Piling Canada

The Right Formula

Written by Mark Halsall
June 2018


By Mark Halsall

Last year was a big year for Formula Contractors Ltd.; it marked 40 years in business for the Prince George, B.C., company, as well as the successful completion of its work on a remarkable legacy project – the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway.

The 140-kilometre long gravel highway in the Northwest Territories is Canada’s first all-weather road to the Arctic coast, connecting Inuvik on the eastern flank of the Mackenzie River Delta to its northern neighbour on the Beaufort Sea. After four years of construction, the $300-million route officially opened to year-round traffic on Nov. 15, 2017.

“That was just an awesome project to be part of,” said Phil Toma, director of operations for Formula Contractors.

The Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway includes eight bridges, all of them built by Formula Contractors, who also installed 30 large diameter SPCSP culverts for the project.

A crew of about a dozen workers completed the work for Formula Contractors over the course of four winter construction seasons.

“It takes a hardy type when you’re dealing with -40°C weather and only working in three or four hours of daylight each day. They have to have the skill set, too – you need to be able to weld, you need to know how to run equipment and troubleshoot, you need to be ready to pull wrenches if you have to. You have to do everything,” said Toma.

“It takes a special person to want to do it, for sure,” he said. “A lot of guys see a job like this as a challenge. For them, it’s pretty cool to say they worked up there and accomplished this.”

Finding the right people

Toma, who’s been with Formula Contractors for 13 years, notes the company prides itself on attracting and retaining the right people who can thrive under the often-harsh conditions that working in the north entails.

For Formula Contractors, he says, this has meant crews “that work really, really well together” and a solid reputation as a northern construction specialist that’s grown over the past four decades.

“We like to do the challenging jobs and it’s the type of work we’re known for. We want to be the first call for a contractor to do that type of work, because we do it all the time,” Toma said. “We do it cost effectively, we do it safely and we do it on time.”

According to Toma, Formula Contractors will go where the work is, but it’s equally important for the business to take on the right kind of jobs. For example, the company will find anchor projects and then seek out smaller, supplementary jobs that can help keep its workers busy.

“It’s important to have that anchor job because it offers stability for the company and the crews,” Toma said.

Formula Contractors works mostly in the resources sector on projects in Western Canada, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. According to Toma, the company utilizes a concept to completion approach, offering a full range of construction services from foundation work and building structures, bridges and roads, to mine site development and reclamation and project management.

“We’ve been there, we’ve done it and we understand how to do these jobs, which is a benefit to us,” said Toma.

The business was previously known as Formula Pile and Bridge Contractors Ltd. but changed its name to reflect its expanded capabilities. Today, Formula Contractors continues to do a wide variety of deep foundation work. 

“We can do it all, but our bread-and-butter is bridge construction and driven piles,” Toma said.

He adds that Formula Contractors has a large fleet of equipment at its disposal, but will rent, lease or buy additional machinery when needed to ensure projects are kept on track.

As an example, Toma points to a Soilmec SR-30 hydraulic drilling rig that Formula Contractors purchased last year. The new equipment was needed to drill and embed piling into a tricky shale slip zone area during the company’s work on BC Hydro’s Site C Dam project in northern B.C.

“Now we own that drill and we can use that resource on other jobs or bid for more work like that on other jobs,” Toma said.

Engineer on staff

Formula Contractors has a professional structural engineer on staff who used to design bridges for B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation. According to Toma, the engineer is relied on frequently to provide expertise and is a tremendous asset for the company.

Another unique feature of Formula Contractors, Toma says, is that the each of company’s staff is responsible for their projects from start to finish. They will find the work, estimate on projects and then manage the job if their bid is accepted. The result is less administrative bureaucracy that clients have to deal with and lower overhead for Formula Contractors that is reflected in the company’s pricing.

“We think this is the best way to operate for us,” Toma said. “There are efficiencies in this, because the project estimator/manager is familiar with everything from the first nut and bolt that he estimated to the final invoice. He makes sure everything is taken care of and the flow through with a client is always with the same guy, and that’s important. It’s a strategy that works very well for us.”

Formula Contractors was established by Peter Thwaites in 1977. Thwaites continues to be the principal owner, while Toma and Formula Contractors vice president Paul Tiefensee have ownership stakes in the company.

According to Toma, there are very few situations that Thwaites hasn’t seen in his 40 years in the construction and deep foundation business. 

“We totally bend his ear on that all the time – he’s a great resource for that,” Toma said. 🍁

Category: Profile

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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.

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