Foundation for Success
Cornerstone Engineering Ltd. is a full service engineering, procurement and construction management company delivering professional services to the oil and gas industry. The Calgary based business supports clients throughout the entire project, from conception to startup, with project capabilities ranging all the way from large processing plants to single well tie-ins.
Cornerstone’s specific areas of expertise include gas plants, oil batteries, pipeline gathering systems, pump facilities, heavy oil and steam facilities, sour oil and gas projects, compressor stations, wellsite facilities, optimization, cad drafting, and As-builting.
Three industry-experienced individuals launched Cornerstone in 2008, building on a combined 80+ years of project experience throughout Western Canada and internationally. The founders brought with them a unique blend of experience with engineering, fabrication and producing companies – and then put this expertise to work balancing cost, quality and schedules for projects of all sizes and scopes.
Ralph Dokter, P.Eng., Rick Jacobsen, R.E.T., and Ron Grover had been on the lookout for the right time to launch a business together for at least ten years. Finally in January 2008 the timing was right for all three Founding Shareholders. “I had just finished working for a company that didn’t go very well,” Mr. Dokter recalls. “I was looking for a change. I was frustrated. Some of those frustrations told me that I could do a better job and that there was a need for an engineering company that would do things the way I believed in.”
The trio opened the new business within one month of making their decision to move forward. “It happened very quickly,” Mr. Dokter recalls. Mr. Jacobsen adds, “At that time there was a lack of good, experienced engineering services in Calgary. There was a big demand and a lot of inexperienced people in the business so quality was hurting in a lot of places.”
Cornerstone delivered the quality the industry needed. The founders put in the time and effort needed to bring clients on board, slowly and steadily growing the business. Despite strong ties to the industry, “work did not come in immediately,” Mr. Dokter remembers. “Obviously you have to plant the seeds and people have to take the time to decide if they are going to transition from who they are using to somebody new.”
The effort paid off, however. “All the sudden, a couple months later, we started getting work.” In fact, the company had so much work that they found themselves facing a staff shortage. “It was hard to find people,” Mr. Dokter explains. “We couldn’t find any quality people because they were all employed.”
Ironically, when the recession crippled the industry in mid-2008, Cornerstone benefitted because experienced talent suddenly became available. “The recession hit the oil and gas industry and things were slowing down in general, but our clients still had lots of work and we were able to bring the quality people in that we wanted to and we just continued to grow,” says Mr. Dokter. “We grew throughout that recession. It worked out better for us than if it had stayed busy in the industry.”
Cornerstone managed to successfully take advantage of challenging times, expanding rapidly and earning a respected place in Alberta’s oil and gas industry. Staff levels are at 50 people, from a high of over 80 in 2014.
Today, the industry is in a slump once again – but as before, Cornerstone is managing to overcome the challenge. “The state of the industry is very depressed,” says Mr. Dokter. “The oil price doesn’t [have] any short term reasons to go up and so companies, clients in our industry, are really hurting with their cash flow. So the number of projects is down; they are all doing layoffs. Our workload has decreased as well, but we have some really good relationships and some clients that are still doing work. So we feel very fortunate.”
Currently, Cornerstone is working on a $150 million gas plant project and has “a number of other” projects in the pipeline. Even so, the team is being prudent. “We have to manage ourselves a little more stringently. But we are doing better than most right now.” Mr. Jacobsen points out that, as longtime industry insiders, overcoming a downturn comes with the territory. “Overall it is nothing that is really new to us. In our careers we’ve had several of these downturns, including the year we started up Cornerstone. So we stay positive and keep doing good work and carry on.”
The team has been sure to maintain focus on several core areas in order to stay ahead. First, they have continued to cultivate industry relationships. “Relationships are really key in our industry,” says Mr. Dokter, “and we have some really good ones. Our reputation and our track record have been able to keep companies coming back. That is a big focus for us.”
Second, the founders have stayed hands on, despite the company’s growth. “The three of us started as technical people and we grew into project managers and now we are business owners and we are managing people, but we have stayed active in the projects as well,” Mr. Dokter points out. “That keeps our company’s overhead very low and we can pass all those cost savings on to our clients.”
Third, the company continues to focus on its people and culture. “From day one we have been careful about how we hire,” Mr. Dokter reports. “We make sure that we bring people in who are a good fit for our environment and our execution style.” Staff members are given the freedom they need to excel.”
The company culture also promotes community responsibility. “We encourage our staff to be very good community [members],” Mr. Dokter says. Cornerstone is involved in a wide range of charitable organizations, including Alberta Easter Seals, Brain Tumor Foundation of Canada, Breast Cancer Society of Canada, Canadian Liver Foundation, Hayati Children’s Foundation, JDRF Diabetes Foundation, Junior Forest Warden Association, Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, Pediatric Aids Canada, Woman to Woman Cardiac Support, Wounded Warriors, and Providence, a preschool for children with disabilities.
Cornerstone is also an active participant in professional organizations. The company is a member of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan (APEGS), Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (APEGBC), Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Manitoba (APEGM), the Safety Compliance directories ISNetworld and Complyworks, Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB), Oil and Gas Commission of BC (BC OGC), and The Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta (ASET).
The team is eager to continue building the company as soon as the market improves. “We have always had the mindset to try and grow the company,” Mr. Dokter says. “And after we get through this little blip, that is going to be our goal again.” As the company grows, the team is committed to maintaining their strong focus on customer satisfaction. “We started the company with the mindset of helping people be successful. When we can be part of a successful project we have helped a client and we have accomplished our goal.”