NAIT grad keeps an ancient trade alive and local business thriving
Think of some of the iconic buildings and plazas in Edmonton. Which ones come to mind? The Legislature. Government House. LeMarchand Mansion. The Hotel Selkirk at Fort Edmonton. The Kelly Ramsey Building off of Rice Howard Way. The Federal Building and Plaza. Corbett Hall on the U of A campus.
All beautiful buildings. All important to the architectural heritage of Edmonton. And all of them, as Scorpio Masonry President Chris Ambrozic will proudly point out, are ones that his company has had an important role to play in restoring. In fact, about 40 per cent of the leading masonry contractor’s work is restoration; the remaining 60 per cent is commercial and residential work.
It’s deliberate, says Ambrozic, a graduate of the Business Administration – Management program in 1990. “We have people who work here that are incredibly passionate about their work, and we pride ourselves in being the leading masonry contractor in the restoration field.
“Creating influence in our industry isn’t always about doing construction work, it’s also about doing historical and restoration repair work on buildings that have been built a century ago. We pride ourselves in mentoring our employees, teaching them not only about construction, but about the historical side of the industry.” And for Scorpio masons, that’s very much a hands-on work experience.
The company has certainly received its share of recognition for that work.
The Alberta Masonry Council has awarded the company its presidential award, nine awards of excellence, 15 awards of merit and five honourable mentions. Last year, for example, the Council recognized Scorpio’s work with an Award of Merit for the work it did on the Edmonton Remand Centre, an institution that has an iconic form and structure that relies on masonry materials and techniques.
Before the company could ever had hoped to assume projects as massive as that one, however, it had to prove it did great work. Its roots were modest, but typical for the times. In the late 1950s, three brothers emigrated from Slovenia and started Pockar Brothers Masonry in Calgary. One of their cousins, Chris’s father, Mirko, was sent to Edmonton to open a northern Alberta office for the company. One of its first projects was Kingsway Garden Mall. Today, Scorpio is an independent company and Pockar Masonry Ltd. serves the southern Alberta market.
In 1996, Chris remembers his father coming to his house to ask him whether he would take over the estimating for the company. Theirs had quit, leaving the company in a fix. “I knew the trade,” recalls Ambrozic. “But I had no experience estimating.” It’s an activity Ambrozic grew to believe is really a form of sales. So, he stepped in and did the job until 2001.
But first, he was a labourer with the company, a helper and a journeyman bricklayer. Then he went to NAIT, studied management, and came back as a site foreman, estimator, general superintendent, and then, in 2013 he became president.
“When my dad was building the company, he always wanted his kids to be part of it,” says Chris’s sister, Michelle Steele, who graduated from NAIT’s Marketing program in 1988 and now works as the office manager with Scorpio. “He groomed Chris to take over, although I don’t know whether that was his intent from the beginning.”
“I’m not going to lie,” Ambrozic says candidly: “The start was not the easiest being the boss’s son. I grew to love the business. And when I was in school, seeing different career paths, [I decided] this is a pretty good career choice,” he explains.
“Clark Builders Project Manager Darcy Fortier, a graduate of the NAIT Construction Engineering Program in 1997, describes Scorpio Masonry as an industry leader. “They continuously exceed our expectations. I’ve had the privilege of working with Scorpio Masonry on many projects, to name a couple, the Strathcona County Community Centre, and the historic Bay building, now known as Enterprise Square.
“While costs are a huge factor, especially more so in today’s economy, it is not the only factor that we use when selecting our trades,” Fortier explains. “We look at those who have a high standard of professionalism, are accountable, take pride in their workmanship, and ensure that their work is consistently completed on time. These traits are what you will find in Scorpio Masonry.”
Ambrozic likes to hear that kind of feedback, because it reinforces his belief that their approach—one of consistent site leadership and integrity that he traces to his father’s beliefs—is working regardless of what kind of job it is and how large or small it is. “On each site we have to convey the same values,” he explains, and that’s based on open communications between our foremen, site superintendents and general contractors. Yes, he admits, they’ve had the “odd job from hell,” but there’s always been a commitment to learn from those experiences. But he adds: “Masonry is the best choice out there. You deliver a good project. It’s going to last. Period.”
Clark Builders and Scorpio have once again found themselves working together on a project, more recently on the construction of NAIT’s new Centre of Applied Technology, a giant of a building that promises to enable the institution to increase its enrolment in key program areas.
Ambrozic says the company, which now does about $15 million annually here in Alberta and another $3 to $4 million in Saskatchewan, also supports specific research in the city devoted to advancing masonry for construction. And recently he stepped up to donate $50,000 to his alma mater; that was matched by provincial Access to the Future funding. The funding—perhaps not surprisingly—is devoted to the costs associated with the construction of the CAT building. Ambrozic is also this year’s Edmonton Construction Association president. He is married to Christine and together they have four boys: Cale, Brett, Eric and Nick.