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The failsafe questions

Awnings & Canopies, Features, Industry News, Management, Perspective | February 1, 2014 | By:

John Conroy ensures project success by asking the right questions.

“We design projects by thinking about how they could fail,” says John Conroy, owner of House of Canvas, Ottawa, Ont., Canada. “By considering all the things that could possibly go wrong, before even starting the project, we minimize surprises.”

While in high school, Conroy began his canvas career working at a sail loft. After graduating he began working there full time. “I always had it in my mind that I would pursue architecture but I ended up making awnings,” he says. “It wasn’t so much a matter of knowing what I wanted to do as knowing what I liked to do.”

What Conroy liked to do was work with his hands and solve textile fabrication problems. He worked at a sail loft in Toronto, an awning company and a marine canvas company in Ottawa, and then back to an awning company before purchasing House of Canvas in 1996. “I always had staff working with me as a team,” Conroy says. “I figured I could do that for myself instead of working for someone else, so I put some feelers out and found House of Canvas.”

Take a breath

Conroy purchased House of Canvas (which manufactures awnings, canopies and other canvas products for the Ottawa region) from the children of the previous owner, who had recently died. “A death in the family is a huge thing,” Conroy says. “You can’t quantify that—it leaves a huge hole in the family and the company—and the family ultimately decided to sell.”

When Conroy took the helm of the company, he chose not to make too many changes right away. “I don’t think it’s wise to make immediate changes because that can scare off your staff,” he says. “It’s a very difficult thing for everyone when you walk into an existing company with your own attitudes and style—while being compassionate to the people who are experiencing the changes. You have to be careful how you infuse yourself into the company.”

Comfort level

One of Conroy’s philosophies is that a company is not all about the owner, and that the company is made up of a team, of which the owner is a part. “That’s something I wasn’t taught—or experienced—when I was working for others. I always hated that,” Conroy says. “I was always aware that I was the employee. So I think about that and make sure the people who work here know that we work together as opposed to them working for me.” Still, there are times when the decisions come down to him, Conroy admits. But because of the culture of mutual respect that exists, those decisions are rare, and are still a result of the team weighing in.

Part of weighing in is about being comfortable asking questions, Conroy says. “I have a lot of experience and I think I’m respected for that,” he says. “So when there’s a question that can’t be answered it comes back to me—which is great. Sometimes people don’t ask because they’re afraid they’ll look inferior for asking. No, that’s not the case. They may only be making a mistake if they don’t ask. But you have to be comfortable with someone to ask them a question—that’s a human trait.” By example, Conroy fosters a culture that allows for questions, making sure the staff feels comfortable with each other, and with him.

What if … ?

But being comfortable doesn’t mean anything goes—far from it. Producing a quality product is always at the forefront for Conroy. “We like complicated,” he says. “I find that a lot of companies steer clear from the complicated jobs because they’re too hard. But we bid them, and when we get them … that’s when the fun begins.”

As the team looks at a complicated project, they consider what might possibly go wrong. Before beginning the design process Conroy advises asking questions such as: What if we get to the job site and find we haven’t measured properly? What if we find that there’s nothing behind the wall? What if we find that there’s no concrete in the ground where we need to install posts? “We don’t wait until we’re on site for installation to find out the answers to those questions; we’ve answered them before we build the project,” Conroy says. “In essence, if you build a project backwards, you’ve answered all those possibilities.”

Often House of Canvas is hired to install projects on existing buildings, which one would think would have been constructed to building code—eliminating the need to check construction components. “You’d be surprised how many times buildings don’t live up to building codes,” Conroy says. “You still have to check. You have to make sure what’s there before you design the project. Not much can surprise you when you’ve backed all the possible problems into the job and designed around them.”

Guts and glory

The combination of large and small jobs is what keeps the business viable, Conroy says. “Big jobs are fun and glorious, but if we didn’t have the little ones we wouldn’t be here. There are always way more small jobs than big ones.” It’s the expansive projects that often require a bit more ingenuity, however.

House of Canvas manufactured a fitted cover for a potash mine in western Canada in 2013 that was more than 60,000 square feet in size. “When you take a job like that you have to know how you’re going to put it together, even though it won’t fit in your shop. You can’t be afraid of it,” Conroy says. “So we broke it down into pieces.” Instead of manufacturing one large tarp, Conroy and his team constructed 16 covers that were joined on-site and lifted by crane to be put into place. The crew borrowed a field from a local church to lay out the project before installation to confirm that all the pieces fit together, because this could not be confirmed in the shop.

Beyond the talent and creativity, it’s Conroy’s straightforward approach that sets the tone for his company’s success. “It’s pretty simple,” Conroy says. “Don’t cut corners. Be honest. Respect people. And ask the right questions.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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