Stephen Damp: A father, husband and an EllisDon Legacy

Geoff Smith's Blog

Posted On June 04, 2020


Hello Everyone,

We are going to have a tribute service for Stephen, see below.  What follows is a feeble first effort:

I don't believe that I have met anyone who lived the values of Family, Integrity, Personal Responsibility and Hard Work more deeply than Stephen Damp.  Period. It might even be suggested that he felt those last two just a bit too deeply.  Right now, it feels like a freight train just smashed through our living room.  I cannot imagine what it is like for Mary Frances, Alycia, Cassidy, Maddy and Alanna.

In the summer of 2009, EllisDon was looking to build up a very strong Civil Division, and a mutual friend suggested I contact a fellow named Stephen Damp. Stephen already had a very successful career going at Miller Group, but was feeling constrained in a family company - he wanted equity and a chance to lead. Tim Smith knew Stephen from Queens Engineering and thought this was a great idea.  He and I had a couple of productive meetings based mostly about what is important in life and business, but Stephen wouldn't commit until I had met Mary Frances and she signed off.  And so it happened that I drove into London (they were in the area for some reason) from our cottage on a Sunday morning.  We were supposed to meet at a coffee shop, but it was closed, and I ended up approaching this woman on a deserted downtown street corner and asking "Are you Mary Frances Damp?" We stood there and chatted while we waited for her husband.  Luckily, I passed the interview, and that's how it started.

So Stephen came to ED as SVP Civil, to build and lead a strong Civil Division, and here's a values lesson for everyone:  We were growing quickly at the time, and when he arrived we had to say "Um, we don't have an office for you, would a cubicle be OK for now?  And we don't exactly have the Executive Assistant we promised either."  Stephen didn't give a damn, but then we said one more thing. "We are sort of negotiating this very risky project with a new client named Kilmer to build twenty service stations across Ontario.  Obviously it isn't Civil, and it might be quite bad, but could you take a look at it?  Stephen could have very reasonably said "This isn't what I was promised, in fact it is a demotion from what I just left, and I should at least have an office."  Instead he said "Let's go".  We negotiated the deal, made good money, and more importantly built a great relationship. The most heartfelt notes I received this past weekend were from our friends and partners at Kilmer. If you're just starting your career at EllisDon, maybe read this paragraph again.

In the meantime, Stephen started working on his day job.  He recruited people, forged industry partnerships, started bidding work.  Stephen knew his numbers, but his focus was building the right team, I think he was working on his own succession plan before he was even up and running.  Excluding the LRTs (which of course I will get in a second), I believe that every job the Civil Division that Stephen built, led, and then handed off made good money and most significantly exceeded their bid profit.  It has been terrifically successful and I believe Ellis Don has the best Civil operation in Canada - in 2019, we set another record for profitability.  But it's about the team, and I shouldn't mention any of them unless I'm going to mention everyone.  But one example:  A couple years ago, Stephen came to me and said he wanted to make Max Mantha the leader of Toronto Civil. I replied "No way, no yet.  Great guy, way too young".  Damp said "He's the guy".  I said "I have no doubt he will be the guy".  Damp said "He's the guy now, trust me". I was wrong, of course.  And so it worked out that when the hellfire of the LRTs hit, the rest of the Division was solid.  Stephen said "Max has this, and he can report directly to Kieran Hawe now, I'm fine."  That's rare and selfless leadership.

The LRTs happened.  It's a long story, and a painful one of course.  There are many authors of that failure, and a lot of people - including the CEO - who were a key part of the decision making at the time.  Here's the main thing you need to know about Stephen.  He didn't shirk, he didn't point fingers or make excuses, he didn't complain.  He simply handed over the Civil Division he had built, walked straight into the Edmonton fire, and stayed there.  He spent pretty much the entirety of the last two years away from his family, trying to make it right.  Now we have to finish it without him and it's going to be extremely difficult.  

Stephen was a great construction guy, but also a terrific entrepreneur. He showed us how to acquire companies, starting with Looby shortly after he came.  But the 'values' story is the PME acquisition.  Long story short:  The owner of the company was older and wanted to sell, and his main concern was for the PME people.  He knew of ED, but mostly he knew Stephen.  So he sold the company to us at much less than market price, based on Stephen's word that we would take care of the people.  I think the first year of profits paid off the whole purchase price, it's been a complete home run, hopefully for everyone.  After a couple of years, we knew that PME's leader, Gil Brulotte, was nearing retirement.  Stephen hired a guy he thought could succeed Gil, but literally three months later he came to me and said "I've made a big mistake, he's not the guy, I'm letting him go."  I replied with something like "Huh?"  (I don't think I'd even met the fellow yet.) Stephen said "Bad values, my mistake, he's gotta go."  And out he went.  PME is now a great operation with a great future, prospering within a collapsed energy market in Northern Alberta.  Stephen Damp was the author and the godfather of the whole thing.  It happened not because of his resume and experience but because of his character.

Not very long after he came to EllisDon, Stephen was diagnosed with cancer.  It was a nerve wracking time, Stephen's faith and courage got him through.  It was early enough, they got it out without the need of the nasty drugs, and he has been clear since.  But there's a human anecdote attached.  A day or two after the surgery, Susie Morassut and John Bernhardt and I went to visit.  For some reason we met in the hospital lobby.  Stephen was standing in his flimsy hospital gown talking to us, full of energy, ready to get back in the action.  In fact he decided to prove how good he felt by dancing around a bit - Susie had to quickly tell him to tie that gown way tighter.....   It turned out that it was the painkillers in action.  Once they wore off a day or so later, we didn't see Stephen for a while, and I'm pretty sure he never danced again.

We'll have a more comprehensive tribute to Stephen, because there is so much to celebrate and to grieve, but I want to finish this note with a very important facet of Stephen's leadership.  Of the many shocked condolences I received this past weekend, quite a number were from young or junior people who had been touched by Stephen's leadership.  Some because he had opened opportunities for them early and mentored them as they progressed.  Others because he would simply take the time to listen to everyone, and learn, often without them even knowing who he was.  And still others who simply watched him in action.  And so he will live on I think, at least in part, through them.

Stephen was a builder, but not so much of structures.  Instead he built people, he built opportunities, he built character, and of course he helped profoundly to build EllisDon in the last ten years.  He built for himself the affection and respect of people across the industry and across the country, as I have certainly  learned over the last few days.

Stay tuned.  Even in these Covid times we will find a way to acknowledge and celebrate.   But certainly I am already missing him, and the hole he has left will not be soon filled.

All the best to all of you.

Geoff

Update: We will be hosting a virtual tribute to Stephen on Thursday, June 11 at 1 pm (EST). All are welcome. 

Link to the webcast: https://livemedia.biz/ellisdon.html