New ICBA boss an ardent construction sector advocate

Profile of Chris Gardner, president, Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC

Photo: Chung Chow

Real estate conversations in Vancouver often turn into grousing competitions, from low vacancies to high prices, lost views and who’s responsible for it all (it’s never the person doing the talking, of course).

It’s a situation that Chris Gardner says needs to change if we want to move forward.

“A lot of people involved in the dialogue want to get to ‘no’ at any cost, and that’s unhealthy for our economy,” he said, reeling off a range of construction projects employing the province’s 210,000 construction workers.

“You can say ‘no’ to every single project we’ve talked about. It’s a lot more difficult to say, ‘Here’s our vision for the province, and we’re going to say “yes” to these projects.’”

Just four months into his role as president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of BC (ICBA), Gardner is proving a forthright successor to Phil Hochstein, who retired last November after 30 years with the ICBA.

Spearheaded by Ray Purdy, the ICBA launched in 1973 to oppose the Public Works Fair Employment Act, which the BC NDP government of the day passed to prevent Alberta’s open-shop contractors from bidding on B.C. highways contracts. Open shops in B.C. were caught up in the ban. The ICBA won the battle and became a vocal advocate for the construction sector. Under Hochstein, a one-person operation in Surrey grew to more than 40 employees training more than 3,000 people a year. It’s also one of the largest independent providers of group benefits in B.C.

“It’s created value for governments and owners of projects. When they go to market looking for contractors and subtrades, there’s extremely skilled construction companies at all levels,” Gardner said. “Our task, myself and others on the team, is to build on that legacy.”

The ICBA’s latest cause is the defence of the Site C project, where more than 2,000 jobs could be at stake if the NDP-Green government’s promised review of the project leads to mothballing of the planned dam. Opposition to new residential developments also concerns Gardner, who points to Surrey residents who oppose Anthem Properties Group’s plans to develop townhomes next to their gated community.

“We need to have a discussion with density if we’re going to address housing affordability, because the real issue is supply,” said Gardner, who lives on the fifth floor of a 22-storey highrise with his wife Jamie, an accountant. Treetops block their views – a small sacrifice for living next to the seawall, which is an amenity the couple didn’t have when they lived in Seoul, South Korea.

“We were used to living in a busy city,” he said. “If we wanted more space, we would definitely have to leave the downtown core, but we’re OK to make that sacrifice and live in Yaletown.”

Gardner was born in 1963 in Labrador City, Newfoundland, and lived in Wabush, in the same province, where his father worked for the Iron Ore Co. of Canada, until he was five. His father’s death that year saw the family move to St. John’s to live with his mother’s parents. The entire household moved west in April 1973 when he was in Grade 4. After two years in Burnaby he joined his aunt and uncle in Langley, growing up with his cousins.

Gardner wasn’t good at math but loved writing and history. Studies in political science at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and a stint at the Overwaitea warehouse in Langley followed until, in 1987, he set his sights on law school. He completed his BA at SFU in 1988 and moved to Vancouver to study at the University of British Columbia.

When he graduated in 1991 mutual friends reconnected him with Gene Macdonald, who had been his principal at Langley Secondary School.

“We ended up touching base, and he was a very strong believer in travelling abroad, studying abroad, living abroad, working abroad,” Gardner said. “It was because of him that I went to Korea.”

Macdonald was cultivating an international student program in Langley, and a Time magazine cover story on the four Asian tigers – Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea – caught Gardner’s attention. He set off for Seoul, arriving in time for the country’s first democratic elections. The zeitgeist was infectious, and one year became 11 as work with Lee & Ko, the country’s second-largest law firm, introduced him to his wife, and opportunities opened up in the head office of Samsung Electronics and then ING Investment Bank.

Gardner returned to B.C. in 2002 to establish a beachhead for a Korean company seeking to expand into North America. It made dial-up modems, but wireless was the future. A chance encounter in late 2005 with Britco co-founder David Taft at Milestones in South Surrey saw Gardner enter the construction sector in 2006. Gardner prepared a feasibility study for Taft and business partner Rick McClymont while at law school and they welcomed him back as vice-president of operations.

Gardner worked for Britco through 2014, when he became principal secretary to Premier Christy Clark. It wasn’t his first political appointment; he previously helped run mayoral campaigns for Surrey mayors Doug McCallum and Dianne Watts.

Gardner joined Civeo Canada Inc., a provider of work camps, in 2015. The resource sector’s downturn led to coffee with Phil Hochstein in late 2016 and, in January 2017, he was appointed ICBA vice-president, and a month later, president.

“He’s a very smart man. He’s very calm and reasoned. I always liked being in negotiations when he was on our side,” McClymont said. “I think he’ll bring a lot to the ICBA.”