HomeGoing the Distance

Going the Distance

Oct 1 1999

by Iris Phillips

He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, dropped out of school at age 16 to support his family then, after a tough climb up the business ladder, saw his company drift within a "scintilla" of bankruptcy. Yet today, Tim Banks is president of a multimillion-dollar development business. Based in Charlottetown, PEI, APM has offices in Fredericton, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia and "it would be difficult to find a community in Atlantic Canada that does not have an APM project,' says Banks.

But, in a way, APM came about by default. At first the company was called Atlantic Property Management, but that didn't suit everything the company was doing (which includes property location, construction, furnishing and management), so Banks renamed it Atlantic Project Management. But when people were writing out cheques to the business, everyone just made them payable to APM. "So, that's what we are... we're simply APM," he says.
Banks won't say what the business is worth, although he admits that it is at the multimillion-dollar level. He aims to have that worth up to $100 million in the near future. Roughly 200 employees work directly for the company. APM crews and sub-contractors work on projects like shopping malls and big box stores around Atlantic Canada.

Banks relies heavily on his staff to carry out the day-to-day operations of his business. "I've got this pile of talent," he says. "I'm sitting in there with these very sharp guys. They're articulate and well-educated." the problem with that talent is they sometimes talk over Banks' head. "I had problems with reading and writing when I was younger," he explains. "This kind of thing doesn't evaporate. I do my best and I read a lot... but at the end of the day it's still there."

And that's not the only problem Banks has confronted. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in the west end of Summerside. His father died when Banks was just 16. The oldest of four kids, he had to drop out of school in order to run his father's garage. His years as a "grease monkey" proved their worth by imparting a good business ethic. "My dad focused on the little things", Banks says. "When it was my turn at the pumps, I had better wash the windshield, check the oil and treat the guy getting $2 worth of gas the same as the guy getting $20 worth of gas, because the $2 guy likely had a car that was going to break down more and would be the better customer in the long run.

That devotion to service led to an important break. One day, a man came into the station looking for a battery that Banks realized he didn't need. Banks tested his battery, cleaned off the terminals, gave it a quick charge and the vehicle ran fine. That customer came back, and offered Banks a job, and helped him finish high school.

He worked part-time on a construction site, got to know the industry and eventually took construction technology at Holland college. When he finished, he spent a few more years working for the same company, learning the industry. In 1980, he ventured out on his own, with his new construction development business, Project Management Services.

It wasn't an immediate success. "By 1982, I was just about bankrupt," Banks says. "It was the economy, really. It wasn't that I was out there trying to beat the world. We had interest rates of 21%." His firm was contracted to build a 7-Eleven in Bunbury, P.E.I. "We had a foundation and steel on site when the developer went bankrupt." It was a similar scenario for work that they had underway at an Irish moss extraction plant near Tignish, P.E.I. and a project they were working on in Halifax. "Those are the things that are beyond your control," says Banks. "Unfortunately, there are sub-trades working for you and other people, and you are trying to rob Peter to pay Paul."

In the end, he was able to salvage enough of his business to keep going. A Charlottetown businessman, Billy Rix, helped him to get a job managing the construction of a brewery in cape Breton, and his project management contracts began to grow throughout Atlantic Canada. Eventually, as those projects proved successful, he was able to start rebuilding credibility with the sub-trades. "The bulk of them came back because most of them had probably been there themselves," he says. Because of the common experience, they were willing to trust him, and work with him again.

Soon, though, he was eager to establish himself back in his home province. He was primarily involved in construction project management and knew there were not enough big projects on the Island to sustain his business, so he decided to try property management. In 1990-91, the business became feasible. "I didn't have a lot of debt, I wasn't stretched and even though I was a young guy, I had more experience."

That experience made him a more cautious businessman. He changed his focus from small projects to bigger, more reliable players, and put his salesman-ship to work seeking contracts with companies like Reitman's and Zellers. Doing business with larger firms takes longer because the deals are more complex, "but the chances of getting paid are much better."

Big partners also helped APM gain recognition. For example, it partnered with a Boise, Idaho firm to build the potato storage facility at the McCain's plant in Borden, P.E.I. "It was a big job for us at the time and earned us a lot of credibility," he says. Credibility' can't overcome all barriers, though. Banks often laments what he sees as barriers to development in P.E.I. In 1996, he fought his first major battle, when he took on a project to construct an Atlantic SuperStore in Charlottetown. Sobey's led the other chains in their opposition to the project. It appealed to the Island Regulatory and Appeals commission (IRAC) arguing that the city couldn't sustain further supermarket development. Banks dished Out $200,000 in legal fees, and couldn't sleep at night worrying about whether the project would go ahead. Today Atlantic Super-Store is operational and the property is managed by APM.

A presentation he made in 1996 to a legislative committee hearing on red tape expressed his frustration. "What I am not very proud of is what our government has allowed IRAC to become - a roadblock to development at the expense of the taxpayers and at the expense of those who could use a job." During those hearings, he charged that "most Islanders and small business people are overwhelmed at the process and many good ideas and developments have been left by the wayside due to this regulatory process."

He's also critical of the city of Charlottetown, claiming there isn't adequate infrastructure to support large businesses. In particular, it lacks proper roads and parking. Charlottetown's mayor George MacDonald has borne the brunt of Banks' frustration yet understands his feelings. "Tim has made some major investments in this community and they're important to us." Banks is both "impatient" and "demanding" at times, "but I have a lot of respect for Tim. He's a man who wants to get things done; that's been a big part of his success".

Municipal government has been guilty of adopting an enforcement attitude towards development, MacDonald says. "He's not the only person who has been frustrated in his dealings with the city." The procedures are too limiting, too cumbersome and cause delays. "Developers like Tim don't have time to wait five weeks or five months for a decision. They have clients they have to answer to, and they have to have answers quickly."

Charlottetown has hired an economic development officer to ensure that decisions are made and information is available quickly. It's a step in the right direction, MacDonald says, but notes that Saint John, N.B., for example, has 13 people in its development department doing the same job. "I think developers like Tim need somebody to say, 'Thank you for investing in downtown charlottetown," rather than sending letters listing 50 reasons why something can't happen."

Banks admits that his short fuse doesn't help the situation. But he say's he never holds a grudge. "I don't worry about getting back at the person," he says. "I'm just moving on and hope I can work with them and we can iron things out, because sometimes I can get pretty stubborn." He can't cite any examples of where his conflicts have hurt business", but admits "I've got to change and try to work with people a little better." He suggests that he has a responsibility to his employees, and that alienating his firm is not good for business.

Despite the obstacles to trade on P.E.I., Banks committed to preserving APM as an Island company that services Atlantic Canada. "The question I am really asking myself now is; How can we get this company to be a $100-million business? And can we do that on PEI?"

Yet Banks stresses that he doesn't get tied up about how big the business is. His real goal, he says, is to prove to the younger generation that they can build powerful businesses in Atlantic Canada.

Banks is fostering his own younger generation in his home in Charlottetown. He and his wife Carrie have two boys, Daniel (age 11) and William (age 8); their daughter died a few days after birth. He takes parenthood very seriously, making sure that he's home at suppertime and on weekends to be a parent. "It's family first, business second," he says. "Hopefully, we will raise some kids who will be of some value to the next generation."

Banks fears many young people believe there is a simple formula for success that includes going to school, to university and then on to the big job. "But, I don't think it's as simple as that," he says. "I think that you get up and you work at it, and you try hard. You fall down and you get up and you try harder again. But it's you that has got to get up. You can't sit around waiting for someone to baby-sit you."

Media Contact: MediaReleases@apm.ca