FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Dan Bulat
October 21, 2014
One of the first people I met when I relocated back to Calgary 15 years ago was a neighbor across the street. Nice young couple. Dan Bulat, his wife Heather and their three little kids. Dan had just started his own consulting business …
Dan attributes his success to three key things – “my marriage, working to make a better life; my business partner Ted Hart, we’ve had similar goals, we are cut from similar cloth and have collaborated well since we met in 1995; and ‘family influences’.” And, what has held him back? “If I’d had a tutor or life-coach at an earlier age to focus me on business processes, I’d be a better manager and I’d have been a better entrepreneur.”
Like most engineering-types (Dan always reminds me he is a geologist), he’s always had a detailed logical plan. We’ve not stayed in touch often, but enough to see he is hard working, focused and always sporting a happy grin. We’ve not done much business over those years … but we’ve not lost touch. Our paths crossed a few times this year – we each lost our fathers, we worked on the deal for his office expansion/relocation and he helped a client of mine with an issue …
The back-story – Dan is the first born of four children (three boys and a younger sister). Mom was a teacher by training, but a stay-at-home mom. Dad, a civil engineer, worked with Syncrude in their early days and went on to a long career at the University of Alberta in infrastructure and finished his career as Director of Physical Plant. Dan’s first summer job was in groundskeeping at the U of A. Grandfather was in the sand & gravel business until the sand ran out and he then got into land-fill. “We were a VERY Catholic family – which was great in many ways. We learned we could be forgiven for just about anything if you were TRULY sorry!” These days, having his own children schooled in the Catholic system, Dan describes himself as ‘spiritual’ rather than religious.
Dan studied geology at the University of Alberta after graduating from Louis St. Laurent High in Edmonton where he grew up. His story of meeting his wife Heather is interesting. He spoke of ‘noticing’ her in 7th grade, noticing her in a pew at church – but dating didn’t occur till 3rd year in university though they travelled among a common circle of friends. He claims to have not dated many, but rather that he was very selective.
He liked to read a lot, played hockey, golf and soccer. “In our family I was told I would go to university – and you just knew that you would”. School came easily, he had no idea about a career, he was a scrapper in sports, very social in high school. His entry to geosciences, specifically geology, was not so much a quest to enter the family business – but to do field work, to work outdoors.
We did this interview over lunch at Dan’s favourite Mexican restaurant (Tu Tierra on Fairmont Drive) where he doesn’t order. He says he just asks them to bring him something he will like and he’s never disappointed. He explains that he rarely orders off a menu – always happy with what people bring him. “The only thing I hate in life is liver.”
I inquired if that was just about food?
Dan reassured me, everything in life is fine – except for liver. His mother stuck with the Canada Food Guide – serving liver once a week. He recalls he used more ketchup than the liver it washed down. Reminds me of my mother, and liver on Tuesdays. And the ketchup.
I asked Dan how he sees his businesses – environmental consulting, software and construction – generally; ‘how’s business?’ over the next quarter?
… business is very good. We are in growth-mode. HSE certification upgrading has been important so we can do more work for our established clients.
And over the next five years?
… we have three business – so, controlled growth means 'right people in the right places'. We are bringing all three back together under one roof in our space expansion/re-configuration next year. Putting a succession plan in place. As my kids are getting older I have more time for more business focus – still wearing many hats.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… quality of people and product is important. I don’t buy crappy things. I look for people with common personality traits – people who are easy to get along with, loyalty, people who are willing to learn from mistakes. I believe in ‘make a mistake, but don’t do it again’. I like people who self-improve.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Dan Bulat and Envirotech, why do they do business with you, why have they chosen you, over your competitors?
… providing good value, a trusted advisor, unbiased/transparent. A lot of my clients have become good friends. Life is short – good dealings personally won’t do anything to improve business relationships but it is nice to have both.
How would you describe your leadership or management style?
… quite loose, very trusting. I’ve always given people as much rope as they need, but things are changing – becoming more formatted, clearer benchmarks …
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… my kids! .. three teen-agers: 15, 17, 19.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my marriage to Heather (22 years) – an underlying constant, wonderful influence, no abrupt changes. My parents – great role models. Dad turned out to be very good at being retired! And my uncle Tony who runs his own oil & gas service business, influenced me toward oil & gas. I’ve been lucky to make small mistakes and make corrections …
Work life balance, do you have it?
… My grandfather died of cancer at 71. My dad died of glioblastoma multiforme cancer at 72 (26 months from diagnosis to death). I’m approaching 50. I’ve changed since my dad died. My game plan has shifted. I’m making some key changes in my life. There is only so much you can do. I’ve shelved some things. I need balance!
… I love golf, motorcycling, like to travel, love to cook (but don’t seem to have the time!). I’m a MMA fan – a whole lot more skill, tactics and technique involved than most people think. Heather has taken up golf – that’s great. [editor's note: MMA means mixed martial arts!]
What do you read?
… I’m a sci-fi fan (Star Wars was fantastic). I’m not into flowery books. I like fiction – I have enough reality! The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
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