STAR NATION STORIES
How Emcon is Servicing Canadian Roads
Rough Terrains and Slippery Slopes: How Emcon Is Servicing Canadian Roads
Frank Rizzardo is the Founder and President of Emcon, a leading Canadian highway maintenance and service company.
The Rizzardo family are Italian natives. They worked as tenant farmers on a plot of rented land, paying rent with a portion of the production they harvested in order to sustain themselves. In 1953, the Rizzardos were ready for a change. They made the bold decision to emigrate from Paderno del Grappa, in the Province of Treviso, to the city of Berthierville, Québec, via the historic entry point of Halifax in Nova Scotia. Embodying a nomadic lifestyle, Frank and his family never lived in one place for too long. In 1955, the Rizzardo family eventually decided to put roots down in the sunny city of Vancouver, British Columbia.
As Frank, the middle child of the Rizzardo family, grew up, he was determined to expand his knowledge and skill set. He attended the University of British Columbia but after a year started at the British Columbia Institute of Technology where he studied highway design and hydrology. Even before getting his diploma, he was offered a position with the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation Design and Survey section in North Vancouver, working on regional highway design projects like the Burrard Highway and the King George Highway widening and the interior of Vancouver Island four-lane project. However, Frank quickly realized that small, localized projects didn’t allow for much career growth, so he applied for and was successful in a position in the Functional Studies Group and moved to Victoria where he dealt with more long-term, functional planning of highway systems throughout British Columbia.
While the long-term projects satisfied Frank for a while, Frank – as many people do – changed his mind again. He came to the realization that working on projects 15 years out wasn’t his ideal occupation. Urged by a senior supervisor in Victoria to move to the operations side of highway systems, Frank and his spouse, Almerina, moved to the small town of Stewart, British Columbia, in 1979 to start his career in highway maintenance with the ministry.
For the next 15 years, Frank worked on highway maintenance in Stewart, Nanaimo, McBride, Burns Lake, Fort St. John and finally Merritt, performing managerial functions for the operational arm of the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation. The tasks included supervising the varying crews carrying out highway maintenance, operating and maintaining equipment and carrying out some design and construction of local roads and bridges. Fast-forward to 1987, the premier of British Columbia Bill Vander Zalm decided to privatize all highway road maintenance in the province to private companies. To ensure the idea would achieve success with this type of change, the ministry offered all existing managers the choice of exiting their current position with the government and starting their own business or joining with existing contractors in the private sector. For Frank, his choice was clear; leave his current position and try his hand in private sector operations.
This new career path occurred as Frank was the British Columbia ministry of transportation district highway manager. “I enjoyed the interaction with the staff, the hands-on nature of it all, and being able to control programs directly was always something I was interested in,“ expressed Frank.
Starting a business can be daunting for anyone. In 1988, Frank realized he needed someone with a business background and experience in construction and construction equipment, so he made the decision to join forces with a partner, Glenn Walsh, the founder of Tercon Construction, and thus Emcon was born. “It is the best relationship that I’ve ever had relative to business. They’re still our partner today,“ explained Frank.
Connecting with Western Star
With little to no equipment the first three years after its inception, Emcon had to lease from the government during the initial three-year contract. While helpful, the government equipment was not suitable for the large projects Emcon had to carry out. “We started with what we would call predominantly underpowered single-axle trucks trying to do a job that they were never designed to do, “said Frank.
Thanks to their mechanic supervisor, Charlie Baxter, who became one of the 75 original employee shareholders in the holding company, Emcon was connected with Brian Sumners, a sales representative and mechanic for James Western Star – now known as RJames Management Group – in the late ’80s. As Emcon was still in its early stages, they didn’t have the means to purchase brand-new Western Star trucks. However, Sumners helped locate an RV auction where Frank was able to source and purchase his first Western Star truck, a used 4864F with an L6 diesel engine from Cummins.
While new acquisitions brought varying brands of trucks, starting in early 1990, every
new truck purchase Emcon made was exclusively Western Star. Currently, Emcon has 429 Western Stars, which equates to 35% of their fleet.
