Storage Tanks and the Art of Building Them Better
Elite Integrity Services
Few people will claim that they have a true passion for storage tanks – and the maintaining, repairing, altering and building of them. The founders of Elite Integrity Services have spent nearly two decades following just that passion.
Shawn Kirwan, Shane York, and James Vollmer, the founders of Elite Integrity Services, say that they love every aspect of the storage tank industry so much that this world they work in has become part of their personas.
“We always refer to ourselves, even when we go to meetings, as ‘tank nerds’,” said Elite’s president, Shawn Kirwan. “We love storage tanks. There’s a lot to know about them and a lot going on with them, and it is a bit of an art, if you will.”
They founded the business in Calgary, Alberta, Canada back in 2009, after working for a number of years for another tank-manufacturing company. As a result of that company making some management changes, they found themselves losing their love for the jobs they were doing. Still wanting to work with storage tanks, they decided to form their own business, one that placed more focus on the well-being of the employees. In March 2010 they officially incorporated the business, with a sole focus on field-erected storage tanks.
The triumvirate purposely chose a name for their company that would underline some fundamental traits that they wanted to see in the business: integrity, quality, culture, accountability, and safety.
“When we founded the business it was exactly about those words,” said Kirwan. “Elite is the best of the best. You set yourselves apart from the rest. To take pride in everything we do and do it to the best of our ability. That expectation is in our corporate culture.”
Today the company has three strategic locations in Calgary, Ponoka and Edmonton, with a team that includes administrative, business development, and project management staff, as well as shop-floor staff.
Elite strives daily to be the very best place to work – with a good work-life balance, a fun atmosphere, and a focus on the people who make up the business – while still being fully accountable to its customers. Recently, that determination has paid off with recognition on a national scale, as Elite was recently named one of Deloitte’s Best Managed Companies for 2019.
“We have a saying, ‘don’t count the clock and we won’t either,’” explained Kirwan. “There will be times when work demands that you’re putting in that extra time and effort to get something accomplished, but at the same time, if it’s a Friday afternoon and the sun is shining outside and you take off for the weekend… that’s what it’s all about.”
The team takes the safety side of things very seriously, too. Over ten years of operation and nearly one million man hours, the company has had only one recordable incident and that was minor. The industry average is 2.3 incidents per year.
Integrity in everything
The second word in the company’s name reflects the relationship it has with its customers as well as its suppliers.
“Integrity is in everything we do,” explained Kirwan. “We’re very transparent, and we believe we communicate very well with our clients. We value a win-win relationship with them. We don’t go in anticipating to do just one job with a client like a get rich scheme. When we become a vendor to a client we look for it to be a long-term relationship – working together as a partner in industry,” he shared.
“We like to work with well-established companies because they are well-known, with fair payment terms, and that allows us to honour similar terms with our vendors,” said Kirwan. “A lot of our vendors come back to us and say ‘It’s unheard of – your payment status!’ We pay everybody on time and that goes a long way to having a relationship with them.”
This has come in handy on a Friday afternoon, when there’s a four o’clock crisis with something that’s desperately needed in the field, and Elite needs to call in a favour. This is where mutual respect and good relationships matter, such that suppliers are quick to offer their support. And that goes for the company and its staff, too.
More recently, the owners decided to formalize the values suggested by their company name into a more public statement. They now promote the key ‘four pillars’ to their staff and clients.
“The four pillars are something we rolled out this year because, as we continue to grow, we wanted to reinforce the key, important factors of the business – the things that you hold true,” said Kirwan. “It’s a guiding light for people to understand what’s key to us. If you’re doing it right and you’re doing it with quality and craftsmanship and maintaining a culture of respecting those you work with and it’s a mutual thing – if we’re achieving those four key pillars, we’re doing it right.”
Clearly Elite Integrity Services has been doing it right, with in excess of 60 new construction projects and hundreds of repair projects completed in the last nine years.
“One of our biggest opportunities was a bit of a game changer back in the day. We were awarded a multi-tank new construction project in Northern Alberta back in 2012, and it was the single largest contract we’d ever received,” said Kirwan. “We were a fairly young company but we had done all the right things. We knew in order to be in industry you need proper safety programs, quality programs, engineering, facilities for construction and all the various things. When we set the business up, we focused on setting up all of those things, right out of the gate. That allowed us to be ready for when an opportunity like that came, so that was a big growing time for us.”
Building a culture
Since those early days Elite has continued to grow organically, building larger capacity storage tanks and designing and engineering its own products.
While the company has grown, its staff has grown with them. “Since those five guys who started in the field with us in 2010 and are still with us to this day, I could count on one hand the number of guys and gals who have come and gone from this company and the joke is we kind of ‘hire ya to retire ya,’” Kirwan said. “If you’re going to join the team it’s because we want you here and we want you here long-term; we don’t want to see you going anywhere.”
Business Development Manager Jennifer Lock loves the corporate culture and agrees that the way the company is managed has a lot to do with its success. “We have a very flat organizational structure,” she said. “There’s not a lot of red tape and hierarchy. I think everybody’s treated the same – everybody’s an equal and everybody’s very collaborative. You have autonomy because of that trust.”
So with ‘Canada’s Best Managed’ under its belt – a great morale boost for the team and a great way to attract potential customers – the company is now turning its efforts toward implementing better software solutions to become more efficient, and refreshing its marketing and branding.
The sexy side of tanks
“We’re trying to make tanks sexy through our marketing,” said Kirwan. “What that means is that a lot of people envision steel, welding, industrial as dirty – there’s nothing appealing about it. But we really want to show the attractiveness of what we do, so our marketing has been focused on cleaning up, and having consistency. I would say it’s very different than any others in the marketplace. We’re really trying to set ourselves apart as a leader and be proud of what we do.”
The team is hoping these marketing efforts will also help them expand their reach even further. “Our goal is to eventually be able to function all across Canada and cross-border,” said Lock. “We have done international projects before. We are looking at opportunities in all those areas and will drive them home when the right opportunity comes.”
Canada’s Best Managed
“‘Canada’s Best Managed’ was an effort that we put forward here in our Calgary office,” Kirwan said. “We had been through the process a couple of times and unfortunately fell short, and so achieving ‘Canada’s Best Managed’ goes to show culturally who we are. We don’t give up. It’s easy for something to be difficult and to give up, but we weren’t going to give up on it, we were going to chase our dream,” he explained.
“We were in steel storage tanks – and again it may not be the most illustrious industry to be in, but why can’t it be? We wanted to be able to differentiate ourselves in the market. I think of our competitors that I know of, and I wouldn’t think any one of them have been through this type of program. I think what differentiates us as well is that we are privately owned, and that is a requirement of ‘Canada’s Best Managed’. So what I am most proud of is that we can stick to something as a goal and go achieve it as a team.”