Smart Practices for a Sustainable Future

Environmental Dynamics

Incorporated in 1994, EDI was founded by biologist Dwight Hickey to seize the opportunities he saw developing in Northern British Columbia. Hickey and Van Schubert started doing fisheries inventories for the forest industry that were funded through Forest Renewal B.C., a provincial government funding program, before expanding into the oil and gas sector in 2000. The company was dealt a major blow in the following year when Hickey suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. Combined with downward economic trends at the time, EDI opted to downsize its operations. In 2003, however, a group of managers along with an equity partner purchased shares, and since then the company has grown steadily, expanding into the mining sector a year later, followed by hydro and wind power in 2008.

Today EDI has five offices across Western Canada, with a full time permanent staff of over 70 professionals. The company has a diverse portfolio of projects including coal and metal mines, renewable energy, oil and gas as well as transportation and urban development. One of the biggest challenges is to keep its administration and management systems on pace with the steady growth needed to cover such a wide variety of sectors. Mr. Van Schubert explains, “We are continually assessing our systems to ensure that our operations receive the support they need. It is particularly difficult when you have a company of our size with five offices across Western Canada.”

The company is currently undergoing a major review of its accounting software, for instance, to streamline budget tracking across the company’s multiple sites. “Our communications and project management systems have to be strong enough to maintain consistency in product delivery.”

Recently EDI received the “Environmental Employer of the Year” award by Eco Canada for the second year in a row. The award recognizes excellence in human resources, based largely on responses to questionnaires filled out by employees. Explaining the grass roots design of the award, with employees judging employers, Mr. Van Schubert notes, “they are trying to find out about the corporate culture, and whether the company is successful in recruiting and retaining employees. The results are almost always very positive.” Not content to rest on its accolades, EDI also conducts an internal satisfaction survey that monitors employee attitudes and experiences. The survey helps the company gauge whether employees are receiving adequate compensation and appropriate support from project managers.

Consequential to its investment in employee satisfaction, the turnover rate at EDI is very low. While larger companies can struggle with retention, EDI maintains staffing levels at steady rates. “Part of that has to do with fostering a culture of mutual respect, and inspiring a sense of pride in the quality of our work,” says Mr. Van Schubert. “We have a great compensation package including competitive salaries, overtime pay, a profit-sharing program, full benefits, etc.” But for EDI and its employees, retention isn’t just about money. “People who work in the environmental field are truly passionate about what they do, so companies that encourage that enthusiasm are more likely to recruit and retain employees over the long term.

“A lot of companies do good work, but we do it best!” says Mr. Van Schubert. It’s a bold statement, but the company’s vision is to be recognized as one of the most respected and trusted environmental management companies in Canada. The company continually emphasizes that quality of work is the top priority, and promotes a sense of employee ownership. The company also places significant value on the importance of relationships. “Our industry is based on building and maintaining good working relationships, not just with clients, but also suppliers and government regulators.”

Part of maintaining good relationships with employees is being realistic about the company’s own sustainability. Projecting hires is difficult in the natural resources industry because it is difficult to predict how long a given project will last. “We try not to grow at an unsustainable rate, and then have to lay off people six months later,” Mr. Van Schubert explains. “It’s tempting sometimes when there is a lot of opportunity out there, but it’s really not fair to our clients or our people in the long term.

“Mining companies, forestry, oil and gas are highly reliant on commodity prices that are influenced by global market forces that are completely out of our control. So, sometimes you see volatility in these industries.” Mining projects especially can come and go quickly, making it a challenge to plan appropriate staffing levels.

Maintaining stability and growth in a volatile industry is no easy task, but it’s one EDI has sought to achieve through diversification. The company tries to keep its portfolio of projects as diverse as possible by increasing its client base, balancing the proportion of market sectors it serves, and by extending its geographic reach. Rather than operate as a group of individual silos, EDI has successfully developed a strong team mentality across its operations. EDI is unique in the way it has grown; rather than centralize operations in a large metropolitan area with branches out from the base, EDI’s operations are spread across five regional centres. In this way the company is able to gain regional knowledge to which other larger companies don’t have access.

EDI’s diversification strategy has also involved the acquisition of complementary enterprises. EDI acquired a company called Streamline Environmental Consulting based out of Nanaimo. Recalling the process, Mr. Van Schubert explains, “I actually moved from Prince George down to Vancouver Island to start an office. I was working out of my house when the owner of Streamline approached us and wanted to talk about selling. A few months later we successfully negotiated the purchase.” 10 staff members were added to the team including a number of highly skilled professionals. In addition, the company acquired a very strong client base in the renewable energy sector that it had previously lacked. “All of the Streamline staff is still with us 18 months later and since the acquisition we have grown the Nanaimo office by an additional 50 percent.”

The company’s most recent acquisition is a small environmental company with experience in wind power projects and gas pipelines called Robertson Environmental Services out of Langley, B.C. “As with Streamline,” Mr. Van Schubert explains, “a highly experienced team came over with the deal, and a strong set of clients and projects in sectors that we were looking to build on. We continue to be open to those types of strategic acquisitions. However, we are not out to buy anyone and everyone; we want to make sure that we grow sustainably. We always want to maintain our standard for quality of work.”

EDI also maintains close ties with local First Nations. Several First Nation clients are owners of projects so EDI works for them or on their behalf to conduct environmental assessments. Part of EDI’s collaboration with First Nations also involves the development of meaningful training programs for Band members. These collaborative training projects have worked out very well; according to Mr. Van Schubert, “We hear a lot of stories about partnerships with First Nations that contribute little to building the band’s capacity.” EDI, by contrast, integrates members of First Nations communities into project teams, looking for ways to match tasks and local skill sets. Consequentially, individuals can learn technical trades through their participation which will further their future careers, while EDI benefits from the local knowledge First Nations people bring to the table, making for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Indeed, working with other organizations is a critical component of the EDI sales strategy. “We will quite frequently sub-contract with other environmental companies to provide us with services that we don’t necessarily have in-house, or that we don’t have the capacity to try.” There is a lot more collaboration in the industry than there was just 10 years ago, Mr. Van Schubert explains; people that would normally compete are now working together. This growing trend of cooperation can be partly attributed to the industry’s continued growth. In order to provide the diverse service delivery that clients are demanding, many companies now have to partner.

From an environmental and business perspective this collaboration is a win-win situation. “It does not always have to be a competitive situation. You can actually provide better service sometimes by partnering. We have seen this change in mindset, not just within the environmental consulting profession, but also in the construction field.” On-site environmental monitoring was almost unheard of 15 years ago, for example, but is now commonplace. “It is seen as a necessary cog in the wheel of the construction process. So collaboration has replaced confrontation between environmental, engineering and construction.”

EDI’s own evolution can be seen as a template for progress in the environmental and natural resource consulting sector. The company’s 20-year experience demonstrates that business can both turn a profit and maintain a social conscience. The company has creatively harnessed opportunities for collaboration while valuing the contributions of its own workforce. It has strategically embedded itself in smaller communities that cater to its clients’ needs in the best way possible. The knowledge and skills gained through collaboration with First Nations has fostered mutually beneficial relationships that stand out as best practices for the consulting industry. EDI offers an emerging model for sustainable business practices in the service of an environmentally sustainable future.

October 23, 2017, 2:05 AM EDT

Wind on the Rise

In the world of renewable energy, wind power is growing fast. It is projected that 10 percent of the energy generated in the United States will come from wind farms by 2020. Offshore wind farms are a relatively new addition to the American energy market, but the technology has been well established in Europe and is now taking off state-side as well.