Foundations of Construction: Building a construction giant with Poole’s Rules          

Suggested Image caption “Ernest E. Poole’s job site office during the early years of Poole Construction Co. Limited in Alberta, circa 1920s.” Photographer unknown. 

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Established as a small business well over a century ago, PCL Construction Inc. is now an international conglomerate, regarded as one of Canada’s largest contractors. Among many significant works, the Centre Block of Parliament rehabilitation project is announced by PCL’s recognizable green and yellow sign, drawing attention at the multifaceted construction site. The company story began with a carpenter in small-town Saskatchewan in 1906.

Growing up on Prince Edward Island, Ernest Edward Poole (b. October 18, 1884) worked at the mills of his father, learning carding, sawing, and flour processing. Well-educated, the teenager attended business school at Charlottetown, then “took up the study of architecture and reinforced concrete engineering,” said The Story of Saskatchewan and Its People (Clarke Publishing Company, 1924). The training was “an invaluable aid to him in his later work as a builder.”

When 19, Poole moved to Manitoba for carpentry work, then in 1904 on to Stoughton, Saskatchewan. When work slowed over the frosty months, he “ran a hardware store in the winter,” said Alberta Provincial Archives. “In 1906 he entered the construction business in Stoughton with a partner, James Martin, who retired a year later.”

Construction projects flourished throughout Saskatchewan. The young entrepreneur moved operations to Rouleau, incorporating in 1910. The operation became Poole Construction Ltd. and began bidding on contracts for large projects. Three years later, Poole married Gertrude Inez Annear from Prince Edward Island. The couple began a family that grew to four children, two girls and two boys.

Receiving contracts for the sanitarium at Fort Qu’appelle, Saskatchewan, Poole also completed the Prince Albert provincial jail, and RCMP barracks, among many jobs. One of Poole’s major contracts was construction of the Weyburn, Saskatchewan hospital.

“The building covered nearly 6 acres of land, and more than 4 million bricks and 1.25 million feet of rough timber were used to construct it,” described “Our History” at PCL Construction. Moving several times, the Poole family and the business settled in Edmonton, Alberta in 1932.

In 1935, Poole Construction took a new direction, winning its first civil infrastructure contract “to build a section of the Trans-Canada Highway between Cochrane, Alberta, and Banff National Park.” Expanding and further diversifying, the Poole company as well underwent executive and ownership changes.

In 1948, Poole’s sons purchased the business from their father. Handing over the hammer, Ernie Poole handed them a list of principles, good business practices, that he had faithfully followed. Among several practical handwritten points, Poole advised, “be fair in all dealings with owners, architects, engineers and sub-contractors,” to “give encouragement and show appreciation,” and “avoid jobs where design is not good or financing doubtful. Let your competitors have these.”

The oldest son, John Poole (b. 1917) earned a civil engineering degree from University of Alberta in 1937. Gaining hands-on experience, he was “a structural engineer at the City of Edmonton pumping station #1,” according to Alberta Order of Excellence. Poole’s job “was the first in a long series of projects that would help the province.” Following family footsteps, younger brother George Poole (b. 1921) graduated in 1943, also with a degree in civil engineering. The brothers then joined the family firm.

Constructing commercial and industrial buildings, power plants, highways, and bridges, “the company recruited and trained specialists in every area of the construction industry,” mentioned The senior Poole “remained active in the company’s operation until his death in 1964,” with his sons remaining co-chairmen of the board. His sons continued his legacy of philanthropy and instituted generous programs of their own. George Poole died in West Vancouver in 1997, John Poole died in Edmonton in 2007.

Moving up the ladder from his engineering job at the company, Bob Stollery was appointed CEO of Poole Construction in 1969. Under Stollery’s leadership, the firm’s business structure changed from family ownership to employee ownership.

“Stollery and 24 other senior managers purchased Poole Construction Ltd. from the Poole family” in 1977. Two years later, the company became PCL Construction Ltd. Presently, all salaried employees, no matter their job level, can participate in the employee ownership program.

A construction star in Canada, PCL opened offices in the USA, Australia, and Caribbean. The firm moved east, too, opening offices in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax. Applying advanced technology and techniques, the company has projects throughout the province. An example is PCL’s contract for “Ontario’s first mass-timber, net-zero carbon emissions institutional building” at George Brown College in Toronto.

There is more. A 22-storey Patient Support Centre at SickKids Hospital in Toronto has the company’s stamp, and PCL’s mining engineering experts are executing projects in Northern Ontario, such as replacing the Sudbury Smelter’s Calciner Fabric Building that was damaged in a storm. The tent construction required concrete panels, heating and electrical systems, and overhead doors.

Ernest Poole’s Rules proved to be an effective company policy.

© 2023 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.


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