Leadership more than being overbearing

Don Oborowsky left the farm 38 years ago, but it's apparent the farm hasn't left Don Oborowsky.

To Oborowsky, part owner and chief executive of Waiward Steel Fabricators, the old-fashioned values from an upbringing on his family's Saskatchewan farm have everything to do with his success in the steel fabrication business.

Since co-founding Waiward in 1971, Oborowsky has built the Edmonton company into one of Canada's largest players in the steel fabrication industry but, in spite of his success, he hasn't forgotten his humble roots at Cactus Lake, Sask.

1. Let's go back to your boyhood on the family farm at Cactus Lake. What memories come to mind?

Jack Dagley, Business Edge
Waiward Steel Fabricators’ CEO Don Oborowsky has no interest in running a large, impersonal conglomerate.

"I left home when I was 17. I left because I hit the end of the road. I was the oldest of five boys and there was just nothin' for me to do. I guess as the eldest I did everything, but I had four brothers behind me, so either I had to leave and get a job or stay in school. It wasn't that big of a farm, so if I stayed behind my four brothers would never have learned to work. So leaving was a good thing for them but even a better thing for myself. By the time I was 15 or 16, I worked for a home builder putting up concrete forms, and by the time I was 16 or 17, I was doing finishing carpentry." 2. What values did you bring from the farm into your business career?

"When I was a kid, from the time I was 12, I was doing extra work for the neighbours. I did custom work for them, bailing hay and harvesting for damn near every farmer in the area. From that experience, you learn to be on time, you learn productivity, you learn about quality work and you learn just about everything you need." 3. Who was your mentor?

"My dad (John) was my absolute best mentor. He taught me to give and he taught me to take. He taught me about the importance of charities, he taught me work and he taught me respect - the lifelong values." 4. When did you decide you were going to be an entrepreneur?

"I think I knew when I was 12 years old that I would be a business person. I kind of always felt I'd be in the construction world in some fashion because that was what I always leaned to and liked." 5. How did Waiward get started?

"After working as a carpenter in Edmonton, I became a superintendent on a jobsite where I got exposed to all the other trades. After I got married, the first gol-darned job I had I got sent out to Kamloops, which didn't suit our marriage very well. So I decided to get a different type of job and went to work for a steel company as a steel fitter. That's where I met my partner (Ted Degner, still a partner with Waiward today). The company decided to lay everyone off in the field. That's when Ted and I started our own business, which is now Waiward. I was 22 then." 6. What was your initial investment to start Waiward?

"I had a '69 Ford pickup which was a (insurance) writeoff. Ted and I, we must have pooled about $3,000 each and bought a little red welder which we have in our front entrance today. We also bought some other handtools. We worked hard to get it going. I remember the first summer that we had our shop, which was our second year in business, we worked from seven to 11 seven days a week for 10 weeks straight. We made money just about every year. In '82, we lost some money and in '94 we lost money." 7. What was the key to successfully building Waiward?

"The difference between us and most other guys who start out in business is the way we grew the company. We've had a lot of competitors over the years who are around maybe two, three, maybe four years max and they're gone. Most of these guys are doing bigger jobs than they should be. They get stars in their eyes. We grew very gradually. Early in our company, we moved to a bigger shop every three years. Then, in '92, we took a big jump. That was our most aggressive and boldest expansion." 8. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in building your business?

"What's been most important is remembering where you come from more than where you're going. And always remembering that you need people. The people around you are your best asset. I think that came from working with people as a tradesman yourself. Nobody can bullshit me or Ted. We never ever got to a point where we had to remind people who the boss was. People just know. There was no b.s. Some guys (CEOs) get their noses up in the air where it doesn't belong. I think we always understand that you had to be friends." 9. People like Donald Trump say you can't win if you're a nice guy in business. What do you think?

"Donald Trump is maybe only half right. You can be an asshole and be in business too, but at the same time, I think it's a lot easier not being an asshole.

"I don't think too many people who work around him (Trump) like him. I think most people who work around him are nervous. People need to know what's expected of them and you can't let that slide. And the rest is all bullshit. If a guy doesn't know if he's got his job morning, noon or night, like I think it is in the Trump era, I don't think that's right. People need to understand what's expected of them, but you don't need to be standing over them with a stick. You also can't have half- friends and half-enemies. You've got to treat everybody the same. Even the janitors are important in my business." 10. What's the key to hiring and retaining competent staff?

