Building Communities for Everyone

In 2019, Steve Lenarduzzi was just settling into his new role as Senior VP (Northern Alberta, Northern Canada, and Energy and Resources) with Clark Builders in Edmonton. One of the first things on his calendar was an invite to RWA delivery partner Inclusion Alberta’s President’s Reception at their annual Family Conference, where Clark Builders was to receive a Community Inclusion Award. Knowing relatively little about the work of Inclusion Alberta, Steve had Clark Builders’ marketing/PR department fill in a few details and help him draft an acceptance speech. 

The night of the event, Steve dined at a table with a few families from Inclusion Alberta who over the course of the meal, graciously expressed their thanks to Clark Builders. Once it came time for the award itself, families took to the stage to spell out in more detail just what the Clark Builders partnership had meant to them personally. Steve quickly realized that the brief partnership sketch provided to him by PR did not do justice to the reality; these were not impersonal, bland platitudes. Steve heard the stories of people who spent their entire lives feeling neither seen nor acknowledged by society, but for whom all this shifted completely thanks to their employment with Clark Builders. Steve witnessed individual lives and entire families fundamentally changed. In that moment, Steve knew two things: The first was that the ‘canned’ speech would simply not do (he promptly tore it up and instead spoke from the heart), and second was that Steve was going to make it a priority to learn and engage a lot more with the Inclusion Alberta partnership.

Clark Builders was founded by Andy Clark in Yellowknife in 1974. In the late 70’s, the company expanded to offices in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. As one of Canada’s largest general contractors, Clark Builders specializes in projects for the commercial, institutional and energy sectors. Currently employing a workforce of approximately 850, Clark Builders has always taken a team-based approach to construction and a family-based approach to business. The company has a team-centred ownership structure with 25% of the company owned by its employee shareholders. Indeed, Clark Builders’ person-centred approach is spelled out in their foundational corporate statement: ‘Our purpose is to enrich the lives of the people that work with us and live in the communities we help build.’  It is this person-led focus and community commitment which seeded their partnership with Inclusion Alberta. 

Recently Steve Lenarduzzi and Inclusion Alberta’s Chief Operating Officer Wendy McDonald sat down to speak further about the partnership, starting with how it all began. Wendy noted that the partnership, which has developed organically over time, started years ago in the most obvious realm: construction. Wendy had met company founder Andy Clark at an Inclusion Alberta fundraiser, and as a result, Clark Builders has been involved in several renovation projects of Inclusion Alberta’s Edmonton office space, making substantial upgrades to the interior and exterior of the building. The partnership has now grown to see Clark Builders employing individuals with developmental disabilities.

At present, Clark Builders currently has three employees working at job sites across Edmonton thanks to their partnership with Inclusion Alberta and RWA.  Like most who start with Clark Builders, these three employees were initially hired as general labourers. As Clark is keen to reward good work with advancement, one employee, Ian, has now been moved onto a large hospital project.  

“Ian started out as a general labourer two years ago and really gelled with the team,” says Steve. “From there he moved on to being a skip operator at another site, a key role that is fundamental to the efficient movement of personnel and equipment on a job site.” Clark Builders has also offered Ian an opportunity to register as an Apprentice Carpenter, where they will partner with Inclusion Alberta’s Inclusive Post-Secondary Education initiative at NAIT. Ian is a valued employee at Clark Builders and was nominated multiple times for a ‘Golden Wings Award’ on a past project for attitude, safety and commitment to work.   

Overall, Clark Builders has seen tremendous progress and reaped great benefits from all of their inclusive hires, benefits which go far beyond just an individual employee’s performance. 

“When you see these employees show up with that level of commitment, it inspires everyone,” says Steve. “Eyes open up and you see the benefits of accommodation.” 

Providing accommodations, Steve says, even as little as managers having to be more thoughtful about how they communicate, went on to make them better managers who in turn have had better-than-average career trajectories.

As for particular accommodations required and the benefits gained, Steve says that they were easily realized. Part of Clark Builders’ on-site safety program are written visual assets called ‘hazard cards’, which function as pre-task risk assessments. When the need for plain language arose, the cards were modified to prompt for verbal communication and understanding, also allowing for the required employee report-backs to be delivered via text instead of standard written reports.  

“It was a small accommodation, and we still achieved all we needed to be achieved,” says Steve. “And it has far-reaching benefits including potentially adapting the same approach for someone whose first language isn’t English, as an example.”

Asked about challenges Clark Builders may have experienced in their move to being a more inclusive employer, Steve notes that any challenges themselves were not employee-centred. 

“The challenges are never around the act of employing, but really around our own attitudes,” says Steve. “[Inclusive employment] challenges you to do some outside the box thinking.  Everyone has different levels and abilities, so the challenge is seeing the opportunities and not focusing on preconceptions.”

Clark Builders and Inclusion Alberta are now exploring how to spread the inclusive hiring model to sites in Calgary and beyond. Not satisfied with the status quo, Steve is quick to point out that while they are moving ahead with more job sites, they have still yet to hire inclusively in their admin offices, where Inclusion Alberta would be pleased to expand the partnership.

Clark Builders’ work with Inclusion Alberta has not only led to successful employment outcomes but has also been a motivator as a company to address inclusion in a larger sense.

“We’re now committed to establishing diversity and inclusion goals all around,” says Steve. “We want to make sure our company truly represents society; we want ALL people to be able to see themselves at Clark Builders. While things don’t happen overnight, if you don’t have intention, things will never change. If you’re not doing something about it, you really run the risk of being a dinosaur.”

Steve is quick to point out that the real key to achieving inclusion and diversity goals is having solid community partners.

“Diversity and inclusion are hot topics, buts it is having RWA and Inclusion Alberta as partners that makes it so much more doable and ‘user-friendly’,” says Steve. “The partnership brings tangible assistance as well as great presence of mind, with a community partner delivering guidance, encouragement and even a sense of accountability.”  

Looking back now, Steve still remembers the night of accepting that Inclusion Alberta Community Inclusion Award as the pivotal moment, which for him really spelled out the transformative power of inclusion.  

“It’s just simply humans treating humans like humans,” says Steve. “And it can all start out from that basic point of, ‘give a person a job and their life will completely change.’  There’s not one critic in our company about our work with Inclusion Alberta. We’re simply a better company because of the partnership.”