Few workplaces are worthy of a reality show, but Priestly Demolition makes the cut — the company’s series, Salvage Kings, has been airing on the History Channel since 2019. Producers teased it in a PR release this way: “They race against the clock, hunting through abandoned buildings and dangerous work sites for hidden treasures — just before the walls come down.”
But, like every other reality show, Salvage Kings shows a highly dramatized version of what really goes on behind the scenes at Priestly Demolition, which is a lot more careful and calculated. “When people think of demolition, they think of explosives and wrecking balls,” says company president Ryan Priestly. “Our work is engineered to a tee. There’s a lot of regulation.”
Take, for example, the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, purchased in 2009 by Ryerson University to become the school’s new athletic centre. Priestly’s task was so much more than smashing things down. “We had to take out all the inside while retaining the existing structure,” he explains.
A massive project like that always starts with the environmental work — the safe removal of any hazardous materials like lead or asbestos — and proceeds meticulously. “Demolition had to go by levels — removing the seats in sequence — to hold up the outside walls.”
Priestly Demolition is enjoying television-worthy big-budget projects now, having worked up to impressive contracts since its founding in 1993 by Ryan’s father, Vic. Based in King, Ont., Priestly began as a 10-person secondary company for the Priestly patriarch to help his first company, Vic Priestly Contracting, run smoother. In 1998, he hired his son as a labourer and then promoted him slowly but surely, all the way up the chain. “Fast forward to today and I’m the president,” says Priestly — although he admits his father “still carries a big stick around here.” Both Priestlys appear on the show, as does Ryan’s nephew Julien.
Any good management skills he has, Priestly attributes to his father. “I’m hands-on, I stay close and connected, I try to make sure everyone is comfortable and happy to come to work,” he says.
Priestly Demolition now employs 300 workers, including a fair share of dads and sons. Priestly says he’d like to see more women in the male-dominated field. “I often ask young women if they’ve ever considered a career in demolition,” he says.
Beyond demographics, Priestly says his largest management challenge is cohesiveness. “The culture here is about unity — those in the office, in logistics and on the field all need to be the same and without barriers,” he says. To foster that team feeling, the company collaborates — with its own people, machines and equipment — to solve problems internally whenever possible.
This presents his next challenge, one that Salvage Kings portrays very accurately: the ever-pressing issue of time. “Demolition’s like the opposite of building, except a building takes years to build and they might give us two months to take it all down.”