Winter snowplowing is not an easy task. The load in the truck isn’t the same the whole shift. Ideally, it starts fully loaded and ends up empty. But with its underbody plows, the actions or the forces you’re putting on the truck with the front plow, the underbody – the ’active ass end’ of this vehicle – is perfect. I still think Western Star is the best truck on the market for that type of work.
The snowfall that almost cost it all
Back in 1987, Frank took a risk and won a bid on a contract for the Coquihalla Highway, a route running through southern British Columbia. Only having opened two years prior, this highway was, in many ways, uncharted territory. With no record of previous weather patterns on this route, Frank and his team had no idea what their future held.
All was going well until one winter in the early ’90s when a major snowstorm hit southern British Columbia. Snow was falling at an excessive rate of eight centimeters per hour and all forms of transportation were at a standstill – except for Emcon’s Western Star plow trucks, that is.
Extreme snowfall and ongoing avalanches pushed Emcon to think fast on their feet. Plowing snow on the Coquihalla Highway – known today to be an extremely dangerous route in the winter – was no simple task. With cars stuck on the side of the road and steep cliffs and mountains on either side of the highway, only heavy-duty snowplows were able to navigate through the treacherous conditions.
Amid this unprecedented snowfall, Emcon was struggling to keep the third lane of the highway open. The mountains directly next to the highway wouldn’t allow snow to be blown up and out of the way. Not only that, but Emcon’s contract required them to clear all avalanche debris, which was coming down hot and heavy. When describing the trouble that avalanches caused that year, Frank explained, “We’re talking about clearing snow from the runout zone, across the road and taking it to the low side. It was just a very heavy year. “
From that snowstorm, British Columbia saw an unexpected 149% excess in snow. Unfortunately for Emcon, a clause in their contract stated they’d only get paid if the snow accumulations exceeded 150%. In turn, Emcon suffered 49% of the costs for fuel, wear and overtime hours due to the snow levels not meeting this threshold.
The unexpected costs Emcon incurred that day in 1990 nearly caused the company to go under. Thankfully, with support from partnerships and suppliers, Emcon came out on the other side stronger than before. “Our partnerships with key suppliers and subcontractors were the most important piece. We would not be here today if it hadn’t been our salt supplier that came to the table and said, ’Look, we will work with you and as long as you commit to pay, we’ll support you through this period and let you pay the bill over these next 15 months,’“ said Frank.
During this time of uncertainty for Emcon, Frank developed relationships with other key suppliers as well, including Western Star and Tenco Manufacturing.
In any industry, collaboration is key. In road maintenance specifically, many problems have the potential to arise – like lack of materials, for example. If one company is experiencing material shortages, it’s highly likely that another company is as well. Leaning on surrounding companies for guidance and advice in these situations holds great value as collaboration can lead to finding a solution quicker.
In the spirit of collaboration, in early 1988, Frank found himself joining the British Columbia Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association, a nonprofit organization that represents firms in the British Columbia road building and maintenance industry, where he eventually stepped up as the president for several years. To this day, Frank and his employees continue to volunteer their time to road building organizations like Canadian Construction Association, gaining invaluable insight and guidance.
“The only way you benefit from a group is if you give back to that group. So, there’s volunteer time that is needed to be an active part of that organization. Now, our staff that chooses to engage in these organizations gets the benefit of the information from those other contractors, “ explained Frank.
Sticking with Western Star
Servicing roads in mountainous, curvy terrain is not an easy task. With the help of their heavy-duty Western Star trucks, Emcon always gets the job done.
Frank attributes much of Emcon’s success and lack of maintenance failure to the drivers and their love for their Western Star trucks.
“With more than 1,220 trucks on the road, it takes a while to convert an entire fleet, but we’re slowly getting there, “said Frank.
“And they love the horsepower, “he added. “When that driver is in one of the new X-Series trucks, it’s almost impossible to get stuck. Activate the double lockers, and you can keep plowing continuously. Even on tough terrain like the 8% grade of the Coquihalla, the truck climbs hills with ease. “
Continuing to push through often precarious conditions, Emcon leads Canadian highway maintenance all while embodying the “Never Back Down" spirit of Western Star.