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Geoff Smith

Geoff Smith is the executive chairman of EllisDon. The Mississauga-based firm provides construction and related services on projects around the world including the Middle East and North Africa.

Chris Hall: Over your years with EllisDon, have you put together a policy about when and how to respond to international incidents that might have an impact on your company?

Geoff Smith: No. We do not have a policy on that. We do have policies around inclusiveness and diversity where I would tell you I’m very proud of what we’re doing, and I think we’ve been an industry leader.

We have very clear policies and a clear statement of values on how we treat people, about what we stand for, but literally until October the 7th, it never occurred to us that we would need a policy around those issues that you’re talking about.

We have discussed in this company — I don’t want to say a 50,000-foot level, but let’s say a 1,000 foot level — that we welcome everybody and we will not tolerate a lack of accommodation, a lack of a deep attempt by everybody to understand each other and to take the time to work with each other.

I think we did a reasonably good job of it, generally. But that’s it.

This industry has a racism problem at large and it’s an anti-black racism specifically, although we have anti-Asian and anti-women prejudice too. EllisDon has been working really hard on this front and we’ve let the employees define what those policies are and what we need to do. I don’t tell them what we’re doing. They tell me what I need to do. We work very hard on it.

But to your question on what’s going on in Gaza right now and what happened on October the 7th, the answer is we never had a policy around that kind of thing.

CH: So what kind of input did you get from people? Because you are present in Muslim countries. Did you have a discussion with your senior staff or your employees about how to respond to this conflict?

GS: We had a conversation with our senior management team, which is about 40 people, and which obviously includes the CEO.

We did talk about it, but we talked about it in terms of, until we think we better do something different, let’s just keep talking about the things we believe in, which is inclusiveness, which is universal tolerance.

I wasn’t there because I’m not the CEO anymore, but it was important for the new CEO to be there.

We’ve also taken steps around mental health, which goes beyond these issues, but the mental health challenges are very acute in construction. We’ve taken real steps around how we provide assistance to our employees, from places to go, to where to turn when they’re not feeling well.

So that’s what we’ve done so far.

CH: But was there any concern put forward about saying something on this issue given the operations you have in that part of the world?

GS: No, I mean let me put it this way, I’m not worried about people asking why we’re there.

What I’m more concerned about, within the company here, is any ethnic or religious tensions, because the fact is we’re spread out around many job sites, around many offices, and we are very diverse. That’s what I’m worried about — a lack of tolerance with what is now, obviously, a very inflamed issue in the world and having that inflammatory situation come to EllisDon.

So, we haven’t seen it. We’re watching it. We have talked about whether we should go out with the statement, and I’ve seen a couple of good ones… We just haven’t done it because I don’t want to get it wrong and sometimes, as you know, if you go out with something and you get it wrong, then you took a situation where everybody was pretty calm and cool about this and you created an issue.

Anyway, that’s where we’re sitting right now. We’re just saying it’s OK. We keep talking about our values. We don’t see a problem. If we see one, we’re ready to act.

CH: You mentioned anti-black racism. I remember, I think it was in 2020, when you came out very publicly to condemn whatever or whomever was behind hanging the noose at a couple of your work sites. How was that different? I mean, I know it was local and specific to your company, but how did you approach that in terms of why it was important to speak then?

GS: Let’s be really clear about this. It was neither local — we had nooses in Calgary… we had nooses in Vancouver — nor was it specific to our company. PCL had nooses. The other companies had nooses. It was only EllisDon — and I’m very proud of this but it caused us so much grief — only EllisDon and Daniels who came out and said there are nooses on these job sites, we’re going to do something about it.

There’s a problem in society, but there’s a problem in our industry, and we’re going to stand up and say to everybody there’s a problem and ask what are we going to do about it.

Everybody else, I can tell you, they cut the nooses down and they threw them in the garbage. We told the media there are nooses on our job sites.

We could have hidden them. But I think our employees would have known we’re hiding them and that was the, if anything, the number one thing. How do you say to your black employees, “Yeah, we have a racism (problem), what did we do about it? We cut the nooses down to throw it in the garbage, get back to work.” That’s just unacceptable.

So, for a long time you got the impression that this was an EllisDon problem. It was not. It was EllisDon who said this industry has a problem. We needed to say it publicly and we needed everybody to help fix it.

I’m proud of the way we dealt with it. We went to our employees and said you tell us how to fix it. We’ve got three different employee councils now. One around sexual identity and sexual preference. One around intolerance generally. And one around anti-black racism. These are the three main ones, and they get together and they tell us what to do.

CH: What are the takeaways from this kind of issue for other corporate leaders? I know you speak for your company, but you have dealt with these kinds of issues before when external events required some kind of discussion internally at least. What lessons are there for corporate and other leaders about how to respond to a conflict like this?

GS: Well, I would only give you two answers — and I’ve mentioned both already. One is to get the employees involved in how you respond in an open way. We’re a company of 6,000 salaried employees and obviously we’re not going to hold a plebiscite. But we’re going get the leaders in. We are going to get the leaders of these committees (I mentioned) in within a day. So, speed, right? Speed is key.

Having the employees not just meaningfully involved but openly and obviously involved. It’s allowing them to feel that this is what we stand for, because my fellow employees, who I respect, are on it. I think that’s important.

And just like I said to you, no running and hiding from this stuff. You’re better off if you put it on the front page of The Globe and Mail. That complete openness is one of our five character values. If you have a problem, put it on a billboard beside the 401 and beside the Deerfoot in Calgary. If you do that, you will get the problem solved.

If you take your time and if it comes from the corner office, I just don’t think that works. So, we do many things the other way, but speed is key. That’s what I would say. Openness. Embrace it. Get the employees involved but fucking well do it fast. Do not have an employee meeting next Tuesday.