"Personality. I put a lot of value in education but, once you get past that, personality is so darned important. Everybody's got a different culture in their business and you've got to make sure that fits with your type of people." 11. What's your projected revenue for this year?

"We're probably going to be around $75 million (revenue) this year. About four years ago we did $120 million. The last three years, we've been around the $65-million mark. I would say that next year we'll be around $100 million or more. Most of our work is in Alberta, but we do work all over Canada and we have projects in the U.S. More than 90 per cent of our business is in Canada. We're more geared toward the industrial market and it has slowed down the last couple of years. However, just as we speak, we're getting busier and in the months to come we're going to be accelerating like crazy. We have to be very careful with pricing (in an environment of high steel prices). With some of the commercial-type projects, you might see the odd job shelved a little bit because of high steel prices. But I think our steel prices have peaked." 12. How much of an impact does the oil industry have on your business and how would you fare in the event of a downturn in oil prices?

"The oil business accounts for pretty much about 90 per cent of our business. We're involved with mining, and pulp and paper. The (steel fabrication) industry looks very, very good for the next four to five years." 13. What's your long-term vision for Waiward?

"More of the same. I'm not one of those guys who gets stars in their eyes. It takes a lot of work to be No. 1 and I believe we're No. 1 in Canada in terms of quality of work, productivity and market share. But I don't want to be a large conglomerate because I believe it takes just as much hard work to stay at a certain level. It's important to continue making money, but we're pretty much the largest privately owned steel company and probably one of the most automated steel companies in Canada. So we want to continue to be a leader. I don't want to have branches all over the world or all over Canada. I like to grow it in my own yard and stay ahead of everyone else." 14. Why haven't you taken Waiward public?

"I don't know. I just enjoy being my own boss. I enjoy being THE boss. A lot of these public companies, they fool themselves. Most of the public companies' growth is not about profit, it's about revenues. Then, you're also answering to everyone else and not to yourself. You're not even answering to your employees. You become this hollow thing and there's no real constructive value there. I enjoy making money. That's a measuring stick. And I like to grow within my yard. I just had lunch today with a lawyer and another business person. Neither one of them cut their own grass. They hire someone to cut their grass. I cut my own grass. The lawyer says, 'Why would you cut your own grass? I'd sooner peel off $250 an hour and have somebody else cut my grass.' So I told him, I says, 'I believe in cutting my own grass, I don't believe in having somebody take me to the gym and I believe while I'm cutting my own grass, I've got somebody else billing out $250 an hour on my behalf.' " 15. What's the biggest issue facing the steel industry?

"Our biggest issue is a shortage of skilled people.

And the biggest issue with a shortage of skilled people is the lack of respect for trades and the lack of business people indenturing trades. We have a whole bunch of guys who are bitching and whining and complaining about a shortage of skilled people. They're looking at a quick fix through immigration. Immigration isn't going to give us those people.

"Anybody that has a trade certificate that is able to immigrate has a good job. We have a little unwritten rule here in our shop that 20 per cent of our tradespeople have to be apprentices. People (employers) have got to do the right thing. They've got to give these young kids an opportunity. But there are a lot of people that don't want to be bothered. They would like to run an ad and hire somebody. Kids come here every day looking for a job that they can apprentice at and we probably have the most apprentices per capita of any business, definitely in the steel business. But other people believe too much in phoning the rental companies and saying, 'Give me a guy for three hours,' and then send him home and crap all over him. I'm a farmboy. You've got to put the wheat in the ground and look after it. If you're going to harvest in the fall, you've got have something to harvest." 16. How do you think your success in business has shaped you?

"As much as I would like to lie and say that it didn't, it did. But it's really difficult to say how it's changed me because just by virtue of getting older you change in some fashion. I'm very involved with charities and sit on probably a dozen boards and committees. Part of the success of our company is having the right people and letting them do their jobs as opposed to having them under your thumb. But that also allows me to be the person I am and I enjoy giving. The most exciting part of my life as a mature business person was the day I offered to give the University Hospital (in Edmonton) a million dollars a year or two ago. My wife and I are also involved in many charities. Part of giving is getting and I think I always get back. I don't know when, how or where. But I don't know. I must be getting it back." 17. God taps you on the shoulder and says you can change one thing in your life. What would it be?

