The path to success is seldom a straight line and this certainly holds true for Dave O’Connor and Simon Landy, co-founders of Outland Camps. The two met in medical school at the University of Toronto, each with career aspirations of becoming a doctor. Dave is very detail-oriented – he likes numbers and data and is constantly seeking ways to improve the status quo. Simon, on the other hand, is more outgoing and loves meeting and connecting with people. They hit it off as friends from the get-go.
During summer break while at med school, the two launched a start-up tree planting business to help pay for their tuition. After graduation, Dave went on to get his MBA while Simon began working shifts in the emergency department at a Toronto hospital, but they both saw true opportunity with their fledgling tree planting business. In 1987, Dave and Simon took a leap of faith and committed full-time to growing the company. The rest, as they say, is history.
“It was a bit of a shock for my mother when I told her that I was switching careers from medicine to tree planting” laughs Dave, “but she trusted my judgment.” Outland is now the biggest reforestation company in Canada, planting upwards of 50 million trees annually across the country. It was a natural extension of the business to offer forest firefighting and disaster relief services, and Outland has since become a full-service supplier, installer, and operator of remote workforce camps servicing forestry operations, the oil and gas industry, mining and exploration companies, and provincial governments.
Outland is known in the industry for its incredibly fast response time. In 2014, they were called in to High River, Alberta to mobilize a modular camp during the flood, which caused billons of dollars of damage. In less than six weeks, Outland had built a small, temporary village which accommodated over 1,200 displaced residents of High River. “That was a unique project for us,” explains Dave, “as it involved families with children, not just workers. Most of our projects involve sending crews to build and cater modular work camps in very remote parts of the country.”
Dave isn’t exaggerating when he refers to remote locations. In fact, some of their remote site camps are accessible only by helicopter. In 2010, Outland also became the leading supplier of floating accommodations to the mining industry. “Canada is a big place, with a lot of uninhabited land. As roads are built and power lines are put up, those workers need somewhere to live. That’s where we come in,” says Dave.
Today, the tree planting side of the business is essentially a 4-year training program that feeds the core parts of the business requiring more skill and experience. “Students will work with us during summer break, supervising tree planting projects” explains Dave, “and once they graduate, many stay on with us and move to the camp projects.”
In an industry where the labour force is spread out – often hundreds of kilometers between operations – Outland has managed to create a unique spirit of cooperation and a sense of family throughout the organization. And with over 2,000 employees during peak times, that’s no small feat. “We were very intentional about making sure that our people are rewarded for doing good work,” says Dave. “We’ve fostered a strong work ethic and I truly believe our labour force is among the best in the world.” A majority of Outland’s employees started with the company at 18 years of age and have stayed with the company throughout their career. “That sense of loyalty goes both ways.”
Culture is but one of many achievements realized by Outland in the company’s 32-year history. “We’ve turned a profit every year since we started the business” says Dave. “While of course we always try to negotiate the best deal possible, we never want to burn a bridge. Reputation is everything. Making a profit at the expense of gaining enemies just isn’t worth it.”
But when asked about what makes him most proud, Dave answers without hesitation. “Definitely our First Nations Rangers” he says. Dave is referring to Outland’s First Nations Youth Employment Program – an education, training, and work program that has been going strong for seventeen years. Each year, two high school students from First Nations communities across Ontario have the chance to participate in Outland’s 6-week training session to learn valuable forestry and mining skills. “The kids get their firefighting certificate and their chainsaw license. They learn about water filtration skills and get real, hands-on life and work experience,” explains Dave, “and they go on to do great things.” Outland raises funds from a variety of partners for the program each year and has trained hundreds of First Nations youth since the program’s inception. “If we could run 20 of these programs across Canada, it would have an incredible impact on the issues faced by First Nations communities” says Dave.
Although Dave has 4 kids and Simon 3, the plan was never to pass the business on to the next generation. Instead, Dave and Simon had planned on a gradual sale to their highly competent management team, primarily because they didn’t believe the business was saleable. “As a services business, we don’t have a product to sell, so we thought it would be hard to find a buyer” explains Dave. To their surprise, they were approached by a large, public construction company, Carillion PLC, that was looking to expand into the market. Outland was in the midst of their biggest – and most difficult – construction project ever and Dave and Simon thought that Carillion might be able to help, so they made the decision to sell the business.
In 2015, the two agreed to an offer that included an earn-out (over three years) as an indication of their certainty about the growth potential of Outland. As Dave explains, “you have to decide how much confidence you have in your own business. If you’re willing to assume some risk and wait longer to get paid, you can command a higher price.” His number one tip for preparing a business for sale? “Make sure you have a trusted financial accountant and business advisor on your side, to guide you through the process,” he cautions. “And your selling price will hold more weight and credibility if you have at least a few years of review or audited financial statements.”
Dave and Simon are now two and a half years in to their three-year buy-out agreement. “We’re looking forward to decompressing once the earn-out is finalized” says Dave. “Running a business is a lot of fun, but it’s also hard work and a significant amount of responsibility.” So, what’s next? “I think there’s a lot of golf, squash, and travel in my future” he explains. “I might consider becoming an angel investor for my kids, if they decide to go into business on their own. The entrepreneurial spirit will always be a part of me.”
Interested in learning more about Outland Camps? Check them out online at http://www.outland.ca/.