Toronto-based HH Angus and Associates is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, and at the end of May the company announced that Paul Keenan, formerly director of its health division has been named president.

Keenan replaces Harry Angus, the third generation of the Angus family to lead the privately owned firm. Angus remains on as CEO and Chair of the Board.

A Queen’s University grad, Keenan has been with the firm for 25 years and served as director for the past decade. Also, within the past year, HH Angus was selected among Canada’s Best Managed Companies for 2019, an achievement received in its first year applying to the Deloitte program. And last fall the firm captured the Schreyer Award at the 2018 Canadian Consulting Engineering Awards for its work on the CHUM hospital in Montreal.

We spoke with Keenan to discuss HH Angus and where it goes from here.

You’re the firm’s first president not named Angus. What does that mean for the company?
I think it in part means we’re maturing. The firm has grown to over 250 people, and I think that as a bigger company you need inputs from different areas. The family legacy is important and it continues—Megan Angus, Harry’s daughter, is one of the senior leaders in the organization—and although I’m not part of the family. I’ve grown up in the HH Angus way, so we’re maintaining some of that family connection and we’re enhancing it as we go forward.

Describe the HH Angus culture?
We try to maintain the family feel of the business, and with that comes a responsibility to the staff and a social responsibility to the community. Our turnover has been historically very low—we have 40 or 50 employees with over 25 years service—and that longevity and feeling part of a group is
important for us.

What is your leadership style?
My experience here has always felt like a series of careers within one career. I started on small projects, gaining skills and transitioning naturally from project to project with larger challenges and increasing levels of responsibility.

I want to create those opportunities for our people. We’ve got to give them the opportunity to succeed or fail and go from there. At some point we all make decisions, and we need to believe in our decision making process based on the experiences we’ve had. Trust yourself, trust your team, make your decision and then move forward.

It’s important not to get stuck; we need to keep our momentum going.

How does a consulting firm foster creativity & innovation among its employees?
I think that’s a challenge for the entire industry, and we need to move more quickly now, to get from ideas to execution. One of the things we’ve done this year is create an Innovation Hub, which is a forum and a place to gather a range of ideas and have our people practice making presentations and share ideas, and then flesh them out, incubate them and then execute.

How has the firm changed over the years?
Traditionally, mechanical/electrical consulting engineering-led projects had been half of our business, and then the world changed. We did a lot of healthcare-related work in the ’90s and have become recognized as healthcare experts. As that market has matured we’ve responded and entered different areas, for example transit, data centres, and more commercial work. Our energy group, that traditionally has done a lot of industrial work, is focused on more low-carbon, sustainable energy projects.

We also have some sub-specialities, such as vertical transportation, lighting design, and our ICAT group that does communications and consulting around smart buildings. You need to be diversified enough to respond to what the market is telling you.

How will you measure your success?
One of our primary objectives is to continue to be an independent firm. That comes with its challenges, but it also comes with its rewards.

We’ve been on a steady trajectory of growth and fundamentally we need to continue to grow; growth is important to create opportunities for our employees and for the underlying strength of our business. We need to be strong enough to resist whatever economic forces come along; we need to grow geographically; and we need to grow our share of the market and do the kind of interesting work that motivates our people.

Which HH Angus project has impressed you the most?
There are many projects in the history of the firm that are impressive and set us on the path of wanting to continue doing projects that are special and iconic. Personally, the Sick Kids research tower, a 750,000 sq. ft. research building, is iconic in the City of Toronto and more fundamentally is a place where important things happen for the future of this community and this country. 

Canadian Consulting Engineer
June/July 2019 

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Sarah joined HH Angus in 2012 and is currently an Electrical Engineer and Manager in our Technology Division.

Did you spend a co-op term at HH Angus?

No, I joined as a new graduate from the University of Waterloo and this was my first full time job.

What is your favourite thing about working at HH Angus?

It is definitely the people. I graduated from University of Waterloo and it is such a competitive environment; then I came here and I expected the exact same thing. But it turned out to be more open and you are allowed to ask questions, and there’s an open door policy. There is a huge learning curve around things we were not taught at school, but the learning curve is achievable. It’s about 5 years – it’s long, but it’s achievable.

How do you personally contribute to design and construction?

It’s the attitude you bring, which is something that the culture here fosters. You don’t focus on the problem – you focus on a solution. And that’s why we retain clients, that’s why we get hired over and again. That’s why our reputation is what it is. But it’s top down from Rod [Mons, Division Director – Technology]; you always focus on the best solution possible for the client. 

How has working at HHA helped you grow in your career?

