By: PAT REDIGER, THINK BIG MAGAZINE
When Harry Tarasoff, Jim Tarasoff and Reg Willick founded H.J.R. Asphalt in 1988 they were making a significant investment into their future.
The founders, who had previously worked together in the construction industry, made the decision to start their own company and began by purchasing an asphalt drum and then fabricating the rest of the asphalt plant around it. This purchase required an investment of $5,000 from each of the men, a not inconsiderable amount for an entrepreneur.
“Reg Willick tells the story of borrowing that seed capital from his wife because he didn’t have that kind of money in the bank,” said Josh Safronetz, CEO of H.J.R. Asphalt. “His wife has held on to that cancelled cheque as a reminder of those early days.”
The founders of H.J.R. Asphalt may not have had many resources in the early days, but they were committed to laying the foundation for a successful business. The founders fabricated their first asphalt plant and began their venture in 1991. The company’s first projects involved producing bituminous cold mix piles for projects throughout the province. This material is used to help maintain roads around the province as it is workable at lower temperatures.
“The company’s success in the early days was built on hard work, efficiency and productivity in a limited Saskatchewan paving season,” Safronetz said. “When most companies in the industry would lay off workers during the winter months, H.J.R. spent that time focusing on tearing down and rebuilding their asphalt plants to increase efficiency, and be able to move from jobsite to jobsite even faster.”
It wasn’t long before H.J.R. was expanding into the paving market and has since developed into one of the largest paving companies in the province today. The Saskatoon-based company has paved on most of the highways around the province – typically paving about 400 lane kilometers a summer and providing paving services for many towns and rural municipalities. At its peak, the company employs around 120 people which are all from Saskatchewan, on difference crews, including a base crew, asphalt testing crews, paving crews, milling crews and support staff in a shop and the office.
Safronetz explained that H.J.R. has become well-known for its quality process. The company’s motto is “People Paving Professionally.”
Using mainly asphalt plants that it has fabricated, the company creates mixtures in its own lab that are especially formulated to perform in a challenging Saskatchewan environment. Safronetz said the company understands that in this industry only the highest quality is acceptable.
“This is a much more technical business than most people think – we are creating a product that in a normal year will have to withstand thousands of hours of heavy traffic and temperature swings of over 70 degrees,” he said.
He said the company is also known for its willingness “to work anywhere in Saskatchewan.” To win a bid the company works to secure aggregate in the area, working with a combination of internal staff and partners in the industry. If the company is successful in a project bid, aggregate is crushed by a partner and then the company relocates its plant and crew, and at that point is set to begin paving.
This process, Safronetz noted, would not be possible without the right team of employees and great partners in the province. The province has many great contractors that the company maintains strong relationships.
“This company is built on the dedication and hard work of our employees,” Safronetz said. “They are the reasons that we can deliver innovative products specially formulated for the Saskatchewan environment, on time and on budget. They work throughout the winter months to inspect and maintain our plants and equipment and use our fabrication equipment to continually improve efficiencies, so that next summer we can deliver better results to the customer.”
There have been some memorable projects over the years for H.J.R. Asphalt. The company has tackled numerous large-scale jobs on Highways Number 1 and 16 and many paving projects in northern Saskatchewan. One of the company’s achievements was taking part in the rubberized paving project on Highway 11 (from Findlater to Chamberlain) in the summer of 2005. The experimental project was designed to reduce the province’s waste stream.
More recently, the company has been working on an exciting greenfield project in Grasslands National Park located south of the village of Wood Mountain. The project was based in the park’s East Block. From this area, visitors now have the opportunity to drive 10 kilometers out along the top of the ledge of the park and experience some breathtaking views of badlands as they get close to the U.S. border.
Before this project was completed, visitors had to hike 10 kilometers to see the landscape or leave the park and drive to the south portion of the park just to see a glimpse. H.J.R. Asphalt worked alongside Acadia Construction and built a road to connect the two areas of the park.
“The road follows the terrain and there are multiple pullouts so people that couldn’t hike the 10 kilometers can see all this beauty you could never see before,” Safronetz said. “It is one of those projects that is important for so may reasons. Our work now allows more people to see the nature and beauty of a rare Canadian landscape that is difficult to describe, and will be around to inspire future generations.”
H.J.R. Asphalt also paves numerous airports in the province and last ear finished a major project at the La Ronge Water Bomber Base. Safronetz said a added benefit of paving roads in northern Saskatchewan is seeing kids skateboard or bike on asphalt instead of the previous gravel.
“A lot of times when we go into a community, they’ll contact us and say ‘Do you have some extra aggregate that you can give us a price to pave with?’” Safronetz said. “A lot of these communities don’t see asphalt companies come out very often. These projects would be too expensive for them to tackle normally so these are perfect situations for them because a larger project has already paid for our mobilization to the remote area.”
When H.J.R. Asphalt approaches a project, safety is one of the most important factors it considers. Safronetz said the company strives to create a culture of safety.
“Safety is so important for us as a company, as there are too many cases of accidents at construction sites,” he said. “We try to build a family philosophy at work where everyone looks after themselves and each other. Our worksite is the roadway and it’s so difficult when working with the travelling public because we don’t know what frame of mind they are in, so we must be as vigilant and careful as possible. As an industry, along with our partners in the government, we need to continue to emphasize safety internally and continue to work with the public to increase awareness and improve safety. These are fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters on our crew; their safety is our number one priority so that we can deliver them home to their families.”
The company has been actively involved with the Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association (SHCA) over the years. Safronetz serves as a board member and has participated on many committees for years because he believes that “the industry and owners can work together to improve the infrastructure we are building.”
“The better job we can do as a whole as so many positive impacts to the social and economic well-being of the province,” he continued. “I believe SHCA has an important role in promoting the industry as well as being the central voice to work with owners and stakeholders to improve.”
H.J.R. Asphalt has undergone some significant changes in recent times. Safronetz joined the team six years ago after spending more than two decades in the industry with both the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure and as a private consultant.
The company’s founders also made the decision to retire from the business a few years ago. Golden Opportunities, a Saskatchewan based investment fund, along with management and other partners such as the Westcap MBO Investment LP, provided the succession capital to purchase the company from the founders and pass ownership to the next generation of Saskatchewan entrepreneurs.
Safronetz said the partners are “are very much interested in growing H.J.R. and continuing to build on the company’s success. Our roads are important in Saskatchewan and we will continue to find better solutions to keep our roads healthy, and to keep people and product moving in our province. We are proud to have our roots in Saskatchewan and to embody the Saskatchewan work ethic and ingenuity that makes this province great.”