Ross Grieve Senior Business Editor Richard Korman recently talked with PCL Construction Group CEO Ross Grieve. PCL is Canada’s largest contractor and one of the biggest in the U.S., too. The conversation concerned PCL’s hiring program, employee stock ownership, what makes a good recruit and Grieve’s own career and schooling in PCL company values.

Where did you grow up and start working for PCL?

My hometown is Winnipeg and that’s where I first joined PCL. But later I went to Regina, the capital city of Saskatchewan, and it’s a bit of a joke that Regina was sort of the backwater of places you might end up in if you worked for PCL. Sure enough I got transferred there and I spent four to five years there.

You don’t consider that such a bad thing, do you?

It’s a wonderful training ground for young people in this business; projects aren’t too big and there’s a wide variety of projects and you can expose young people to construction there and it’s like getting a masters of construction. You meet the mayors and the captains of industry. So it’s a wonderful place to train young managers.

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Send them to the countryside for schooling, I get it. What else do you learn in Saskatchewan?

There’s a wonderful work ethic that comes from rural areas of our country and your country and the most successful people at all levels of PCL, our top superintendents, started in Saskatchewan or Minnesota or Manitoba. A lot of them grew up being taught a work ethic and about machinery by their uncles and fathers and cousins.

Who else around here worked in Saskatchewan?

[Former CEO and Chairman] Joe Thompson, he spent time in Regina. [U.S. buildings chief] Peter Beaupre and [Canadian buildings chief] Paul Douglas each was a manager in Regina. So we’ve all done a tour of duty in that construction environment where our roots are.

So many people have been hired by PCL recently. What do you value in recruits?

It’s crucial that people understand how things come together and how to plan and execute. Problem solving and motivating and leading, the people part; respecting other people’s opinions. Keeping an open mind. That’s all important. Personality has a lot to do with it, too. I’ve always said in all the people I’ve interviewed and hired over the years, ‘how does this person come across as a person? How good will they be working with others?’

What about experience of a particular kind?

There are people you hire for sure for technical skill when looking for that, but it’s a matter of finding people who have that with the other personality traits.

Shares of PCL, which are only owned by employees or the company, have gone up steadily and you paid a big dividend of $8.60 a share this year. Is that why employee ownership works so well at PCL and you are able to recruit so many people recently?

We try to perpetuate the employee-shareholder model to continue to bring in new young people. We don’t need them to buy shares to finance operations. We could borrow or declare smaller dividends and have more retained earnings. We don’t need the funds from the stock purchases to do business. We do bring in young new people partly because someone’s got to buy out the veteran employees and we have to monetize and liquidate their shares. So you have to feed it for the health of the model; but it’s not driven by the need for working capital.