First of all, it introduced me to the construction industry. I knew a little bit, not from school but from my co-op term. I spent two terms with two different consulting firms focused on commercial work in Waterloo, Ontario. Working on mission critical sites at HH Angus in the Technology Division – I didn’t know anything about that sector and it opened up a whole different side of consulting.

In terms of how it helped me grow in my career – it has been my career. HH Angus has taught me everything from how to conduct a meeting to how to maintain relationships in the construction industry. Because with the clients that we are working with, you have to be able to maintain that relationship while working on technologically challenging projects.

So you have shifted from the technical side of things to managing clients and working with the constructors and getting things built?

I think it goes hand in hand. In the Technology Division, we supervise mission critical shut downs, and the unique thing about shut downs is that everyone’s there – our clients are there, some of whom are alumni from HH Angus, so you have to be technically knowlegable and be able to repond to situations, especially during the shut down. It pushes you, that’s why the learning curve is five years. You have to learn as you are trying to manage all of it. So, it helps to be an all-rounder, I think. To be able to communicate well – I think that’s the most important part.

“I like that it is not a boring 9 to 5 job. And every day is different. Every single project I do is different and it’s been seven years. That’s unique.”

 Why did you want to become an engineer?

In high school, I started to realize that I liked math and science and solving problems. And my Dad is an engineer – so that kind of helps. Once I realized that I didn’t want to go into theory, I wanted to go into practical applications. And it built from there, into choosing this industry, because I am more of a visual learner and I think that helps – we work with drawings, visual things and we get to build things.

What are some of the projects that you are most proud to be involved in and why?

There are multiple projects that I am proud of because each was challenging at a given point in my career.

The first project I did was with a financial client and was a big one, basically replacing half the electrical distribution of the building. It was very complex and it was my first introduction to a high-budget project. I am proud of it because I came out of it alive! 

What helpful experience did you get from a senior staff member when you started?

I think the most helpful thing that the Technology Division has a tradition of doing, is bringing new grads to shut downs. Because it just helps you learn so fast. Mike McReynolds did it for me when I first started. And I took a new grad I was mentoring to an overnight shut down on his second day. It’s like a trial by fire. Obviously, he wasn’t given any responsibility, it was more of a ‘let’s shadow and watch’. When you go to a shut down or a site visit, it puts everything in context.

Outside the technical things, what are some of the things that you love about HH Angus?

Every time you come in here, it’s a very relaxed atmosphere. Which you don’t necessarily expect. Especially given our industry – many places have more of a formal corporate culture. You know it’s a collaborative process. And when you ask for help, it’s there.

What advice would you give someone applying to HH Angus?

I would say, if you do get in, it’s a great place to start, because you get exposed to a lot of things that you wouldn’t experience at elsewhere. The opportunities are endless. But you do have to be prepared to work hard. Because if you want to move ahead, that’s required. And again, the construction industry is such, you don’t learn this at school, it’s not taught, especially for electrical. So it should be communicated that it’s  okay that you know nothing at that point.

What inspires you?

I think on the day to day basis, I get inspired by problems. There shouldn’t be a problem we are not able to navigate. And when you work with the people that I do, no one looks at the problem; actually, it’s the attitude to the problems, again, because no one looks at a problem and gets angry at it. You don’t fear bringing a problem to somebody. I think the fact that issues are received so well and that I like solving problems – it’s a combination of those things. 

What aspect of your work do you enjoy the most?

I like that it is not a boring 9 to 5 job. And every day is different. Every single project I do is different and it’s been seven years. That’s unique.And because the players change, the expectations change. So you are like, “How will I handle that this time?”

What are technologies or trends in the industry that excite you?

With Smart Buildings, there is Wi-Fi communication that will affect electrical distribution. I was at a conference in Texas and they were using Wi-Fi to get a lot of information there for massive electrical equipment.  And you have 3D printing.  All of that is going to push the construction industry into a new era, especially combined with mobile technology.  There is a part of our industry that is very conservative and very old school, because a building is a building, but there is a way to modernize it now.

Do you have any secret talents people don’t know about?

I like cooking – it s a hobby. 

If you could change one thing how buildings are designed or constructed, what would it be?

I think the process could be more collaborative. I would like it if all the different types of teams, different types of engineers, like civil and structural engineers, could come together and see what the others do. Before, I had a hard time reading structural drawings.  You only understand once you’ve made a mistake, and they are, like, “no, you can’t do that”. If it was more collaborative and I could have sat down with a structural engineer who explained “this is what I need and this is why I need it”, I feel this would improve the process.

Do you have a dream vacation spot?

Italy – because of the food! It’s a beautiful country!