New Ownership, New Mission

Jeff Jessamine builds Sprague-Rosser into a regional civil-contractor powerhouse

Jeff Jessamine, president & CEO.
Jeff Jessamine, president & CEO.

When Jeff Jessamine purchased civil-contractor Sprague-Rosser in 2009, he knew the challenges that lay ahead of him. Over the years, unsatisfied clients, a global eco­­nomic slowdown, and a lack of focus on sustainability tested the resilience of the 45-year-old company.

But just three years after a young member of management bought the Edmonton-based company and set about raising its profile, revenues have grown by 500 percent. Today, the company offers fully bonded, heavy civil general-contracting services in a growing swath of Canada and beyond.

“I was finally free to manage things the way I wanted to manage them,” says Jessamine, 34, president and CEO of Sprague-Rosser. “My vision was to stop being a subcontractor and go compete with the large general-contracting companies.”

Jessamine surmised that by bidding as a general contractor Sprague-Rosser could be more flexible than the giant companies competing for the work and could likely be more price-competitive, since Sprague-Rosser could perform much of the “in-work.”

“We could control our own destiny because there are a lot fewer big civil contractors than civil subcontractors,” Jessamine says.

Sprague-Rosser’s Milestones

1967: Company founded by George Sprague and Fred Rosser

1974: Joins construction team for new coliseum for Edmonton Oilers

1982: Builds 10 kilometres of track for Edmonton’s light-rail extension

1997: Joins building team for Edmonton International Airport’s expansion

2000: Company diversifies into underground and site services as well as subdivisions

2009: Jeff Jessamine purchases company and becomes president and CEO

The infusion of new energy bolstered the company. Among the company’s current signature projects are a potash mine and a large bridge and highway in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Growing up on a farm on the border of Manitoba and North Dakota, Jessamine dreamed of owning a large construction company.

“I’ve run equipment since I was five years old,” he says. “On the farm, I was operating loaders, semitrucks, and combines. I liked dirt and I liked engines, and I liked working on the farm when it came to operating the equipment.”

Jessamine started in the construction industry at age 16 and joined Sprague-Rosser four years later, in 1998, as a heavy-equipment tradesman. At the end of the construction season, he moved into the role of estimator and shortly thereafter became superintendent. Eleven years later, he’d held almost every position in the company.

Jessamine’s personal experience with every aspect of the company’s operations enabled him to understand how decisions and changes affect the disparate parts of the company. When he bought it in 2009, his first order of business was to overhaul the corporate culture with a new focus on benchmarking against admired companies in the industry.

And much like some of those industry leaders, Sprague-Rosser has initiated a plan to become 100 percent employee owned, a move Jessamine believes helps to sustain a happy and productive workforce that focuses on delivering value to clients.

“They take ownership in their job,” Jessamine says. “Everyone has skin in the game rather than all of the money being transferred to some parent company.”

Sprague-Rosser By the Numbers

$1 b.
Revenue target in five years

Years in business

Growth experienced in past three years

Lost time from health or safety infractions for three consecutive years

Some employees already own shares of the company and as the firm reaches new growth milestones, additional shares are sold to employees. Currently, Sprague-Rosser has between 350 and 600 employees, depending on the construction season.

Workplace health and safety also plays a role in productivity and employee morale. For the past years, Sprague-Rosser has had a total recordable injury rate of zero, the lowest in the industry, and three consecutive years with zero lost time.

With new strategies in place ensuring the corporate priorities are followed, Sprague-Rosser is on a mission to expand its market and its geographic footprint. Jessamine established strategic alliances with other companies, including a large US civil contractor and a European general contractor to tap into new markets including Africa.

Energy is a growing market. The company is working in the oil sands in Alberta and with potash in Saskatchewan, as well as with power transmission and distribution and telecommunications across Canada. Sprague-Rosser is opening offices in Eastern Canada to work on hydroelectric dam projects.

“Today we’re focused on investing in sustainability and the social responsibility of the company,” Jessamine says. “That’s how we’ve reengineered the culture and built the company.”