Lessons of maximum business acceleration

Leaders of B.C.’s fastest-growing companies share how they’ve kept pace with rapid expansion

Clockwise from top left: Marshall Berkin, vice-president, business product and services, Telus Communications Inc.; Mike Maierle, principal, Etro Construction Ltd.; Tarren Wolfe, co-founder, Urban Cultivator; Marco Pimentel, co-founder and general manager, Assembly Technologies Inc. | BIV

In BIV Today’s podcast series on innovation, technology and growth, reporters Tyler Orton and Hayley Woodin, with publisher and editor-in-chief Kirk LaPointe, sat down with the leaders behind B.C.’s fastest-growing companies to discuss the market amid the pandemic and what’s behind their revenue growth from 2015–19.

Guests included, in alphabetical order: Marshall Berkin, vice-president, business product and services, at Telus Communications Inc. (TSX:T); Mike Maierle, principal of Etro Construction Ltd.; Marco Pimentel, co-founder and general manager of Assembly Technologies Inc.; and Tarren Wolfe, co-founder of Urban Cultivator.

The excerpts below have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Marshall Berkin, vice-president, business product and services, Telus Communications Inc.

What do you think technology is still not able to do?

Berkin: I think technology is improving, but one thing it can’t replace is the human connection. As much as this [Zoom discussion] is a wonderful interaction, I think there’s always something missing in the face-to-face. So I don’t believe that we’re ever going to fully replace it … especially when you talk about things like driving culture, engagement with team members. Technology can help manage them. It can’t fully replace it.


What do you feel you’ve learned about yourself?

Berkin: It’s a great question. What I’ve learned about myself is that I really like getting out and seeing people face-to-face. We spend so much time at work, and being able to connect with people that you spend so much time with, I think, was more important than I originally maybe put value onto it.


Are you able to figure out how the pandemic will change things yet?

Berkin: I think a few things have become very clear to us over the pandemic. No. 1: our investments in our culture. Our investment in our world class networks … is going to become even more critical. I think it’s clear that the criticality of digital infrastructure is even more so now. In the next three years, we’re going to invest $40 billion to really make sure that we can deliver on the digital infrastructure and help our customers and help Canada be on the world stage as we shift into this new economy. I think the biggest opportunity is making sure that Canada stays a great place to invest in.


Mike Maierle, principal, Etro Construction Ltd.

How has your role changed over these past five years?

Maierle: We’re about 60 people now and my role has changed, but my focus has always maintained: I’m a builder. I had a pickup truck and I was delivering lumber to sites five years ago, and I don’t do that anymore. But definitely still very involved in the nuts and bolts of our pre-construction and construction departments; really also focusing on oversight and planning for some of the new innovative things that we’re planning on rolling out and doing over the next few years.


How have you been impacted by COVID-19?

Maierle: We had a number of projects – as an example, a project at the airport – that were all stopped. That was a problem. We had a number of condo projects that were in launch that were supposed to be starting in the spring and summer that were pushed or cancelled or postponed. Where we’ve been very fortunate is we build ground-up office buildings, institutional projects, we do a lot of rental, affordable housing projects – all of that market has continued to go. This year, we do have a dip in revenue, because we really had three months of very significantly reduced volume. But we kind of took the time to work through how are we going to make the company better.


What are some of the lessons learned as a result of this pandemic that you’re going to incorporate into your next five years?

Maierle: We hired 40 people in one year, which is way too many people to hire in one year and I’ll never do it again…. So we’ve really, really defined our onboarding process and [took a look] at making sure that everyone fits with our overall, well-rounded skill set. That was one. Two is really continuing down the road of keeping a very balanced, diverse portfolio of projects. When we started, we were doing 100% condo and retail, food and beverage. If that was all we were doing today, we would be in significant trouble.


Marco Pimentel, co-founder and general manager, Assembly Technologies Inc.

According to BIV’s list, Assembly has experienced 66,732% revenue growth over five years. What is it like to grow that fast?

Pimentel: It does come with a tad bit of experience. In Redbrick [parent company] in 2016, we experienced 8,300% growth in a five-year span. We’ve felt it but we’ve never felt it to grow this fast. I think in general life has been quite fast. At some points it was slow, because we’re relying on technical implementations, but in general it was wild.


Tell us about Assembly and some of the factors that contributed to your ranking on our list as B.C.’s fastest-growing company?

Pimentel: We are a digital publisher with a focus on technology. We have a variety of publishing sites. In 2019, for perspective, we had about 255 million visitors to our properties across Assembly. And at the core of it is a technology piece – a layer of data and optimization that allows us to – in real-time – understand the value of a reader on site, and we pass that information back to marketing partners. I think that the combination of two things allowed us to grow. We’re really a technology layer publisher, that’s our core strength. And then just thinking ahead and thinking quite fast, and investing really, really early and investing before the growth.


Do you attribute part of your growth to timing?

Pimentel: Absolutely. When we started, most of our site visitors were on desktop, and desktop was at times 80% of our visitor volume. Fast-forward today and everything that we do we design mobile first. Ninety per cent of our traffic is now mobile. Complete change from 2015 to 2019. It’s hard to avoid it. [People] are consuming so much content, which is a challenge. Vying for somebody’s attention, it’s really difficult.


Tarren Wolfe, co-founder, Urban Cultivator

What exactly is the problem you’re trying to solve?

Wolfe: The main issue we were trying to solve was how do we feed people better food and at a lower cost and at less harm to our environment? Those are the three main factors that we were dealing with. We were obviously eating a lot of subpar food ourselves, food that was grown and shipped around the world and was void of a lot of nutritional value. So that’s kind of what started it – same as a lot of inventions – it happens out of out of necessity or out of a need for to fill a want for yourself.


You guys are hydroponics company specializing in indoor gardening technology – illustrate that for me, what does this really entail?

Wolfe: We started with an original company in a different hydroponics space over 20 years ago in the cannabis arena, with BC Northern Lights, and it started there … to basically make it safer for people to grow their own to save money and to provide themselves with a superior product. So it started from there and then about 10 years ago, that transition from cannabis to food … [was] happening because it was actually chefs that were going into Los Angeles and seeing our BC Northern Lights products.


You guys are No. 4 on the BIV’s Fastest-Growing Companies list. What do you think is behind all this growth you have had over the last couple years?

Wolfe: It’s organic. It started because it might have been there was maybe some new chefs and marquis chefs trying to make a name for themselves. And so they were highlighting this and … Martha Stewart definitely was a great ally for us. She’s helped us through the years like you wouldn’t believe, setting up meetings, got us on her show. So we’ve had some wonderful allies.