Even if you’ve never heard of Unilock, there’s a good chance that you’ve not only laid eyes on its craftsmanship but touched it, too. North America’s leading manufacturer of paving stones and retaining walls is a Toronto-based, family-run business. From Buckingham Fountain and Navy Pier in Chicago to Toronto’s own Air Canada Centre, the Unilock product is proudly on display. Tony Hooper, the company’s vice president of finance, has been with the 42-year-old company for more than 25 years. Here, he explains how he has helped the company methodically expand across North America and how he’s helping Andrew Bryant, the son of Unilock’s founder, transition into the role of company president.
First and foremost, we became a market leader by developing and maintaining very close relationships with other licensors and other forward-thinking people in the industry—especially in Europe. Unilock has been a leader in bringing new products to North America and developing high-quality manufacturing and marketing capabilities to support these products. The industry is very competitive, and honestly we’re not leading every single market, but we’re the market leader in four of the five in which we compete. In order to remain the industry leader, we have to continually develop new products that people are looking for.
Unilock is a group of companies—one here in Ontario and five in the United States. While these companies are encouraged to be entrepreneurial in their market approach, the corporate office provides marketing, finance, legal, strategic-planning, and administration support. It’s a really wide array of functions that I, or any of our management team here at corporate, get into. This lean management structure makes us nimble, which enables us to compete with companies that may have much greater capital resources.
We’ve been asked many times about our growth approach. We simply want to be the best in every market that we’re in. We don’t feel the need to expand to California because it’s beyond the reach of our existing companies where we can share people and assets. If you’re all of a sudden in California, you’re three time zones away. Our approach is to become excellent in the areas that we’re in and to try and grow organically and incrementally. Obviously, with any market that we would consider going into, we’re going to study and determine the market capabilities, but it’s also ensuring that we have the right people. If you don’t have the bench strength, you don’t want to expand—because without good people, you’re not going to succeed, no matter how much money you throw at it.
How Are You Growing?
“In my early years at Unilock, we were constantly fighting to survive. Some very difficult years taught us to focus on building the best-possible businesses first before pursuing growth.” —Tony Hooper, VP of Finance
As far as my role, our CEO and the founder of our company looked at me one day and said, “Tony, you’re a bridge to the future.” We have a chief operating officer who’s a dozen years younger than me, and we’ve got a president, the son of the founder, who’s about 25 years younger. He’s a very capable leader and in many ways a “chip off the block.” So, in addition to my knowledge as a finance person, my role is to provide business perspective based on my lengthy industry experience. I can use this experience to serve as an anchor to different projects and provide the “what if” challenges that force us to examine all aspects of an investment or a relationship. That’s helpful whether you have a young or experienced president.
I’m involved in helping to create the best-possible environment for our company and employees. Having good governance and a good business approach to things. We’re not just talking about the finance capability of the company but how we approach and look at things so that we’ve got a wonderful foundation to continue to grow from.
If you don’t provide a safe environment for your employees, or if your business practices are a little suspect, or if your employees aren’t a priority for you, you’re not going to be able to control your growth. If your systems are weak, or if you don’t have good controls, or if you don’t have good information, or if you have an inconsistent way of managing your credit or your relationship with your customer—all these things can make your foundation weak, and you won’t be as successful. Here, we’ve built a strong foundation. It’s not just how we treat employees; it’s how we develop them. Increase that bench strength and the rest will happen naturally.