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The Builder

Photos Courtesy of Tim Hopkins

I like seeing results and the greatest results are in the people.

– Tim Hopkins

The 50 km/hour Saskatchewan wind changed Tim Hopkins’ plans that day. It made it impossible to work in Kindersley, but Tim took it in stride, driving to different Advantage Group job sites in Saskatoon instead. He stopped to acknowledge one of his employees, an Indigenous woman he refers to as “a massive success story.” His son Michael jumped into the truck. Michael’s been working with Tim since he was nine. Tim describes him as a great foreman and someone who understand people well.

It doesn’t take long to realize Tim is not just building a business but is most passionate about building people. He looks for success in what appears to be inequality and when he doesn’t believe there needs to be inequality. Tim says, “I like seeing results and the greatest results are in the people. All the policy in the world is just policy, unless there are changes in people’s lives for the better.”

From the boots on the ground to speaking nationally, from hunting and trapping to his biology and education degrees, Tim connects people in many ways. In Tim’s words, “I kind of sit on the fence because I’m Metis – I work well with non-Indigenous people and I also work really well with Indigenous people. I get everybody talking to me and people are very comfortable to say what they want and I’m OK to listen.” Tim, a natural storyteller with an easy smile, perhaps takes for granted his ability to connect with all people.  For Tim, it is just who he is.

What was your background before you founded Advantage Group?

I spent most of my young life in Ontario and went to the University of Toronto to study biology. I understood about plants and animals growing up hunting and trapping, but I really had no clue. My father said to me as a young man, “I don’t care what you do with your life. You can dig ditches for all I care, but you’re going to go to university.” That was back in a generation when you just did what you were told. I graduated with biology and education degrees and it really was a game changer. It taught me not to be afraid and to take risks and do whatever I needed to do to be successful and survive.

I could prove the stereotypes wrong and that was absolutely my goal.

– Tim Hopkins

What was the motivation to start your business?

Over 15 years ago, I was living up North but moved South to the Prince Albert area. I had always been involved in construction and had been doing contract work in that area. There were several businesses asking me to come work construction with them. There was a shortage of labour and the biggest complaint from companies was that they couldn’t find workers. The language in use in the industry was fairly colourful, with negative stereotypes about employing Indigenous people. That really infuriated me because I grew up hearing and seeing a lot of that negativity. I decided, based on those kinds of comments, to start my own company instead. I could prove the stereotypes wrong and that was absolutely my goal. I look back now and think that’s probably not the best way to do things, but that’s what I did and how I built the business.

How has your business adapted and evolved over the years?

We started as a truck-and-ladder residential roofing business, then moved to commercial roofing and to working with the federal government through the Procurement Strategy for Aboriginal Business (PSAB). On average, I’m running about nine office people and can have up to 60 staff. Two years ago, my goal was to have our office online, completely virtual. I saw such value because our staff were everywhere. Over the past two years, we’ve turned everything in our office virtual. When covid-19 hit, we didn’t miss a beat. We lost business, but that didn’t have anything to do with our systems.

How do you find talent for your business?

We find and source talent differently than usual. We complain in the city about not having enough labour and yet in the North, there’s untapped labour. You have to know a little bit about how it works and be comfortable with it. Almost every community will have its own Facebook Buy and Sell page and the first thing you do is post there. You tell them a little bit about who you are because people will be inherently more comfortable with other Indigenous people. That is the first bridge to build. If you do not have that, then you call Chief and Council and there’s some protocol, although not formal, but it’s important to make those protocols work.

What is your vision for the future?

It’s to find a place in a really large market and get comfortable with what it is that we want to do. I still believe, number one, it’s to make money. I mean, we’re an entrepreneurial business and we have to make money to survive. We look for opportunities to support our mandate to train and employ Indigenous people. Indigenous people have a lot of talent and many of them have additional obstacles to overcome. That doesn’t mean the talent’s not there. The talent just needs to be nurtured and that’s the opportunity I present.

What’s an example of how you build connections in the communities you work in?

Several years ago, there was a provincial job for Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the oldest building in Saskatchewan, in Stanley Mission. Access is difficult because it is across water. We hired all local people. In the second phase, we removed and re-installed 1,036 pieces of stained glass. Every single piece of stained glass was removed. The ones that needed to be replaced we sourced from Germany, France, and England.

I knew the community and some of the teachers from previously teaching up North. I invited the teachers and students to come across the water to see our work in progress and to see material that was over 200 years old. There was an inaccessible window at the back that hadn’t been touched since the building was put up. I put up scaffolding and ladders and had people coming from the community just to touch that window so they could say they’d done it. The last time work was done on that building was in the 1980s. I had grandchildren of the staff that worked on it in the ’80s, working on it now.

At the end of the job we recommended to the provincial government that it make two murals out of the broken stained glass that we had replaced and give them to the community. It took time but it did happen. That’s what we do. We make connections. It is not just about the construction project. It is so much more than that.

First published in the September 2020 edition of The Business Advisor.