Ready, Set, Grow

SPL Consultants

Co-founder Shaheen Ahmad was well versed in the industry when he launched SPL Consultants four and half years ago. In fact, he had owned and operated a nearly identical business just a few years earlier.

After selling the original business to an Australian consulting firm, Mr. Ahmad and his long time business partner, Ken Peaker, had second thoughts. “After being there for one year we decided that wasn’t the right place for us,” he recalls. “So we started all over again.”

Shaheen with Scott Peaker and David Lewis founded SPL, a multidisciplinary consulting engineering firm specializing in geotechnical, environmental, materials inspection and testing, hydrogeology, concrete technology, instrumentation and monitoring, and building science. It didn’t take long for the young business to take off. “All of a sudden, old clients started coming back to us,” Mr. Ahmad says. “And before we knew it we were on our way.”

SPL quickly acquired two small companies, bolstering the new business even further. “We merged with two companies [owned by] old friends of mine,” Mr. Ahmad shares. “They both had worked with me before and they wanted to be part of a bigger company.” The move got the ball rolling, “and it never stopped after that.” In fact, the team was able to secure some substantial contracts with the TTC during the first year of business. “That gave us the ability to hire more people, and the momentum just kept going. We were very successful within the first year.”

Today, two hundred skilled engineers, hydrogeologists, environmental scientists, technologists, and support staff work out of the head office in Vaughan, Ontario and branch offices in Cambridge and Ottawa. This dedicated and skilled work force has been key to the company’s success. “When you develop a company you need to have good staff,” Mr. Scott Peaker points out. The new business was fortunate to already have strong ties within the industry. “We had a lot of staff that came from the old company and joined us,” Mr. Peaker explains, and a substantial number of new people signed on as well. “They saw a great opportunity with us.”

Maintaining strong relationships with staff members has been a top priority. “Our philosophy is that everything you do in business depends on relationships,” Mr. Lewis explains. In fact, the entire company culture is geared toward maintaining a tightknit team. “We still run the business as a family business,” Mr. Lewis reports. “The philosophy is to help each other out.” The ultimate result, he says, is higher profits than many of SPL’s competitors enjoy.

SPL makes it a point to reward and recognize staff effort. “Our staff has been extremely giving. They work very, very hard to achieve what we are trying to achieve,” Mr. Ahmad reports. In return, he shares the company’s financial success with his employees. “We always felt that if you share the wealth with the people the pie gets bigger,” he explains. “That has been our philosophy over the last 20 years and it has certainly paid off for us.” Currently, 25 percent of SPL is employee owned, with 43 shareholders holding between 16 shares and one tenth of a share apiece. “It is more like profit sharing,” Mr. Lewis explains of the employee ownership structure, which gives nearly everyone a chance to benefit. Not surprisingly, SPL’s treatment of its employees has engendered substantial staff loyalty. “We have always managed to keep our staff happy and our retention is phenomenally high,” Mr. Lewis reports. “I would say we have over 95 percent retention. It might even be higher than that. Some of our people have been with us for 38, 40 years.”

Of course, SPL’s emphasis on strong, long lasting relationships extends to clients as well. “We have a phenomenal relationship with our clients,” Mr. Ahmad reports. “I am a firm believer that you look after your clients and they look after you. So my philosophy is always clients first – Quality Always.” Furthermore, “we also have a very good relationship with all of our suppliers. We consider them part of our team. As a result of those three groups [staff, clients, and suppliers] working well together, the client gets what he needs, we get what we need, and our staff are happy.”

Another important SPL strategy is operating with a low overhead. Most notably, the company hires relatively few non-technical staff. This allows SPL to charge its clients slightly lower rates. Perhaps more importantly, the low overhead allows the company to offer a more competitive salary and benefit package to its employees. That has been a very successful thing to bring people in,” Mr. Lewis explains.

SPL’s strategies have worked remarkably well over its short lifetime. In fact, the company has just been nominated and is a finalist for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year® 2013 Awards.
The team is up against four other finalists and the winner is scheduled to be announced this month. SPL’s rapid expansion also provides obvious evidence of its success. When it was launched in 2009, SPL had just five employees; today, the company boasts 200 staff members – and continues to grow rapidly. Indeed, increasing the company’s size and scope is foundational to Mr. Ahmad’s long term goals. Mr. Ahmad explains that there are essentially two types of companies in his industry. “One is smaller – under 20 people – and caters to a certain kind of client.” These companies are filling a particular niche and are usually not looking to grow. However, the amount and kind of work that they do is dictated by their size, and we do not want to operate within these constraints. “We have always felt that we wanted to go after the larger projects,” Mr. Peaker explains. The logic is simple. “It is much easier to handle 10 large projects than 100 smaller ones. That is our philosophy.”

Currently, over 60 percent of SPL’s business comes from projects valued over $100,000. “We have been chasing larger projects and been successful in getting them.” And now that the company has a foot in the door, attracting even larger projects has become relatively easy. “The larger the projects that you get, the larger the projects that you attract,” Mr. Ahmad points out. “That has been one of our strategies.”

The team is carefully preparing for its projected future growth. “You have to position yourself to grow,” Mr. Lewis insists. For starters, many internal systems are already being updated to accommodate a greater number of employees and projects. “You come to a certain point when the systems that you have within a company have been very good for a company of 150, 200 people, but now that we have decided to move forward, we have to step back and [assess] what we need to put in place so the company can grow properly.” For example, SPL is currently in the process of installing a new accounting system with the capacity to serve thousands of employees. The new system should be up and running by the first of January. The company has also created a human resources division to deal with the increase in employees. In addition, four full time positions have been added to meet increasing demands: one health and safety officer, two IT staff, and one marketing coordinator.

With these new systems and positions in place, “we are now ready to move to the next step,” Mr. Lewis shares. This next step will include organic growth as well as new acquisitions. “We are always looking for new opportunities,” he adds. “We are always looking for projects. We are always looking for partnerships. That will continuously go on.” In fact, the team aims to double the company’s size every four years, bringing employee numbers up to 400 by 2018. And this might be aiming low, since “we have grown at a much higher rate than that in the last two or three years.”

The team is also planning to expand the business’ services and disciplines. “We are looking at two possible acquisitions in the next two or three months to build our discipline line wider,” Mr. Ahmad reports. An expansion into the Middle East and the Caribbean is also on the radar. “Opportunities coms to us on a daily basis,” Mr. Ahmad remarks. “It is exciting.”

April 23, 2018, 1:11 PM EDT