FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Don Tull
June 30, 2015
It all began in metal shop, in high school (Balfour Technical School), in Regina …
Before that – born and lived in Regina till twenty-two, his mom stayed at home (Don was #2 of 4 children) raising him and his three sisters. Dad was a long-haul truck driver. He met his wife in the sixth grade. Don’s early work in construction and working with metal took him to many points in the prairie provinces – but Calgary wasn’t on that path until the most significant date in his business life, October 15, 1973 - and the rest has been a fast-forward growth and success story.
He was visiting in Calgary with a friend who was in an accident. Don stayed – and a series of jobs and his own metal cladding installation business flourished. If it was not for that date, he’d be enjoying success somewhere else …
His early career on his own, with a partner who departed (“I had drive and he didn’t”), was a long struggle. In time that business that started at home – but when the neighbours pushed back about all those trucks outside, the ‘spare bedroom in the basement’ office needed to move - then a 2,400 sq. ft. leased warehouse bay became the beginning of a business and real estate portfolio growth, from necessity rather than master plan.
Humble, plain-spoke, sturdy handshake – looks you in the eye, isn’t pretentious and he glows like a Christmas tree when he introduces his children, both of whom are active in management of his businesses – these things are easy to see when you meet Don Tull as I did recently. We’d talked before on a couple of transactions we were negotiating – but this interview was our first face-to-face encounter. It isn’t one I’ll soon forget.
An early riser (typically 3:00AMish), Don describes himself as a ‘hands on person’.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? To run Tull Properties, he needs his laptop and a phone – a tireless self-managed portfolio run by Don and a handful of staff and contractors. To run Custom Metal requires a staff of 150 and 75-100 contractors doing business at Calgary headquarters (sales, manufacturing and installations), all over Alberta (sales and installations) and distribution around Canada and in the United States (sales and distribution). Next time you go to a bank, gas up your car or watch a new high-rise office building going up, look at those insulated aluminum panels on the outside. Chances are pretty good they came from Custom Metal!
For Don Tull, what came first was metal work. His growing business forced a series of growth related relocations and acquisition of larger and larger facilities – but a keen interest in leasing them out forced more acquisitions and development. So, today, Tull Properties Ltd. is a strong local player in industrial real estate – but only because the growth of Custom Metal Contracting Ltd. pushed it along. If it hadn’t surely Don Tull would be pushing hard on something else …
What has contributed most to your success? “timing was everything! Ambition, driven to be successful, people supporting me. I’ve been lucky in life, but in business I’ve been ambitious. I take advantage of opportunities.”
What has held you back? “my reluctance, earlier on, to take on debt to grow. My own mind set.”
While he admits to being a trying-to-change workaholic who works late and starts early, he beamed when he uttered these last words, “Every day I see my kids. And all these great people I work with.”
P.S.: Don, I really enjoyed our time - and found the tour of your factory fascinating. Amazing fabrication facility ... and a beehive of activity. You've built a great environment for your people ...
I asked Don how he sees his business “metal business”; I asked ‘how’s business looking, going forward over the next quarter?’
… very well. The contracting industry is doing well. We aren’t suffering – can’t keep up right now! .. We are busy on downtown buildings and the new airport expansion – we are doing the exterior. Our work supplying our products to the U.S. market has been and continues to be a large part of our growth.
And over the next five years?
… a continuation of how things are going right now, if not better. I have some concerns about our new government and how that change impacts public sector construction when capital projects are stalled or cut (Don waxed on about the ‘off the cliff’ times of Klein era cutbacks which stalled the construction industry – and he fears that happening again).
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… 90% of it is relationships. Price is #2. I prefer to work with people we know, like and trust.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Don Tull, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… respectful, understanding. Built quality and service we provide. And price driven.
How would you describe your management style?
… in general, people like to work for me. I give people encouragement. There is more to this job - I delegate and ask them to do it. Or, maybe they just don’t want to incur the ‘wrath of Don’.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… probably everything! I’m a compulsive worrier – about family, business, employees. If there is a problem, it’s my goal to fix it …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… a fellow I worked with early on – he was a manager with Graham Construction; he encouraged me to diversify, to invest in real estate. My family – they pushed me! My wife.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… YES! … I enjoy working. I would like more free time. I’m a lapsed gym-goer…
… volunteering with the Caravan Committee at the Calgary Stampede, spending time with my wife at our place in Palm Springs four months of the year, golf a little, work, restoring cars, time with kids and grandchildren (3), car shows …
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