FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Cole Harris
August 18, 2015
Their headquarters environment, like many developers, is designed for show as well as function – it reflects taste and quality well beyond the typical office finishes in a suburban office facility you might find on Manhattan Road SE. I’ve become insistent on doing these interviews face-to-face all the time is for the opportunity to gauge reactions, sense temperament and get a sense of genuineness that you just can’t get by word of mouth, research or over the phone … but also to see people as they see themselves, and I think people open up more when they are on their own turf. Case in point – Cole Harris, Pres. & COO @ Centron Group. We’ve been in the same places, heard each other present at conferences etc., but never met. His company is well known in my industry and to many Calgarians who see Centron signs on so many office development projects. Aside from being ‘son of the founder’, who is this guy? What’s he made of? That was my quest and the underpinning of my questions.
His parents married young and came to Calgary for work. His parents have family roots and farming roots in Rosetown, SK. Dad, started as a carpenter and worked in construction before starting Centron in 1968. His mother was homemaker and worked in records management. His parents are divorced and both remarried – and Cole is close to both. Born in Saskatoon, Cole moved to Calgary with his family when he was two. He has younger sister. His wife Kathy, previously an HR professional, is now ‘Home CEO’. They have three children.
Cole attended school in Springbank, the Mount Royal College and finished his post-secondary career at University of Lethbridge where he earned a degree in business management. He’s worked since he was fourteen – in construction, at Centron, every summer working on most every project Centron did until graduation. He explains he wasn’t the best applied student – social issues like beer, girls and hockey took a lot of his attention in those days. He played football and basketball, but Junior B hockey was his main game.
Why are you successful? “Being here – loving what I do, family, friends – for me it’s that definition, that mindset, acknowledging where you are, following a personal road map and knowing where you are on that road .”
What has held you back? “Getting out of my own way! Self doubts, how I spend my time – what to say yes to, what to say no to.”
I came away with this sense – “he’s still so young!”, of which I’m mildly jealous – but mostly a sense he has so much yet to do and appears poised to do it. He’s not overly humble, but not boastful either – it seems the teachings of mom and dad are rooted deeply. It seems Centron, and Cole, have come a long way. I sense they’ve got a long interesting road ahead … stay tuned!
I asked Cole how he sees his business “merchant developers and contractors”; how is business looking, going forward over this next quarter?
… it’s a mixed bag. Opportunities are abundant, but you have to sharpen our pencil. We expect a little longer cycle in this downturn – and we just keep going through downturns and believe previous levels of profitability will return.
And over the next five years?
… I believe we’ll be in a really good spot. Every developer’s #1 cost is construction – nothing better than creating the value that we do. Not a lot of people are willing to develop and construct, so we are able to control our destiny. We build for others and sell projects, but first – we build for our own account on the basis we will be the long-term owner. Successful companies, in my experience, like to be in new premises …
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… do I trust them? Do I like them? This isn’t meant to be smug – but I can’t afford to buy cheap stuff!
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Cole Harris, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I do what I can do and what I said is what I do. We’ve had lots of experience – and we’ve made lots of mistakes.
How would you describe your management style?
… I’m a team guy. We have a family philosophy of treating people as we’d like to be treated. I lead through example. I’m blessed/cursed in that I know every job in our company – it’s so easy to do things myself. I’m improving as a delegator.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
... not much. I’ve matured a lot in the last five years, I think. I used to worry about success, about ‘doing it all’.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… most importantly, our founder, my dad Bob Harris. He’s pushed me and given me opportunity, ingrained in me his work ethic, to be self-sufficient. My mother gave me balance, compassion – things that mothers pass on to their sons. And YPO has been a big influence – exposed me to different business cultures, learning from peers in other industries which has produced opportunities I never expected.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… ‘in moments’! Always striving for it. Awareness, but often lack the balance.
… my job. Hockey. Travelling to hockey camps with my sons. Doing deals with people I like. Working with people I like.
What do you read?
… right now I’m reading a book on joint ventures. And a Johnny Cash biography.
… week days, 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee. And for play, 2008 Maserati – my 40th birthday present to myself!
I often find there are questions I forgot to ask, and interview subjects often have after-thoughts to send, to mention something they forget to bring up. Cole remembered to tell me about Centron Cares, a charitable element of their organization doing projects in the not-for-profit sector. Smart, I think, to give-in-kind, to do what you do for free or for cost rather than giving cash – it seems to go much further that way.
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