In 2009, a young couple was eating sushi at a sidewalk café on Montreal’s Peel Street when a concrete panel fell, killing the wife. “It’s amazing, but before that happened, people just never thought about inspecting concrete,” says Matthew Morin, president of Groupe Atwill-Morin, a Montreal masonry company that specializes in restoration and refurbishment.
Groupe Atwill-Morin has more than tragedy to thank for its spectacular growth. When the Quebec government introduced a law in 2010 (as a result of the accident) making it mandatory to inspect buildings five storeys or higher every five years, Groupe Atwill-Morin was ready for the wave of new business. “In our first years, we reinvested all our profits in buying new equipment, like scaffolding, man lifts and forklifts,” says Matthew, who took over the family masonry business in 2007 with his two brothers Jonathan and Mark. “We were making less money than some of our employees back then. But having our own equipment meant we could work quickly and efficiently, and at a lower cost for our clients, rather than waiting to rent material.”
Since 2007, the brothers have developed their father’s business from 30 employees working on five projects at a time to 200 employees running 45 jobs simultaneously. Annual sales have catapulted from $3 million to $55 million.
Expanding in the specialized restoration sector isn’t as simple as buying your own forklifts. The Morin brothers knew they would be facing a labour shortage as they grew. “Masonry schools don’t teach a single hour of restoration techniques,” says Matthew. So they decided to offer their own education program. In 2010, the brothers moved Groupe Atwill-Morin’s headquarters from its cramped, pricey space in Montreal’s Griffintown to an industrial sector of the Plateau Mont-Royal, where they built a new office with rooms to train masons. “In the slow period, during the winter, we grab our 20 most promising apprentices and bring in experts to teach them specialized techniques, like how to isolate a section of a wall, then match and blend materials to mask a repair,” says Morin.
Atwill-Morin has also capitalized on its unique combination of youthful vigour and decades of experience. “We’re a third-generation business, so we get to draw on the knowledge of our father and grandfather. There aren’t many types of buildings we haven’t had experience with,” says Matthew, who inherited from his father a network of suppliers that can locate uncommon bricks and stone. “At the same time, no one in management here is over 35. That’s very rare in the masonry business,” says Matthew, 31, who started working for his father straight out of high school. His older brother Mark is vice-president of operations, while Jonathan does project estimation.
With the Quebec government clamping down on building inspections across the province, Atwill-Morin has swung from primarily doing restoration of public buildings to working on private real estate. “But we are still looking for ‘tough’ projects where we can shine,” says Morin, referring to jobs like their ongoing restoration of the ventilation towers in the centre block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. “The more difficult, specific and demanding projects are, the better we perform. That’s where our knowledge and experience, our capacity and our network all come together, and where we can give our clients the best work at the best price.”