Concrete solutions for the building industry

Béton Préfabriqué du Lac helps contractors boost efficiency by manufacturing and installing concrete slabs for building facings

André Bouchard, president of Béton Préfabriqué du Lac, walked through a condominium development site and pointed at concrete slabs that his men were installing on the exterior face of a 165-unit building.

"See how they are all different shapes and sizes?" he said. "There are about 2,800 different parts in this contract. Each has to be built to exact specifications and delivered on the right day to the right floor."

The construction site Bouchard was working on, was the third phase of a massive four-building, 620-unit waterfront project on Nun's Island's South-Western tip, known as "Les Sommets sur le Fleuve," which is being developed by Proment Corporation. Phases one and two are sold out, as is 80 per cent of phase three, even though construction is far from complete. Ground was broken on phase four last week.

BPDL, which was hired by the project's general contractor, Magil Construction, to manufacture and install the building exterior concrete panels, has a key role in the project.

When buyers lay out between $200,000 and $2 million for a condo, they want the building to look good and their units to be ready on time. BPDL's engineers work with the project developers to design, manufacture and assemble, a building's exterior facing, which is the part that most people see first.

Prefabricated concrete panels have become increasingly popular in the construction industry in recent years,-- at the expense of poured concrete,-- because the former are often more economical, attractive and provide better flexibility.

If anyone knows the industry it's Bouchard. The company he founded almost 30 years ago with his brother Gaetan now produces close to $35 million a year worth of concrete slabs and installation services, for some of the top developers in the North America.

The construction industry is one the best exemplars of the evolution of modern business. Projects are typically managed by a general contractor, who breaks down the project into manageable segments. These are handled by sub-trades that take care of specialized sections such as foundations, electricity, dry-walls, flooring, painting and in BPDL's case: the building's external facings. The industry's specialization has made it highly efficient, said Pierre Hamel, a spokesman for the Association de la Construction du Québec.

"Contractors don't have to invest in equipment and they can hire sub-trades when they need them," said Hamel. "That gives them a lot of flexibility.

Hamel cited BPDL as a key innovator in bringing high tech methods, to what is traditionally thought of as a low-tech industry.

"They have a reputation for seeking out the more complex and challenging jobs," Hamel said.

The staggering complexity of large scale construction projects, means that Bouchard's employees have to be highly trained, just to be able to do basic tasks like reading the detailed architectural drawings. The problem said Bouchard, is that when most Quebecers graduate from high school or CEGEP, they don't have the skills needed to hit the ground running. As a result BPDL offers workers constant training in a variety of disciplines including mold-making, technical competencies and...English.

"Our U.S. clients love to deal with a Quebec company," Bouchard said. "But when they call our customer service department, they want to speak to someone in their own language."

Much of BPDL's success has been due to Bouchard himself, said Sam Gewurz, Proment's president, who has been dealing with BPDL for more than 20 years.

"He is a very nice guy," said Gewurz. "And by that I mean business-wise. There are a lot of gray areas in business contracts that are not spelled out. He knows how to be flexible when conflicts arise."

BPDL's production and design facilities are located in Bouchard's hometown of Alma, in Quebec's Lac St-Jean region. It's a small town, well off the beaten path, and far from the major North American centers, where most of the company's clients operate.

"We must be good at what we do," joked Bouchard. "No one would fly into Alma from the U.S. to see us, unless he could really benefit from it."

But Bouchard sees lots of advantages in BPDL's Alma headquarters.

"We are a big part of the local economy, and many of our staff have parents and relatives who also worked here," Bouchard said. "It gives us a loyalty that we would not otherwise have."

But much as Bouchard loves Quebec, he realized early that if he wanted to grow, he'd have to look beyond provincial borders. And today more than half the company's revenues stem from U.S. accounts.

Bouchard also made a big long-term bet on the South American market, sending one of his three kids, ---his daughter Christine - to head up a joint venture in San Paulo, with a local partner.

It was a big gamble. The perils of betting on Brazil are legend. Last week Molson Inc. took a $210 million charge on its Cervejarias Kaiser Brasil SA operations, and they are not alone. The running joke among economic development experts is that the former Portugese colony has been the "country of the future," for the last 150 years. But Bouchard brushes off questions about the challenges of dealing there.

"They have excellent designers and engineers, and their middle class is growing all the time. Those people are going to need a lot of housing," Bouchard said with a smile. "In many respects they are ahead of us. Sometimes we forget which is the third world country: Quebec or Brazil?"


Sidebar: BPDL's success formula

o The company specializes in designing, manufacturing and installing the exterior facings of large scale residential and commercial building projects.
o BPDL's plant is in Alma, Quebec, where it has a loyal workforce and lower operating costs.
o BFDL provides employees continuous training courses which include reading technical plans, carpentry, mold-making and English.
o The company generates more than half of its revenues from the U.S. market and in the last five years has more than doubled its presence in the Brazil market.

Fact Box:
Company Name: Béton Préfabriqué du Lac
Owner: Gaetan & André Bouchard and their families
Founded: 1976
Products: Manufacturing and installation of pre-cast concrete panels
Employees: 350-400
Sales: $35 million
Phone #: 418-668-6161


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Peter Diekmeyer
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Montreal, Canada, H9S 1T6, 514-631-0025



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