No matter how you look at it, Oil Country Engineering is unique. The company, which specializes in the design and engineering of dynamic structures, offers all workers the opportunity and equity, interest free, to buy-in and own part of the company. The approach offers a window into a deeply creative organizational culture, one that’s largely behind Oil Country’s success. Indeed, “Oil Country is a company where you have a real stake in the success of the business” as an employee, says Next Step advisor Wellington Holbrook. At the head of this unique organization is president and CEO Dennis Cuku. Helping run the company’s day-to-day dealings, while also hunting down what he terms the big fish clients, has been splitting his focus. When the company joined the Next Step program it was approaching decision time for Cuku and his senior staff. Should they stay the course or make a profound organizational shift?
The first advisor meeting between Oil Country Engineering and the advisor team provided by Alberta Venture was held in Edmonton on December 4th. Dennis Cuku and Christy Cuku, his wife and the other majority shareholder in the company, met with program advisors Holbrook, who’s executive vice-president of ATB’s business & agriculture division, Douglas Ballou, a lawyer with Macpherson, Leslie & Tyerman, and Derek Hassay, an assistant professor with the Haskayne School of Business in Calgary.
The meeting’s goal was to identify Oil Country’s main challenges and its targets in the year-long Next Step program. “We have the hard pieces figured out,” Dennis Cuku says, pointing to Oil Country’s solid employee retention and ease of recruitment. The company’s goal over the course of the Next Step program is to draw on the advisors’ wisdom while not losing the special culture that makes the company a success.
The advisors and the Cuku’s honed in on two separate, but related challenges in the meeting.
Cuku ’s focus is on Oil Country’s responsiveness to the market. They need to have the ability to respond to unexpected business immediately – but also remain profitable when peak business isn’t around. That means employee elasticity, and that means trying to keep, as Dennis Cuku calls it, the company’s work ‘hopper’ full. “Because we do large capital projects, I could need 15 resources to do a $2 million project, tomorrow, and I would have to go out and hire four people. So it’s just this elastic band effect that we’re constantly battling.”
While this issue wasn’t exactly what the advisors honed in on in the meeting, it is related to what they did center on, which was focusing on the development of the current business.
“The biggest challenge they have is that they have so many big ideas that they risk actually spreading themselves too thin where they do nothing particularly well,” says Holbrook. He is concerned that they are diversifying too quickly, noting that they have a few side projects. “The drive and energy in that business are the husband and wife who run it. That could kill them. I’ve seen that kill a lot of businesses.”
“With the business model that they’re already in, they haven’t tapped the market, they’re not fully saturated. They need to spend more time on business development,” says Hassay. “He [Dennis] really does need to find a business development clone of himself.”
“Even if his focus was mainly the marketing and bringing in the work, as opposed to running the business, …It’s still only one person … it’s not like he has two others who are part of his team that are equal, that have equally good relationships and are equally good at landing the next assignment,” says Ballou. “It all seems to flow through him.”
Regardless, Hassay came away from the meeting particularly impressed by the Cukus. “As a husband wife duo, often times you don’t find that sort of wonderful mix [that Dennis and Christy have],” he says. “Sometimes working with your spouse can be a disaster [but] they just feed off of each other. He’s got energy and ideas, and she’s got structure and process, but is passionate about the business.”
The Way Forward
Between the meeting and publication of this blog, several things have happened. Dennis Cuku explains: “We’re in the process of putting together a fairly sophisticated marketing plan, doing market research, shifting the way we perceive our clients – the actual client interaction,” he says. There have also been organizational shifts. While Dennis Cuku is still president, he says he’s now delegated most of his management duties, and that his focus is now almost exclusively on executing the company’s marketing strategy – or as he described it, “shifting more from a president role to vice-president of business development roles.”
AV: Are you overworked or is your focus split, as some of the advisors have noted?
Dennis Cuku: I’m not really running the company, so I think maybe that’s where they were misinformed on that. I have a general manager and Christy runs a lot of that stuff. I am in the office but I’m in the office primarily executing the marketing strategy.”
AV: So you’re working less, then?
Dennis Cuku: No I’m actually working twice as much as I was before.
AV: What’s the Next Step?
Dennis Cuku: Just coming up with that strategy is the next step. That’s what I deduced out of [the meeting].
AV: What’s Oil Country’s biggest strength?
Derek Hassay: They have their heads and their hearts in the right place. They want to run a different kind of business, and they’re running a different kind of business, and they’re obviously prospering and doing well.”
AV: What should Oil Country be considering moving forward?
Douglas Ballou: It sounded to me like that the most logical answer was the recruitment of someone with the skillset who could augment what Dennis is doing on the networking and client development side.”
AV: Does Oil Country need to hire someone to help Dennis?
Wellington Holbrook: Absolutely – there’s a reluctance to do that. Their experience is that they’ve seen the other companies blow up by bringing in sales leaders that are all talk and no go and he doesn’t want to see that happen to his business and his reputation is too important. But his hand is way too deep in the business and he needs to spend more time working on it for sure.