"I don't know. I've got it pretty good. I've had it pretty good all my life. Sometimes, I wish I'd have had more education. But then I don't know if that's the answer because then maybe I would have become a totally different person. Maybe, I might have become a lawyer or some darn thing." 18. What's your life's philosophy?

"I believe you've got to be lucky to be good and good to be lucky. I remember watching Grant Fuhr (Edmonton Oilers' goalie) in the Oiler heyday. The way he'd flop around, I thought he was kind of lucky. But then as I got a little older, I realized he was good. And that's why I believe that sometimes you've got to be good to be lucky and you've got to be lucky to be good. I'm an opportunist and I've got my eyes on every For Sale sign. I've really never failed too much in anything. I work when I have fun and I have fun when I work. I've always believed I could do better investing in myself. At least, when you've got a piece of paper, there's some land or something attached to it as opposed to just a number." 19. Are you looking toward early retirement?

"You know, that question comes up quite often. I'd have to say that I am pretty well retired. I do what I want to do when I feel like doing it. I still need some place to go to work. I like coming to work and I like being involved, but as far as an absolute task at work I haven't had one for a long time. We've got some super-good people in all of our departments and I kind of look at myself as a guy they can ask questions. You become a mentor and of course a friend, and you're there when they need you, but other than that, it's their job. If I need to go fishing, I need to go fishing. The last five years for sure, I actually haven't had a job function." 20. So will we find you somewhere on a tropical beach with an umbrella drink 10 years from today?

"I would say that within the next five years I probably won't come here hardly at all anymore. But I think I'll still have an office 'cause you need some place to direct your mail. I don't think you want to receive that stuff at home and get up in the morning and have a coffee and wonder what you're doing. It'll just become less and less and less. Some day I'll be able to spend about three days a week at the Mayfair (golf course) instead of one day every two weeks."

IN PROFILE: DON OBOROWSKY

* Title: Part owner/president/CEO, Waiward Steel Fabricators.

* Born/raised/age: Macklin, Sask./Cactus Lake, Sask./55.

* Education: Grade 10, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (carpentry).

* Family: Wife Judy, two children.

* Career: Prior to co-founding Waiward Steel Fabricators in 1971, Oborowsky spent five years in construction trades in Edmonton, as a carpenter with Mod Contracting, as a steel fitter with Collins Steel Products and as a steel fitter/erector with General Contracting (1971-72). He is also a part owner and president of three other Edmonton-based businesses - Waiward Excavators, Hustle Holdings and Characters Fine Dining.

* Moonlighting: Oborowsky is chairman for Alberta Career Development for Steel Trades, chairman of the human resources department of the Canadian Construction Association and co-chairman of the Registered Apprenticeship Program Scholarship Foundation. He is also a board member and past-chairman of the Alberta Foundation for Diabetes Research, chairman of the University of Alberta Diabetes Research Institute and a board member of the NAIT Foundation.

* Accolades: In 2002, Oborowsky won the Edmonton Construction Association Claude Alston Memorial Award for outstanding contribution to the construction industry and the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) Ernest Dobbelsteyn Memorial Award for outstanding contribution to the CCA Trade Contractors Council and to the construction industry. He also won a Pinnacle Award for entrepreneurial excellence in 1996.

* Passions: Golfing, fishing.

THE COMPANY: WAIWARD STEEL FABRICATION

* Brass: Don Oborowsky, president/CEO; Ted Degner, senior vice-president; Dwayne Hunka, vice-president/general manager.

* Profile: Waiward is a steel-fabricating company that operates one of Canada's largest and most automated steel-fabrication facilities. Services include fabrication and installation of structural and miscellaneous steel, equipment components, hoppers, plate work, material-handling equipment, conveyers and bridge girders.

* Employees: 450.

* Accolades: In 1993, Profit Magazine recognized Waiward as one of Canada's fastest-growing companies.

* Website: www.waiward.com

* HQ: 10030 34 St., Edmonton, Alta.,T6B 2Y5.

* Phone/Fax: 780-469-1258/485-3990.

(Gyle Konotopetz can be reached at gyle@businessedge.ca)