Operations Redefined

Aecon has served as a construction contractor for more than a century, completing everything from pipeline installations to major rehab projects. (Photo: Rick Radell/Aecon)

Over the past two years, Paula Palma has helped reduce Aecon’s spending significantly through financial and operational efficiencies

Paula Palma is as accomplished athletically as she is academically, having played varsity tennis in college and having earned a black belt in aikido (which she has not had to put to use, thankfully). Her greatest accomplishment, however, is being a mother to her “beautiful 12-year-old daughter.”
Paula Palma is as accomplished athletically as she is academically, having played varsity tennis in college and having earned a black belt in aikido (which she has not had to put to use, thankfully). Her greatest accomplishment, however, is being a mother to her “beautiful 12-year-old daughter.”

The past year was a good one for Aecon Group Inc., and chief people and information officer Paula Palma was an instrumental part of it. Her strategies were so visionary, in fact, that they earned her a seat on Aecon’s executive committee, and she now leads Aecon’s company-wide human resources functions while also overseeing procurement and fleet groups. “It is really very exciting to be a part of change management, colleague engagement, and talent investment—all critical elements to Aecon’s success,” Palma says. She sat down with Advantage recently to discuss some of the stats behind her and her company’s winning approach.

1877

It was in this year, more than a century ago, that Aecon was founded. It has since grown into Canada’s premier construction and infrastructure-development company, with a vast portfolio of projects such as the John Hart Generating Station in British Columbia, Inter Pipeline Ltd.’s Polaris and Cold Lake pipelines in Alberta, and the Region of Waterloo’s LRT and Darlington Nuclear refurbishment projects in Ontario, to name just a few.

4 years old

From an early age, Palma seemed destined for a globe-spanning career. Enrolled in an international boarding school when she was just four, she gained proficiency in five languages (Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish, and English) and went on to eventually earn three degrees in two countries—a BA from the University of Toronto, an MBA from McGill University, and a global executive MBA from INSEAD, in France. Her background landed her roles as a business analyst for IBM Canada and then a technology director at British Telecom, in London, England, where she spent 21 years, from 1991 to 2012.

2012

Palma returned to Canada to join Aecon less than two years ago—a move she calls a leap of faith. “The company is diverse in terms of sectors, operating in infrastructure, energy, and mining, each of which were new industries for me to support,” she says. “After working in outsourcing and software consulting for more than 20 years, it was definitely a challenge to operate in new industries in new markets, but it was also clearly a great opportunity.”

30 percent

About six months after Palma started at Aecon, she drastically underspent the IT budgets of the previous two years, resulting in a total savings of 30 percent for the business. Her change came from her redefinition of the company’s operating model. “There was much room to improve on best practices, and I moved from an in-house support infrastructure, which required a significant upfront investment, to a software-as-a-service model managed by a third party,” she says. “There’s less investment upfront, and it’s a much more agile model.”

• Aecon’s revenue grew by 6% in 2013 to more than $3 billion

• The company’s adjusted EBITDA margin target for 2015 is 9%

• In her current position, Paula Palma has 9 direct reports and 300 indirect reports

The 1st woman

Palma sees things from a different perspective. She has positioned technology not just as an enabler and a support service but also as a governance utility, creating a single source for all financial reporting (which is uncommon), and she was also one of the first women in Europe to start a security-software monitoring centre. She sees these as significant accomplishments, particularly given the male-dominated spheres in which she works. “I take great pride in working with my fellow leaders on the executive committee, who are always looking for ways to improve the operations and innovate,” she says. “Progression in this industry is about excellence, regardless of gender, and I have been fortunate to be valued and rewarded for my accomplishments.”

12,000 employees

With so many workers, the reach of Aecon is vast, and Palma herself oversees four groups: infrastructure, support services, network provisioning, and the project-management office. All told, she has nine direct reports and 300 indirect reports, and the bulk of her employees are happy, if the Aon Hewitt survey of the Best Employers in Canada is any indication. Aecon has made the list for seven consecutive years, and in 2014 it was recognized for its rigorous safety-first culture (celebrated annually with a company-wide “Safety Day”), an ownership culture that has been developed through Aecon’s share-purchase plan, and a top-of-the-line employee conference featuring notable speakers every year.

5 hours

For as far back as Palma can remember (and likely much to the disappointment of her childhood caregivers), she has slept no more than five hours a night. “I do my best work between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.,” she says. “I have to be very cautious to not send out e-mails then because it puts pressure on recipients to reply at crazy hours.”