Building for Five Generations

Gay Company

Over the last 43 years, Gay Company has constructed a wide range of Industrial, Commercial, Institutional (ICI) and Residential Projects across all areas of the industry, from brand new buildings to demolitions, restorations and renovations.

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The company was founded in 1971, but its roots go back all the way to the 19th Century. “I am the fifth generation in the construction industry,” President Lawson Gay explains.

Evidence of the family’s construction legacy is scattered all over the Clarington and Durham area where the company is based, from offices and churches to Industrial and Commercial General Motors facilities. Even the company headquarters is rich in family history. “Our office is in my grandfather’s house that he built with his own hands in the 1930s,” Mr. Gay says. “We’ve done a lot of the commercial industrial building around Oshawa and everywhere you go there are little reminders of multiple generations of the company.” As the years fly by, this connection has become even more meaningful. “Now that my grandfather and father have passed, it is nice to see it and be part of it.”

The family’s deep roots in the construction industry are as advantageous as they are unique. Perhaps most importantly, each generation is able to rely on the support and guidance of the previous one. “For a good portion of my life, I had two generations above me, leaning over my shoulder and giving me advice,” Mr. Gay recalls. “It gives you a really good platform of dos and don’ts. It teaches you how to treat a customer and how to make sure you get quality work. It is a real benefit to have multiple generations to fall back on.”

Being family run also gives the company the flexibility and freedom to make quick decisions and follow the latest industry trends. For instance, when Mr. Gay joined the company right after graduating from university in 1994, he immediately introduced computers to the business. Other companies might have simply dismissed him as an upstart kid, but his father and grandfather were willing to listen to his ideas – and in doing so, kept the company one step ahead. “That definitely put us ahead of the game at the time.”

Another advantage is the fact that the family has been able to forge strong relationships with clients throughout their decades in business. “We often end up with repeat customers who are pleased that they used us before, and will use us again,” Mr. Gay says. In fact, these partnerships sometimes stretch across multiple generations on both sides. Not many construction company presidents can say that their grandfathers worked with the grandfathers of current clients, but, Mr. Gay shares, “we have been building for one client for three generations.”

Many employees have also been with the company for years. “We have a lot of long term employees who have known the multiple generations [of the family]. If you work here you are not working for a faceless corporation.” Co-workers, their spouses and their children know one another. They enjoy office events and parties together. In fact, the concept of having a family company means treating employees as part of the family, Mr. Gay points out. “I want them to feel like it is our name on the door, not just my name on the door.”

This sense of belonging and camaraderie inspires a superior work ethic. “Feeling like they are part of the family makes them put a little extra effort in, a little more quality, and a little more time into the work,” Mr. Gay says. “So we are not just in and out; we finish it right. We do the little things that you would do if you were finishing your own house.”

Gay Company’s work is diverse, and covers general contracting, design / build, and project management. Recent jobs include everything from offices, municipal buildings, medical centers, public schools, and distribution centres to car dealerships, fire stations, manufacturing plants, churches, and shopping centres. Whether high profile or lower key, the team gives each project their full attention. “All of our projects are equally important, from small to big.”

With the state of the current industry, Mr. Gay feels fortunate to have such a strong roster of projects currently on hand. “It has slowed down definitely from what it was like four or five years ago,” he says, but on the whole, the local construction industry made it through the downturn relatively unscathed. “The construction industry as a whole slid through the ’08, ‘09 recession pretty well. The government contracts [for] infrastructure work didn’t really affect us, but it kept the large scale companies busy so that they didn’t come down to the medium sized companies like ours and start to eat our lunch.”

Unfortunately, many companies are not sliding through quite so well anymore. “Over the last two or three years, it has become a lot more competitive and prices have become a lot tighter,” Mr. Gay says. “You see a lot of companies coming in and competitively bidding and pricing jobs at numbers that are very tough to compete with; we have seen jobs go for below cost. I think the contractors think that they will make it up on extras. But that is always a scary way to do business.”

In response, Gay Company is consciously steering toward safer ground. “We have been trying to focus on project management and trying to stay away from competitive bid until it gets back on more solid ground.” Of course the company is still active in the sector when appropriate, but the team refuses to get into hot water through unwise bidding. Mr. Gay is optimistic, however. “This year seems to be a little better than last year, so hopefully we are seeing an upswing.”

Even so, he does suspect some long term changes may be coming to the industry. Primarily, he sees the industry moving more toward specialized project management “and more open book stuff than competitive bid.” The reason is that “just looking at and taking the low number” can lead to too many complications. “Over the last few years, there have been a lot of companies that have gone in so low that the customer has suffered,” Mr. Gay points out. “You don’t want to be in a position where the customer suffers. You want to be in a position where, at the end of the day, everybody leaves happy. And in today’s world, when companies are taking projects at lower prices than they should be taking them, and they end up with a hundred change orders, the customer leaves feeling like he has been done in for, and the contractor leaves feeling like he didn’t get paid enough for his job. And that is not a positive way for the industry to go.”

When considering the future, Mr. Gay says that his company will keep its attention on its customers in order to stay ahead. “We are going to focus on cultivating relationships with [potential] customers and with people we have dealt with in the past to make sure that we are their first choice to go to. With every customer, new and old, the team is committed to making sure that they deliver exactly what is wanted. “Our catch phrase is ‘making your vision a reality.’ That is what it is all about here at Gay Company.”

November 13, 2018, 8:05 PM EST

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