Chandos CEO Sean Penn’s collaborative leadership style

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The founders of Chandos Construction wanted to create something different than the construction companies of the past. They even steered away from using a traditional construction company name. Rather, they opted to title the business after Chandos Lake—a crystal blue lake located in Ontario’s northern Kawartha Highlands—a place that had a history in both of their upbringings.

Chandos has been employee-owned since day one. What started out as a single office in 1980 has turned into 700 employees in seven locations across Canada: Vancouver, Kelowna, Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Toronto, and Ottawa. Over the years the company has established itself as a pioneer in integrated project delivery (IPD) and collaborative construction.

Sean Penn was recently appointed chief executive officer (CEO). Over the course of 20 years, Penn has made steady progress in various positions—starting out as a carpenter and moving on to managing director, vice president of operations and chief operating officer. The board recognized his role in driving the success of the organization and in fostering growth through leadership and his commitment to Chandos’ core values of inclusion, collaboration, innovation, and courage.

What prompted you to enter the construction industry and become involved in some major infrastructure projects? Were there certain mentors who may have inspired you to get involved in the business?

Yes, as I think back I had so many people that I would recognize as mentors. I always knew I wanted to be in construction. There was just no doubt. I wanted to be in the sandbox with the toys moving dirt and digging holes. My grandfather was a farmer and an entrepreneur who highly influenced me. Even from a young age he took the time to talk to me about high level business strategies and he demonstrated an incredible work ethic. There’s no way I would be here today without the care and knowledge transfer he provided.

What’s behind Chandos’ use of the IPD collaborative construction model?

There are a lot of contract delivery models and some of these can have some negative side effects. They can cause confrontation between building owners and builders and sub trades. But there have been recent advancements in construction around collaborative construction and specifically IPD, which encourages early involvement of key project participants for goal definition and planning, mutual trust and respect, equal sharing of risks and rewards, open communication and use of cutting-edge technologies and strategies.

I remember when we were first learning about IPD and it’s like the clouds parted and the sun came out—true collaboration is about everybody working together for the good of the client and the project, and everyone sharing ownership of all the good and the bad, celebrating the good and working together through the bad. This is a major improvement over pointing fingers and getting into your corners getting ready to have a fight over whose fault it is and who’s going to pay for the extra costs and delays. Clients have communicated how they really appreciate our collaborative model over the traditional one.

What are some Chandos projects that best illustrate IPD?

Bragging about our people and bragging about our work is something I love to do. Yes, these are all amazing projects. We did multiple projects with the City of Kamloops, including the Canada Games Aquatics Centre. Olympic sized pools can be complicated structures to construct but we were done ahead of schedule and under budget. The ingenuity on this project was remarkable. This is another unique characteristic of IPD projects—you can apply innovative strategies. In a traditional situation, there is a fear of being sued for deviating from the basics and there’s a higher risk profile. But with IPD we can feel free to propose new ideas that make outcomes better.

Another project that comes to mind is the Lloydminster Wastewater Treatment Plant in Saskatchewan, one of the first civil IPD projects in the country. It was a massive success; completed early and under budget during a time of cost escalation and uncertainty. While other projects were underperforming, this project was so team-driven that we got ahead of design and cost issues. We also incorporated a high percentage of local tradespeople and sourced a good number of local materials.

Tell us about your “Better Together” tour and what you learned visiting construction sites during the COVID pandemic.

It’s hard to believe that happened. The genesis of this was when COVID first happened it was terrifying. Nobody had any answers and there was a life-threatening fear of the unknown. Half of our business is site-based which meant they still had to get out there. It was really distressing. I was visiting sites and worried about how we would get deliveries on time, whether consultants would come to the sites, and if trades would show up. However, what I witnessed was optimism overcoming obstacles and teams staying positive.

There’s even a benefit that came of it. Usually when we’re doing field work in the middle of nowhere, there’s no running water. But one of the things the government mandated was that we had to have running water and proper hygiene on site. Having warm running water on the site in the middle of nowhere is amazing—even after COVID we continue to mandate it going forward on every site.

In hindsight, I feel very fortunate for the experience with my family and my team. I must give credit to my wife as well. We were stuck in a tin can for six weeks, but it was amazing.

How is Chandos helping to mentor the next generation of the construction industry?

When we look at one of the risks to the industry it is the lack of skilled labour. Construction is a great job with incredible growth opportunities that can allow you to travel the world. Getting this message out is important. We are also trying to help under-represented groups get into construction. We’ve been able to partner with some phenomenal organizations and we’re seeing long term success. These include Momentum in Calgary, Women Building Futures in Edmonton, EMBERS in Vancouver, and Building UP in Toronto—if there were more of these organizations the world would be a better place.

Internally, we have apprenticeship programs, and we invest time into building community. Every week we have a company wide meeting to share wins, personal and professional milestones, as well as air out any issues that may arise. We also have an annual leadership conference that features guest speakers and skill training. We want to do well, and we want to create a community that goes beyond the business.

Social procurement is an element of the most progressive construction projects. How does your collaborative approach support diverse and inclusive teams to be successful?

That’s a good question. We try to bring an element into every project. This is a little more challenging with some projects than others but we’re finding ways to make it happen. When we’re involved early in the planning process, there’s a higher probability. For example, with our Bigstone Cree Nation High School project in Wabasca-Desmarais, Alberta we had a goal of 15 per cent of workers being from the local First Nation but we got up to 32 per cent. We have a lot of pride in that because at the end of the day we’re helping train the local workforce and it’s great for the community and a win-win for everyone. It was an amazing experience.

What are your personal and corporate goals for the next few years at Chandos?

For our business our high focus is to be a leading technical builder. There are challenges in the market conditions that we face—finding great employees, logistics and cost escalation. But we’re working to overcome these challenges—it’s core to who we are. For myself, my ambitions are around our people. I’m a custodian of the company and I have a very important job to make sure this company is going to be looked after for the long term so there’s a heavy focus on development for the leadership. If I’m doing my job right, then the next person will be significantly better at it and will bring the company to new heights. My goal is to look back with nothing but pride.

Connie Vitello is contributing editor of ReNew Canada.

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2024 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: (Chandos Construction)

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