FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Brian Stringer
June 7, 2016
Starting is easy enough – contact, setting appointment, appropriate venue. We met recently over poached eggs and ‘keep the coffee coming’.
Writing-up this interview took about 20 minutes transcribing notes – except the next three paragraphs – they took several hours:
I formed a new view of him. Yes, he’s still an irrepressible ‘in-your-face’ gregarious guy. Humble, unwaveringly proud – could probably write a book on overcoming obstacles. I first met Brian Stringer in 2001 – we served on a BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association) committee together, but didn’t overlap activities much, so our knowledge of each other was peripheral. My perceptions then: exceedingly gregarious, aggressive/pushy, strong personality, determined, bull-headed, relentless, doesn’t like to take ‘no or can’t’ for an answer very easily.
Conversation. Answers flowed, notes taken, always some surprises … but this one is a first for me, a powerful one. At 54, one might assume he is in mid-life mode. But there has been a far more powerful mid-point, or hinge-point for Brian. At 15. Everything I’ve learned about him fits 'before' or 'after' that point ...
There were other influences, sure (see below), but when I asked about influences, I didn’t expect this jaw-dropper: “my dad’s murder". He was only 15.
You could say he was a ‘troubled youth’.
Born in Calgary – middle child of seven, his mom was homemaker/welfare mom, dad was in the army – an intermittent influence, abuser, he came and went often. Siblings were split up, foster homes. School truancy. At 15 Brian and an older brother began living on their own, working at anything they could, scraping by, ignoring school. Then one night, police came to their place to inform them, their dad had been murdered. There was a week, when he was 16, living under a bridge, a bridge between stages.
Brian lives in 'the old neighbourhood', his kids went to the same schools – he’s never lived anywhere but Calgary. A junior-high school truant officer got him into wrestling. City champ. Provincial champion. Then rugby. Travel all over the world with Calgary Rams Rugby Club. These days he coaches the rugby team at Ernest Manning High, and this week he is establishing a scholarship there – not for the scholars, but more for the tough-love gang. Tough. Rough.
Brian didn’t graduate – left school half-way through 11th grade. Sheet metal work beckoned, it was the best paying trade at the time. Apprenticeship, SAIT, more work followed. He got his interprovincial journeyman ticket. Two days later, the NEP! A precipitous drop in income, from the penthouse to the outhouse, he lost nearly everything but kept his home and his 10-speed. He made a target list, biked to each service company on that list each day looking for work until he landed a job. Sweeping floors for less than anyone else would …
He’s worked in building operations, refrigeration – all the main companies, each step a move up: Johnson Controls, Trotter & Morton, Landis, Direct Energy. Along his way a first wife/partner, two sons (24 & 30 … both working in his business), a second wife/partner (Jane, is his office manager) and a step-son. Along his career/trade/constantly learning path, Brian wanted to get into sales. “I always wanted to be one of those sales-clowns. At 26 I was a Field Foreman at Honeywell”. He lacked the education they wanted, but not the passion. "Peter Dixon hired me at Landis + Staefa. Sales training and success followed.” Siemens bought them. Sales training, awards won, moved up, moved on and stayed on longer than he wanted with a desire for more, better, perhaps his own business. Sales manager at Trotter & Morton. Then, “Peter went to Direct Energy, I soon followed. I got involved with BOMA and BOA, to meet customers. I loved it and it has loved me back.”
That chance came 10 years ago when a $35K package left him without a position, but offered an opportunity. He started EPIC Building Services Ltd. Customers came quickly, not so quickly did the cash flow. “The third month I paid the payroll with my credit card!”. From six original staff, to 19 employees today, operations in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge and ‘exploring Saskatoon’ describe Epic's scope. A long way from living under that bridge …
Where did the name come from? “My son came up with it – Excellence, Performance In Customer Satisfaction – E P I C.”
Why are you successful? “taking chances, passion to continue to grow, I had to break free of that world I came from. I want to do more, to help others find their success – I don’t want anyone to have the life I had once.”
What has held you back? “there is no such thing. Finding your path is a full-contact sport.”
How do you see your business, as you’ve described it – providing building operators who do what needs to be done – going forward over the next quarter?
… we’re growing. Adding two staff in June. Everybody is trying to trim costs – and we help with that.
And over the next five years?
… the industry is changing. Service company charge-out rates are, for many, unreasonable and unaffordable. So, they want to do more in-house but don’t have the staff to do it or the back-up for relief and vacations. That’s our sweet spot. We help out.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… if you have experience I won’t hire you. People say, ‘Brian, what if you train them and they leave?’ My answer is, what if I don’t and they stay? In terms of contractors, I prefer people to companies – I don’t like too many middlemen. I like sales people who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Value. Values. Dedication.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Brian Stringer/Epic, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… The average age of building operators is 54. I don’t hire experience. I hire inexperienced people and train them, help them get their tickets. We provide building operator services for new and experienced buildings. We do a great job for our clients and, if buildings could talk, we wouldn’t need to advertise. We’re in the people business, providing professional building operators. And I’m a clean-freak. Idle time is great for clean-up, painting boiler room floors, picking up trash on the lawn …
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I believe in empowerment. I put people on a path – to apprenticeship, to getting their operators' tickets.
… I don’t think so. I work hard, play hard, have fun.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… the business, the economy – for my employees.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… grade nine truant officer Mr. Humphries, got me into wrestling. Peter Dixon had faith in me, pulled me off the tools and helped me get into sales. Peter MacHardy taught me so much. The Kazakoff’s, Fred especially, took me under his wing in rugby.
… Tae Kwan Do (got my black belt at 45) – got my son into martial arts when he was 10, thought I should try it. Coaching rugby. Mountain biking. I used to run but my knee has been acting up.
What do you read?
… everything I can about what is happening in our business. I don’t read books much. I like Les Stroud’s ‘Beyond Survivorman’.
… 2016 Jeep Cherokee (I sold my Infiniti – it was too fancy, gave the wrong impression). My weekend toy used to be a Harley but Jane didn’t feel safe – so I did a trade-deal, got a 2003 Porsche 911 Carrera convertible [I asked if he drives the speed limit: “no tickets in 26 years!”]
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