The theme for the Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Association’s 50th anniversary annual conference is “Lessons from the Past — Vision for the Future,” so it’s only fitting that the association’s first president be among the delegates in attendance.
Stuart Watson, 79, who was part of a group that established the NLCA in 1968, is making his way back to his native St. John’s for the conference, which kicks off Thursday at the Delta Hotel.
“You think back to a pretty mundane start, but so much has changed in the industry over the years that it’s always nice to talk to people who are active now and find out how they do things and how it’s changed,” Watson told The Telegram from his home in Ontario.
Back in 1968, Watson was a 30-year-old engineer working for J.L.E. Price & Co., an architectural firm based in Montreal, when he was approached by Gordon Thomas, then chairman of the St. John’s Board of Trade’s construction section, which represented the industry.
“He and I got talking and he really felt that it had outgrown its space in the board of trade and really should become a separate organization,” he says.
Watson, Thomas, Herb Badcock, Jack Green, Roy Parsons, Lloyd Cooke, and John Cahill went on to become the founding members and they quickly expanded across the island and into Labrador to ensure there was representation from across the province.
Their timing couldn’t have been better.
Even with the federal funding taps still open and pouring money into the build-up of the province’s infrastructure, Watson says they were lean times.
There may have been plenty of federal and provincial mega-projects, but there was little in the way of small jobs and private investment.
“I think everybody felt that things were lean enough and we should all get together to make it a stronger force and perhaps be better able to keep competing on contracts, be more aware of what work was out there and trying to help members to gain access to bidding on different projects,” he recounts.
“It wasn’t a booming time, that’s for sure.”
In an effort to lend further credibility to the newly formed association, Watson and company took it upon themselves to host the Canadian Construction Association’s (CCA) 1969 national convention.
“Which we did maybe without thinking it through too carefully,” laughs Watson.
“They took us up on it and it was a very intense year.”
But with a team effort — and plenty of help from their wives — Watson says they ended up putting off a convention that was very well received by the national group.
“It certainly put us on the map,” he says. “I think a lot of the people who visited and came to the convention had never been here and I think it opened their eyes to the fact there’s an industry in a province that a lot of people didn’t know much about, but after the convention they felt much more connected to the 10th province.”
In the months after the convention, Watson was transferred to New Brunswick and later to Toronto, where he put down roots with his wife, Elsie. In 1978, he started his own company and one of his first pieces of work was a joint venture with another company to construct the Fort William Building on Factory Lane, former home to Newfoundland Telephone, now the home of Johnson Insurance.
His return to the province isn’t a new occurrence; he and his wife purchased a home in Clarke’s Beach in 1990 and have been regular visitors each summer.
Watson has watched the NLCA from afar over the years and he’s pleased to see that not only has it become a successful organization, it has a strong social conscience.
“This association certainly seems to have that as a high priority, which is marvelous.”
Registration for the three-day conference begins Thursday afternoon, with an opening-night welcome reception and trade show that evening. The conference starts in earnest on Friday, with a number of sessions throughout the day on topics such as employment insurance, construction procurement, labour market information, industry forecast and planning for the legalization of cannabis.
The annual general meeting, CCA address and the ROCK Awards Gala are set for Saturday.