructure will keep us busy for a long time with roads and bridges, while ICI will be a little slower,” he says. “Green building will also keep us busy with solar panel work, windmill towers and other sustainable construction, while LEED, the Green Globes and other emerging standards will create further opportunities for buildings to achieve sustainable goals.”
Hauck predicts a continued emphasis on design-build and construction management projects scheduled on the fast track. “The engineering process will continue to be broken down, with an increased reliance on technology to exchange drawings and contract information,” he says. “The general contractors are getting used to this, but even the smaller subcontractors will have to be walked through the process so they can get comfortable with it.”
Though they have unique personalities, the three partners share common attributes. They simply love going to work and thrive on hands-on involvement with every project and its partners, from clients, to trades to employees. They believe in long hours when necessary, in a business that often keeps them on call around the clock.
The company is poised for growth in the coming decade, retaining existing clients and working to build relationships with new ones.
“The strength of our business is our people and the expertise they bring to the table,” says Jason. “We’re looking forward to meeting the challenges of adapting to ongoing changes in the industry, including new technology and new methods of delivering projects. In a business that continues to evolve, the only thing that we insist must never change is our emphasis on quality.”
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