PODCAST: In Coversation with Queen's engineering alumnus Marcus Gillam

Posted on November 19, 2019


Marcus Gillam is the CEO of Gillam Group, a construction management company established in 2011 by a collective of senior industry professionals with a common goal of significantly improving the way construction projects are delivered. A project management specialist with 20 years of experience in the planning and delivering of a wide range of complex construction projects, Marcus brings a wide perspective and strong capability to design approvals and construction stages of each project. Marcus has been an integral part of many award winning projects and is the recipient of a Toronto construction association "Best of the Best" award as well as a British construction industry award. In 2017 Growth 500 named Gillam Group as Canada's fastest growing company over a five-year period.

  • Marcus Gillam is the CEO of Gillam Group, a construction management company established in 2011 by a collective of senior industry professionals with a common goal of significantly improving the way construction projects are delivered. A project management specialist with 20 years of experience in the planning and delivering of a wide range of complex construction projects, Marcus brings a wide perspective and strong capability to design approvals and construction stages of each project. Marcus has been an integral part of many award winning projects and is the recipient of a Toronto construction association "Best of the Best" award as well as a British construction industry award. In 2017 Growth 500 named Gillam Group as Canada's fastest growing company over a five year period. Welcome to the podcast, Marcus.

    Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

    You graduated from Queens in 1997 from Civil Engineering. Can you tell me a little bit about your time at Queens?

    I really enjoyed the whole experience at Queens. I think it was a fantastic match. When I went into my first year of engineering I was really sure what to expect but I just found it to be a very engaging, dynamic experience. I came away being challenged a lot academically but also just getting involved in a number of student activities. I was involved in a few sports teams. On the social side, I was involved in the Engineering Society and at one point I oversaw Science Formal, which was quite an interesting experience.

    I understand that you joined your father in the construction industry after graduating. How was that?

    When I was growing up, my father got into construction. He ended up acquiring a construction company called Vanbots Construction, which was a small Markham-based builder. And so, during my time at Queens University, during my summer breaks, I would often work as a labourer on construction sites. As the summer approached, usually I looked forward to the change of pace, right? But after a month or so of laboring on a job site, I was definitely looking forward to going back to school. After I graduated from Queen’s, I joined the company full time. And it was as in growth mode. I ended up in our Vancouver office, which had opened just before I joined. And so it was a fun time. The business was growing but it was also challenging because the industry was still suffering from the recession a few years before that. After spending a couple of years working in Vancouver, I moved to a town called Swindon, which is about a one-hour drive West of London, England. I joined a team where we had won the contract to deliver a manufacturing plant for Honda manufacturing. This was about a million square feet. It was about a four-year project. And so that was like my first foray into project management and I took on responsibilities as part of the team. With Honda, we formed an integrated team to deliver this interesting project. And it ended up being delivered very successfully. The project was delivered ahead of schedule and quite significantly under budget and it was done using some fairly innovative approaches and techniques which, which were just not commonplace in industry. And so that experience at Honda, I think, was my first introduction lean techniques, lean manufacturing, and applying those techniques to construction. And that's something that I brought back and it was able to use later in my career and also at my company Gillam group.

    So, what inspired you to form your own company?

    We ended up selling our family business to a large English company called Carillion and my father exited the business. I stayed on and began working for Carillion in the P3 space and I thought it was very, very interesting. The projects that we started doing, were a very large, you know, the smallest would be probably in the order of maybe a $100 million, but most projects were more like $200, $300, $400 million. So, from my perspective, there was a lot of learning. I was challenged. I really enjoyed working in that space but as time went on, I could see a change in the management of Carillion. I can see a change in there. I think just culturally in the company and their approach to working in this industry, in this marketplace. And that didn't sit very well with me because I don't view sort of business as just transactional only for me. I'm investing my career into something. I'm investing my building a reputation and at the end of the day, I would like to look back at what I've done and be proud of it. So I decided that it was best for me to make my own path. So I started my company, Gillam Group, in 2011. I had positioned the company really to take on medium sized projects but in a way that was like client-centric and relationship centric, respectful to all the relationships involved in the projects, whether it’s engineers we work with or the suppliers of staff for that matter. That was really the genesis of Gillam Group.

    Do you remember what your first project was?

    Well, yes. The first project we won was actually a beautiful athletic facility for a private school in Toronto called Branksome Hall. It was a fantastic project to become associated with right off the bat, however the project needed to get municipal approvals, and that took about a year. So, I started a construction company and I didn't really have anything to build for the first year that I was in business, so I had to go out and find other work. So the first project we actually constructed was a small vestibule in a high security building. At that point in time, there were only two of us in the company: myself and I had an estimator named Andrew. So, both Andrew and I worked together to complete the estimate. We also ended up physically building large parts of the project, So the two of us wore many hats from the outset.

    One of the things I’ve read is that your senior team really has a goal to improve the way construction projects are delivered. I wonder if you can explain a little bit about what you mean by that?

    Yes, absolutely. So, you know, through my career I’ve been able to pick up interesting tools, techniques, along the way. After starting my own company, I started to think about the sort of legacy that I would like to leave behind. One of the, we call it areas of focus for our company, is on a fairly new type of contracting called integrated project delivery or IPD. This form of delivery sort of formalizes a number of lean techniques that have been used in industry maybe for a while, but not in a formal way. I think industry has the potential to do way better than it's doing right now, but far, far better. And the beneficiaries of that are not only our clients, but the industry as a whole, our society as a whole, our country as a whole. So I think there's, a huge potential benefit just for our industry upping its game and the opportunity is just right under our noses if we just get our act together. In the next stage of my career, I want to look back and see that we have improved how we worked in industry. So, that's really where the idea of raising the bar comes from. I don't think that's hard. I don't think it's very hard at all. I think it just, it just requires people to change their focus a little bit. And, and I'm just seek out ways of improving, uh, you know, as a sort of, not, not as a discrete one off thing, but as a mindset, as, as we, as we move through our careers. Internally at my company, we’ve developed a set of values and we use those values. We can weave them through everything we do. I mean, one of the values is, is revolves around continuous improvement and education. I think it's actually allowed us to attract talent, some really talented people who share our views. I just, I think it's wonderfully synergistic when you get the right people together and you're all kind of pulling in the same direction. For me it's what gets me out of bed in the morning.

    Can you tell me about one or two of your favorite projects?

    There's a lot of projects I could talk about, but I think one of my favorite experiences was the Bergeron Centre at York University. They wanted to build a new engineering school and they wanted a facility that not only met their needs functionally, but they wanted this facility to articulate their aspirations. There were some challenges encountered during the municipal approvals process. We only had 23 months to build a $100 million educational facility. So, there was a lot of pressure on our team to really up our game and deliver. But we made the date. They moved in when they needed to move in and it was actually a phenomenal experience. There was great teamwork all the way through. Everybody had a goal. Everybody was alingned and no one lost focus of what that goal was. The client also was very open to any unorthodox approaches to construction, thing we don’t normally do. They were very open to these lean techniques I was talking about and not doing things the they’ve always been done.

    I wonder if you could tell me what advice you would give to students who are just starting out in the first year of engineering and Queen’s?

    I think it’s really important to get involved in all aspects of the university. I would strongly suggest current students just get involved, to really get involved, in all aspects. I came away from Queen’s with some wonderful friendships, that I still enjoy today, that have become more enriched over time. And a lot of that came through just getting involved in different aspects. I think it’s also a key success factor for a career as well: What you put into it, you’re going to get out of it.

    That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for joining us today and speaking with us, Marcus.

    My pleasure.