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The Bouchier Group: An Entrepreneur’s Journey

Nicole Bourque-Bouchier, CEO
BY Nicole Bourque-Bouchier, CEO
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A used Caterpillar dozer and an entrepreneurial spirit are what started Bouchier, and because of our strong belief in doing the right things in the right way, we are now a leading provider of integrated site services in the region.

We have entered our 14th year in full-time business within the Wood Buffalo Region. As owners who were born and raised here, we are proud to call Fort McMurray & Fort McKay home, a place where we raise our family. My husband, David, and I believe in giving back to our communities. This region has afforded us the opportunities to grow our business, and support the advancement of Aboriginal people within Canada.


The Early Years

This past year, one of the more difficult years from a personal perspective, we reached new milestones with The Bouchier Group, hitting 1,000 team members, diversifying our business to offer EPC works, hitting our highest revenue to date, and ending this year by buying back the minority shares of the business from Carillion Canada....all things that would have seemed impossible our first year in business.

We left our full-time jobs in the fall of 2004. It was a huge risk for both of us; David was the General Manager for Fort McKay Group of Companies at the Albian Muskeg River Mine site, and I was a Senior Advisor, External Affairs for Shell Canada. Holding down our jobs and running the business on the side just started to require too much from us. With Canadian Natural Resources green light on the Horizon Project we saw an opportunity to jump in with both feet and try to become successful business owners.

Our first year in business was a struggle and I would imagine no different than most startup businesses. We both worked multiple jobs within the company, and spent long hours on-site away from our family. David managed, supervised, operated in the field, and interacted with the clients, and I worked in the site office completing our Labour, Equipment, Material sheets, running payroll, accounts payables and receivables and even acting as the company’s  health and safety representative. It was a long winter where we were given the ultimate opportunity by CNRL to prove ourselves. We were awarded the highway maintenance into the site, a gravel road at the time, and purchased our first grader for the company. We cleared thousands of hectares along side long time contractor Cross Contracting. We picked up many small jobs along the way. At the completion of our financial year end, you can imagine our surprise when we found out we ended with a $250,000 loss. Not the start any entrepreneur hopes for; business had just become a lot riskier.

David recalls being told by the client that he must be present on the site to gain and keep the work, demonstrating his commitment to the business. He would directly oversee the jobs this first year, including the temporary access road where we were required to install a temporary access bridge across Tar River and all the difficulties with seeping water. We also cleared the land for the No Net Loss lake at the Horizon site. In the early days you were still allowed to have open cat dozers on the site, and this was good for us because to get this job done and meet the critical deadlines we needed to pull in rental equipment and subcontractors from everywhere to support completion. In many ways the first few years, although trying were ‘the good ole days’ we got by with family members from the community of Fort McKay supporting us, mainly as operators – it would have been a lot more difficult to run without them.

I remember my first trip to the CNRL Horizon site.  I went out to look at a temporary access road project we were working on. I wore suits to work and had to trade them in for steel toe boots, a hard hat and vest. I felt like I was driving into the land of the unknown. All my adventures in the bush, up to this point, had been on a quad or skidoo for a family picnic. We drove up to a small trailer the size of a washroom – it was my office for the day. Our rental equipment was working in the distance. I had to jump on the computer and spend the day entering time and getting a total for costs spent to date. I entered the contracting environment not understanding the field, not knowing the difference between a dozer or an excavator, not understanding financials, contracts or health and safety. The last 14 years have been a steep learning curve – a challenging journey.

How did we overcome a $250,000 loss? Well, first we needed to understand how we had failed so miserably in business – two dedicated, hard working, determined business owners. What did we miss? Not understanding the field expense requirements that would pour in during the winter, we incurred fuel and maintenance costs that were never accrued correctly month to month, skewing our income statements. During year-end we watched the invoices pour in and reduce our net profit to what became a minus position. After the sickening feeling of failing weighed in, we put our heads together and decided to give ourselves and our little company six months to pull out of our position. We worked with Fort McKay Group of Companies, and their CEO, Jim Carbery, to ensure a manageable payment plan for our fuel expenses. David was also fortunate enough to have a long-term relationship with Finning, a gentleman by the name of Pat Boeker, who sat down and worked with us to not only postpone our equipment payments, but extend our payment plan on all outstanding invoices. And finally, a dreaded call to our CNRL client had to be made to pay an invoice a little early to make payroll and clear a few expenses. It wasn’t an ask we were proud of, but knew we had to make to keep running.

