Hundreds turned out to 50th anniversary celebrations for Surerus Pipeline in Fort St. John on June 14, an evening of northern hospitality marked with a turkey dinner and theatre improv, stories and camaraderie.
It was 1969 when Brian Surerus made his way north from Roseneath, Ontario, to the Peace Country in B.C., rolling into town in a 1969 Ford Ranger F100 he would later trade in for a dump truck, and maintaining roads for the department of highways under the name of Groundhog Enterprises.
Two years later, Surerus had finished his first pipeline project for Union Oil near Fort St. John, and decided to change his company name to Surerus Construction and Development and pursue more work in the industry. Today, Surerus is one of Canada’s largest pipeline construction companies, with its eyes set on a horizon stretching out another 50 years.
“You can imagine the effort that goes into setting up for an event like this, but you can’t set up for a 50th year party without starting from something, and that’s what today’s about: it’s about the journey my dad’s had, and all of us who are fortunate to be here today have been able to enjoy as well,” said Sean Surerus, Brian’s son and current company president. “It’s an incredible accomplishment.”
An incredible accomplishment and story of Canadian entrepreneurism, indeed, and one that was celebrated by city councillors, MLAs, senators, workers, friends, and family.
They were all on hand to crowd around Brian as employees gifted him a restored 1969 Ranger to celebrate the anniversary. It may not have been the original truck he drove into town with, but it was pretty damn close — more than $68,000 was raised and more than 1,800 hours were spent to restore the truck.
“What do you give a guy that’s built this empire that he can’t buy on his own? You don’t buy him something, you build him something,” said Nathan Pysar, who’s been working with Surerus for more than a decade and will be the company's superintendent on the Trans Mountain expansion project.
“He drove here and started with nothing. I think we give it back to him.”
The Surerus name is known for giving back, both to its community and to its employees. To mark its anniversary this year, Surerus donated $20,000 to the North Peace Cultural Centre on June 8 to sponsor 50 brand new theatre seats.
Employees look to Brian as a mentor, a man at the top of his field who helps elevate others to his level. Raj Acharjee calls him a case study in management, one that a student could write a master’s thesis about.
“He has a unique way of managing things successfully. I’ve told him, ‘You must give some classes to the students in university to share your experience.’ That’s what management is all about, it comes from experiences like Brian’s. After 50 years, he’s a master of management,” Acharjee said.
“Sean has evolved his leadership and been very successful. He’s managing diverse knowledge across cultures, and creating a competitive advantage in the market, and that’s why we’re doing well.”
Indeed, Surerus has brought the world to Canada. Acharjee first met the Surerus family in India in 2008 to talk about a pipeline project there. His first impressions? They were very Canadian.
“It’s one of the most respectful, humble, polite countries in the world, so that’s how I define Canadians,” Acharjee said. “So, they were very Canadian to me, and I really appreciated it. They were very kind gentlemen, professional.”
Though the pipeline project didn’t go through, Acharjee kept in touch. He made his way to Canada and back to the oil and gas sector with Surerus in 2014 after studying for his masters in global management in Victoria, and his masters in business administration in Germany. “They gave me the opportunity. That is my forte, pipelines,” he said.
Acharjee would first be stationed in Calgary, helping the company develop processes and systems in a new partnership with J.Murphy & Sons, based in the UK, before moving to Fort St. John.
That joint-venture partnership holds two significant pieces of work on the Coastal GasLink and Trans Mountain expansion projects. The JV was born out of a shift for the company in 2012 after looking at the growing number of large pipeline projects proposed in Canada: Energy East, Northern Gateway, Prince Rupert Gas Transmission, and the West Coast Connector, to name just a few.
It was a natural progression up for the company, which started out in small-inch projects, and grew into mid-inch projects in the late 1980s. Surerus was one of the last companies, alongside Fort St. John’s Macro Enterprises, to join a small group of large diameter contractors in Canada in 2011.
“The size of the work we did, the pipe size, the length, as well as the complexity, those things all evolved over time,” Sean Surerus said.
“You don’t just get there by being a contractor, you get there by having credibility, by having resources, that’s people and equipment, and being able to handle the risk that comes with larger work.”
With so many major pipeline projects proposed in the country earlier this decade, and so few major contractors to provide the capacity necessary to build them all, international pipeline companies from the U.S. and Europe were invited to the country to help fill the gaps. That’s how Surerus met the team from J. Murphy & Sons.
Mick Fitzpatrick, president of the Surerus Murphy joint venture, remembers the Coastal GasLink file landing on his desk, coming to Canada, and quickly realizing his company needed a Canadian partner.
“If we we’re going to do anything in this country, we we’re going to need a local partner who understands the terrain, who understands how things work, understands the indigenous communities, and who understands the work,” Fitzpatrick said.
“There is no -40 C in the UK. Summer work is summer work, whether that’s Australia or the UK or Canada. But winter work is a completely different thing.”
“When we met with Brian, John’s a very down to earth guy who came up through pipelines as well. We really hit it off,” he added. “There were some big jobs that we were both bidding for. From a Murphy perspective, we were never going to win those jobs. We could have bid on them, but we wouldn’t have won them without a local partner.”
The joint venture has been tasked to build 140 kilometres of pipe the $6.2-billion Coastal GasLink project, and 180 kilometres of pipe for the Trans Mountain expansion, a project likely to push far past $9 billion.
Both projects are transformational — not just for the company, but for Canada. The company will employ roughly 1,000 workers on each project, including sub-contractors. Both are three-year builds at minimum, providing steady work year-over-year, uncommon in the pipeline business.
“Generally we’re season to season. Both jobs will give us a three-year window … everyone is busy for three years,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re fortunate to have two great crews to deliver two jobs, that can springboard to develop business in other areas.”
Pysar called Trans Mountain an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I believe our country needs it. We need this oil and gas, we need this industry,” he said. “For me, it’s an honour to be able to do it. I look forward to the challenge. I’ve always started and finished something.”
There’s still plenty of expansion work to come, and Surerus expects to keep busy.
“We’re looking at how do we expand our business to take advantage of opportunies within this sector of construction that would use similar pieces of equipment and similar types of people,” Sean Surerus said.
“We’re looking at how do we expand our business offerings so we’re capable and nimble, and responsive to the market needs.”
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