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As president and CEO of B.C.’s Fraser River Pile & Dredge, Sarah Clark is one of the few women at the top of the piling profession in Canada

By Mark Halsall

 

Founded in 1911 in New Westminster, B.C., Fraser River Pile & Dredge (FRPD) has grown to become Canada’s largest marine and land foundations firm. In recent years, this growth has been guided by Sarah Clark, a Queen’s University engineering graduate who rose through the ranks in various capacities in the construction industry to become president and CEO of FRPD.

On top of being an accomplished executive in a male-dominated industry, Clark is also a working mom. Clark and her husband have two children, a 12-year-old and a nine-year-old, and every day she strives to strike that illusive work-life balance that can be difficult for both men and women in the construction profession.

Clark agreed to share her story in a recent interview with Piling Canada.

Could you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you came to be president and CEO of Fraser River Pile & Dredge?

 

Sarah Clark: After graduating with a civil engineering degree from Queen’s University in 1990, I worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation in the Engineer in Training Program. This was a great opportunity as much of my five years there was spent on work sites, where exposure to contract administration and learning about construction methodology provided a very valuable complement to my more formal education.

In 1996, I moved to Bombardier Transportation where I worked as a contract administrator in the company’s systems division, which provides and integrates all of the wayside equipment for the transit lines.

I had many opportunities at Bombardier, as a project manager and in business development in Jacksonville, Fla.; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Vancouver, B.C. Through this, I started working on bids for public-private partnership projects, which ultimately led to working at Partnerships British Columbia Inc. (Partnerships BC), a provincial Crown agency responsible for major infrastructure procurement in both Vancouver and Victoria.

At Partnerships BC, I had the opportunity to work on many of the largest projects in the province, including as procurement manager for the Port Mann Bridge/Highway 1 Improvement Project, which was a $2.5-billion-dollar highway upgrade that included the replacement of the Port Mann Bridge over the Fraser River.

I have been fortunate to work on the public and private side of the business. From my perspective, until you actually work for each side you can never fully understand the day-to-day drivers in both sectors. I missed working in the private sector, so when the opportunity to work at Fraser River Pile & Dredge was presented, I took it. FRPD has become increasingly more involved in larger projects as the general contractor and my background fit in with the company’s goals in this area.

You’ve been president and CEO of Fraser River Pile & Dredge since August 2017, and before that you were the company’s COO for three years. Talk about your time at FRPD and the transition to the piling industry.

 

SC: Joining FRPD as COO was my first role in the piling industry. As a civil engineer and project manager, I had worked on the design and construction of roads and transit projects where I was exposed to foundation design, but had not specialized in FRPD’s primary areas.

When I joined the company, I was immediately impressed by the talent and knowledge within the organization. FRPD has benefited from the loyalty and hard work of our team of employees and contractors, many of whom have spent their entire career with the company. There has been a commitment to hiring and training young people in the office and in the field that has yielded great dividends.

I enjoy working with the people of FRPD and learning from the vast knowledge that is within the organization. It is a 107-year-old company with much tradition but also with an eye to the future and it is continually evolving.

What do you love about your line of work?

 

SC: Every day is a new challenge and we have the right people to figure out how to address those challenges as a team and be successful. FRPD is involved in so many different sizes and types of projects – it makes the work very interesting and a place of continuous improvement and opportunity.

What are some memorable projects that you have been a part of? What makes them stand out?

 

SC: Each project brings learnings that are valuable to your next project. With Bombardier Transportation, I was given the opportunity to travel and work in many locations. Just like every project, every new location has challenges with logistics and culture in addition to the basic day-to-day project management issues at play.

For me, two projects that stand out are Bombardier’s Light Rail Transit 2 Project in Kuala Lumpur in 1998, where we had to meet a deadline of opening for the Commonwealth Games under circumstances that many of us never experienced, and more recently the Fairview Container Terminal Expansion in Prince Rupert, B.C.

This was a large job for FRPD and the biggest one we’ve taken on as a general contractor in a joint venture. Through the dedication of our people and teamwork with our JV partner, Bel Contracting, it was successfully completed.

We had a lot of younger team members on the Fairview Container Terminal Expansion project as well. The leadership and drive displayed by all members of the team were the keys to overcoming the many challenges the project presented, such as the difficult drilling conditions and the weather in Prince Rupert. It was really great to see the team come together to deliver a successful outcome.

Can you tell us what it was like being a female engineering student back in the late 80’s? Have things changed much?

 

SC: I had a wonderful experience at Queen’s and never felt discriminated against there. When I was at Queen’s, I recall that the percentage of women in engineering was about 14 per cent. Today, this is only around 17 per cent and it’s unclear to me why the number of women in construction, whether in the trades or in the office, remains so low. The low participation percentage is very evident when attending an industry event and the number of women in attendance can be counted on one hand. I would like to see this change.

It would be nice to see more female representation throughout the industry. It will take true leadership from the construction firms to ensure the environment is – at a minimum – welcoming, respectful and safe, and right from the beginning through training programs and throughout careers. Recognizing the inherent value of greater diversity and inclusion, as well as ensuring true equality in career pathways, are all critically important elements that can pave the way to greater female participation.

What are some challenges you’ve had to overcome thus far in your career?

 

SC: Learning to balance family life with a busy job is a challenge every day. Before I had children, I could just work all the time. Now, I have to be more efficient. As a parent, I have to be there for my kids – I want to be there for my kids. As a result, I have learned how to manage my time better and try not to take on too much myself. And, I am lucky to have a very supportive family.

Having this balance means a better life and it’s important for everyone whether they are parents or not. Construction can typically be difficult because of the long hours, but we need to make sure that our workforce has time to be with their families, whatever that family looks like. This is a challenge with out of town projects as well.

What are your future plans for your career?

 

SC: While I would like to say I have a master plan for where I am going, I certainly would not have predicted how my career has gone to date. I am very lucky to have had the opportunities I have up to now.

What do you think is the future of the piling industry?

 

SC: We are seeing a steady shift to alternate means of pile installation including augering and bored shafts. Economics, design optimization and noise mitigation are factors behind this shift. An example of noise restrictions in urban areas is a bylaw introduced in New Westminster this past summer which limits the use of impact hammers.

The ability to complete construction projects has become increasingly more complex, including requirements related to quality, health and safety and environmental permitting as well as procurement models.

This requires contractors to become more sophisticated in these areas, even if they’re acting purely as a subcontractor, as the owner and general contractors are passing more requirements down than ever before. This will result in changes in companies’ structures and overheads and making margins will become more challenging. This hits the medium-sized contractors’ business model the most and we may see more buyouts by larger companies.

What are necessary competencies to be successful in construction?

 

SC: The construction industry is full of people who are multi-talented – they have to know the technical side, how to negotiate and understand contracts, how the company makes money and most importantly how to work well with people. People are the greatest assets a company has.

What advice do you have for people entering or thinking about joining this industry?

 

SC: I highly encourage young people to spend time working on the construction side of the industry even if they want to be designers. Seeing the world from the delivery side will help give you the skills to be a highly resourceful individual, one that can see the challenges on different sides of the table.

As a bonus, you will spend time with hard-working, clever people who are very generous with their knowledge. When you have to produce the final product, you really appreciate the teams that do the work to deliver it. I have had the good fortune to spend time and learn from so many people that took the time to teach me their trade and this continues today at FRPD.

Any tips specifically for young women?

 

SC: Don’t be intimidated, everyone was new at one time. It’s fun and challenging, and if you are interested in learning, you’ll find a lot of people will be very welcoming and giving with their time.

 

 

 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.