We found our footing quickly. Within three months we managed to turn around our position to a positive one and have never really looked back since. Each year comes with new challenges and opportunities to grow the business. We have learned to embrace change and always have a future forward outlook to where we want to take the organization.


Barriers Along the Way

The largest barrier was the seasonal nature of our work. It is difficult to establish your business when you were laying off most of your employees every spring. Few people wanted to join Bouchier knowing their employment would not be secure past the winter months. Our first big break came from CNRL with a year-round 4-year Road Maintenance contract. This gave us the ability to keep a core team and start to pick up additional projects. Many potential clients in the area were just not willing to take the risk on a new start up company like Bouchier.

If you are going to grow your business, you will need financial support. When we went for our first line of credit we were rejected. At the time we were only asking for $100,000. We needed to find a financial partner that would give us the opportunity. We were lucky enough to meet some good folks from the Alberta Treasury Branch (ATB). They understood the local businesses and were willing to take the risk on Bouchier.

Running a business with little education was, and still is, a struggle for both of us. I guess you can say Bouchier has been our classroom over the past 14 years; it has been a hands-on experience. I have graduated college with a diploma in Computer Systems, and David has completed a junior high level. Everything along the way has had to have been self taught from the accounting to the commercial and legal. It is one of the reasons we invest so much of our time and financial contributions to education.

Being a woman in business, especially in a less traditional role, has come with its challenges along the way. Even today I am constantly faced with people who continually ask what role I play in Bouchier, sites and clients that I know won’t take me as seriously as they will if both David and I attend a meeting. Even employees that want to shake ‘the president’s hand’, managers that I know are unsure how to take my reaction to bad news, but I know coming from a man would be taken entirely an different way. I have learned that this is the reality and as a Women in Business it is my role, along with many others, to continually advance our position and push the barriers.


Contributions to Success

Understand your risk tolerance level when it comes to business. Entrepreneurship is a series of risks from the moment you make that decision to run your business. David was always willing to take more risks than I was; he has taught me along the way to take larger risks and believe in our abilities. Our first large equipment purchase was a D8 Dozer from Finning. We had no contract in place and it was three quarters of a million dollars to purchase. I didn’t want to take the risk, and he was willing – I believe we just traded in that D8 a few years back for a new one!

With our head office in Fort McKay, we have been fortunate enough to have the support of the Fort McKay First Nation’s Chief and Council. Chief Bouchier has always been supportive of local entrepreneurs and not competing against them but looking for opportunities to advance their businesses. David’s first dozer purchase was a used one from Fort McKay Group of Companies and for the first few years, of part-time operations, he kept it working in the community.

A local family-based business like Bouchier has grown and been successful with the commitment and dedication of our team members. They are the folks that also live here, raise their families here and believe in making a difference each day! Our success is a direct result of their decisions to ‘Join Our Journey’.

Being an Aboriginal business in an area - in a time when much emphasis is beginning to be put on advancing Aboriginal peoples within Canada - has been really both a barrier and a success. We know we are afforded opportunities to bid because of our status. At the same time, we are also labelled that we only get or keep the work because we are First Nations. We our appreciative of the opportunities, but work twice as hard for them to be earned and not given.

There is no substitute for hard work. We have all heard it a million times, but the reality is, as entrepreneurs, our journey has been a tough one. Nothing has been handed to us; everything has been earned along the way.


The Future of a Local Company

We have a vision to be Canada’s leading Aboriginal integrated site support services company. We are happy to be back in the driver’s seat as sole owners of Bouchier, and proud of the team and environment we have established. We look forward to continued growth with the support of our clients and region.