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Supported by its earthworks and underground divisions, Kichton’s piling and shoring division has the capacity “to execute any size caisson, anchor, soil nail and shoring design”

By Barb Feldman

Kichton Contracting Ltd. was founded in 1963 by Michael Kichton Sr., when he began doing small civil construction jobs for general contractors and residential developers in the Edmonton area. Fred Kichton, who after his uncle’s death continued the company along with his cousin Michael Jr., became the company’s sole owner in 2000. In 2007, Fred sold minority shares to his brother Richard and to key employees Laurie Conrad, Russ Giselbrecht and Chris Dirks, who, along with Richard, is now a company vice-president.

“Fred, Richard and I worked together through the early years to build and grow Kichton as an earthworks company, with about 12 pieces of earthworks equipment and 20 people,” said Dirks. Since that time, the company has grown 10 to 20 per cent annually, gaining extensive experience in oilfield construction, underground utilities and foundations, piling, shoring and anchors as well as civil industrial and commercial earthworks. Kichton Contracting works from the Montana border all the way up through Alberta, and from Saskatoon and Regina to northern British Columbia. Fred, although no longer a shareholder, remains Kichton Contracting’s president and its mentor, “sharing his guidance and a wealth of knowledge,” said Dirks.

“The majority of our work has been tangent walls and containment walls – holding something in place.”
– Chris Dirks, Kichton Contracting Ltd.

Edmonton’s 28-storey Epcor Tower

Now with its head office in Acheson, Alta., a second location in Lloydminster, Sask., 450 employees and a fleet of more than 500 pieces of equipment, Kichton Contracting is still growing.

“One major project got us rolling [in 2008],” said Dirks.

This project was Edmonton’s 28-storey Epcor Tower, which, when it was finished in 2011, was the city’s first office tower to be built in 17 years.

“We were awarded that project by Ledcor Construction due to some innovative ideas, and when competitors were struggling, going bankrupt or laying off staff, we were able to acquire high-quality people and get the work done efficiently,” said Dirks.

That year, Kichton almost doubled in size.

“Now, the company aims for annual growth of no more than 10 per cent,” he said, observing that businesses can go bankrupt even in good times if they grow so fast they lose control or get too much work and can’t finish jobs sufficiently to collect the last money. “The last bit [of money] – that’s your profit.”

The opportunity arose to start a piling and shoring division in 2015, according to Dirks.

Brad DePagie, Rob Walker and Daisy Potvin, who had all been managers at other drilling companies, became minority shareholders. Then Bernie Coderre, who for 35 years had been with a major Western Canadian foundation engineering and construction company, joined the team.

“[Bernie] came into our office one day and told us he wanted to unload his knowledge to our younger group for free,” said Dirks. “We pay him now, though.”

The piling and shoring division, managed by Daisy Potvin and Kevin King, is also supported by the project managers, superintendents and in-house engineers of Kichton’s earthworks and underground divisions.

Aiming for steady, controlled growth

“The majority of our work has been tangent walls and containment walls – holding something in place,” said Dirks, noting that these projects are often in northern Alberta.

The company recently installed a tangent wall and 150-foot-deep anchors along the banks of the Peace River to stabilize the main highway into the town of Peace River. Because of slide activity this summer, a climbing lane on Highway 2 south of the Dunvegan Bridge near Fairview, Alta., required construction of a retaining wall in addition to a minor realignment of the road and paving.

“It’s the nature of the land and the geology of 10,000-year-old glacial deposits,” said Dirks. The provincial government did a lot of infrastructure work in the 1950s and ‘60s there, he says; however, the work performed was “bulldozer quick” with the aim of getting people on the road as fast as possible.

“Since then, [construction] has been catch-up and fixing what was done,” said Dirks. “We’ll start digging or drilling a pile, and five metres down we’ll find a big gloryhole of trees and topsoil that someone just buried underneath the road. That’s why it’s sliding away.”

The work requires an extensive and impressive line of equipment.

“We started with one small-wheeled Texoma 700 rig and increased our piling fleet to over 40 pieces of equipment,” said Dirks, including Soilmec drill and anchor rigs, a Bauer BG 24, a Comacchio MC-22 and numerous grout plants, cranes, tool handlers, skid steers and tooling.

“They give us the range to do any size caisson, anchor, soil nail and shoring design. Some of our drill rigs and anchor rigs are GPS-controlled and fully automated,” he said, noting that the company uses computerized estimating, 3-D modelling, data collection and layout programs, as well. “You download the drawings directly into the machine, they go out onto a site that has no survey on it whatsoever and [the machine] knows which piles go where and stops digging at a certain depth.”

Servicing clients

This diversification has allowed Kichton Contracting to be of better service to its clients.

“It just makes sense for our clients to hire one company to get them out of the ground,” said Dirks, and clients have told him they appreciate having to deal with only one contractor. “Projects start off so much smoother – [our clients] just have to come on site and put their building or infrastructure on our foundations, ground work and underground infrastructure.”

And the company is also proud to suggest innovations that save clients time or money. Recently, for example, Kichton proposed reengineering a 1,800-metre-long tangent wall that had been designed to contain a street in east Edmonton beside a large tank farm that in some places would have an exposed face of as much as five metres.

“It just makes sense for our clients to hire one company to get them out of the ground.”
– Chris Dirks, Kichton Contracting Ltd.

“Instead of putting in the tangent piles directly side by side, we were able to reengineer the complete system using fewer piles and innovative technology,” said Dirks, which cut the cost by 20 per cent and the schedule by 10 per cent. “The overall system we used was so much more efficient that we have used it to replace five other containment systems in the past year.”

Encouraging innovation, incentivizing safety

Kichton Contracting has spent more than a million dollars over the last 10 years developing its own management software customized for the construction sector, Trakon Systems. The system now has more than 14 modules that log and help manage every aspect of the business, from quotes and work orders to foremen’s and supervisors’ daily diaries, the location of equipment, who’s operating what and for how long. Kichton has sold its software to other companies and is now working on ramping it up, says Dirks.

“Like Microsoft, we’re always doing updates so that it’s bigger and better.”

Dirks says that every employee has an online report card and everything is recorded digitally.

“[This includes logging] cleaning the machines properly, safety incidents and positive things, as well,” he said. “It’s done that way because we’d grown to the point where we didn’t know everybody personally and couldn’t keep track.”

Kichton Contracting is COR certified, prequalified with ISNetworld, ComplyWorks, PICS and several major Alberta contractors, developers and owners, and is proud of its comprehensive health and safety program. The company gives out monthly safety awards voted by foremen and supervisors; wage-earning employees are eligible for three different reward-based benefits that can increase their wages “by almost 25 per cent in some cases,” said Dirks. Kichton Contracting is also creating an Employee Share Option Plan to help retain staff and promote a sense of company ownership.

“I think we’re the only contractor in Western Canada that offers such extensive incentive programs,” said Dirks. 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.