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50 years of rolling with booms, busts

MCW Group thrived as recession hurt others

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The detailed design of the MTS Centre is among MCW's accomplishments in Winnipeg.

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The detailed design of the MTS Centre is among MCW's accomplishments in Winnipeg. Photo Store

While much of the economy was reeling from the global recession late last decade, at least one Winnipeg mechanical and electrical engineering firm found itself in the midst of its own little economic bubble.

The MCW Group -- which started in Winnipeg in 1964 and is now one of the largest independent, partner-owned firms in the country -- had a spike in business after the 2008 recession.

That's because government stimulus spending meant all sorts of public-sector building projects --MCW's sweet spot -- were fast-tracked.

"Schools that were scheduled to be built in a few years were fast-tracked and we were scrambling to hire anyone we could," said Elliott Garfinkel, the managing partner of the Winnipeg office.

MCW celebrated its 50th anniversary this week with clients and partners from across the country meeting in Winnipeg.

'Schools that were scheduled to be built in a few years were fast-tracked and we were scrambling to hire anyone we could'

-- Elliott Garfinkel, managing partner, MCW Group, on a burst of business for the 50-year-old firm

The firm now has a total of 375 people including 23 partners in large offices in Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver and Moncton and a number of sub-offices across the country.

Garfinkel said while there is no head office, per se, its CEO is currently based in the Toronto office. MCW's Winnipeg office now has about 90 people including five partners, slightly fewer than it had during the artificial boom late last decade.

The Winnipeg shop does not do civil-engineering work such as roads and sewers, but it is the firm's national headquarters for its electrical power and high-voltage practice.

Bob Buschau, a partner who helps lead the energy practice, said the recessionary bubble threw a wrench in the business balance the firm's diversification typically had provided.

"Usually if the commercial-institutional work is slow, the energy retrofit and high-voltage work is busy," he said. "A few years ago, both sides came up at the same time and they both came back down at the same time."

But the firm's Winnipeg partners see a good runway for growth for the next number of years.

And while massive engineering firms such as SNC Lavalin, Tetra Tech, Stantec and WSP Global (formerly Genivar) are going public and gobbling up all the firms they can find, MCW is more than happy to continue to grow organically.

"About 80 per cent of our business is from repeat customers," Garfinkel said. "Our clients are the building owners, architects, school divisions and regional health authorities. Sometimes all it will take is a simple email for us to get involved in a project."

But that's not to say MCW is not in the mergers-and-acquisition business as well. Its Vancouver office acquired a couple of small Vancouver firms this year alone.

In 1999, the Winnipeg office acquired AGE Engineering. (The firm's Winnipeg office is officially called MCW/AGE Consulting Professional Engineers.)

The Winnipeg partners may joke about how, since they will be the only small guys left, they will be left to pick up the crumbs.

But in fact, MCW has done mechanical and electrical engineering work on some of the city's and country's iconic buildings. It did all the detailed design work for the MTS Centre and most of the work on the Winnipeg Art Gallery and Oak Hammock Marsh as well as engineering work on the iconic Ontario College of Art and Design expansion and the Pan Pacific Hotel in Vancouver.

Among other things, it has developed a special niche in providing temporary power or overlay service for large sporting events including a few Pan Am Games, Commonwealth Games and some specialized work for the Vancouver organizing committee at the 2010 Olympics.

Garfinkel, Buschau and their partners, Ken Isaak and Andrew Rotoff, all had a nervous laugh about how the recent air-conditioning failure at the San Antonio arena in the midst of the recent NBA finals game was a mechanical engineer's worst nightmare.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 B6

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