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Partnerships, Relationships, Community Commitment

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(l-r) Eric Hartman and Justin Mendes of Canwest

Canwest Elevator & Lifts stays true to its values while growing into one of Canada’s largest independents.

It’s a very interesting time for Calgary-based Canwest Elevator & Lifts, says owner Justin Mendes of a company that got its start in the home healthcare industry in the 1990s, then morphed into a vertical-transportation company that has carved out some interesting niches throughout Alberta. Canwest serves the entire province of Alberta, with Calgary and Edmonton its biggest markets and where it has offices. Secondary markets are Red Deer, Lethbridge and Fort McMurray. The company has approximately 30 employees.

Canwest’s story starts in the 1980s, tracing its roots to Justin’s father, Helder Mendes, an oil-and-gas man who was looking for a life change that included business ownership and a move home to Canada after working as one of ConocoPhillips’ top executives for about 20 years, based in cities such as Houston and Jakarta, Indonesia.

The elder Mendes, who immigrated to Canada from Portugal as a teenager and married a woman from the Alberta prairie town of Fort Macleod, was working for ConocoPhillips in Jakarta when his plan to move back home and run his own business crystalized. Justin Mendes recalls:

“He quit his job, moved back to Canada and spent the year evaluating companies and reconnecting with his family. Since my mother was a registered nurse and they wanted to get involved in a business that had a social conscience, the home healthcare industry made sense.”

Helder Mendes settled on a “little company called MEDIchair.” Stairlifts were the core elevating product. After client requests, residential, then commercial passenger, elevators joined the mix. From 1997, MEDIchair grew into one of the largest home healthcare franchises in Canada. In 2005, Helder Mendes decided to sell the MEDIchair arm of the business to focus exclusively on the elevator side of things.

Garaventa: A Key Partnership

By this time, the company had established a strong partnership with Garaventa Lift, which remains its biggest niche today. Justin Mendes says:

“We joined forces with Garaventa back in the MEDIchair days, and they have grown and evolved along with us. We just had a top-performers meeting with them, where we sat down and talked about what works and what doesn’t work, how we can better showcase the products and what issues we run into. It’s been a very reciprocal relationship. We rely very heavily on them, and they rely very heavily on us.”

Canwest is also a top supplier in Alberta of Global Tardif freight lifts, recently supplying Porsche Centre Calgary with a pair of Class B freight lifts outfitted with stainless-steel doors from The Peelle Co. and wireless key-fob controls.

One person who was instrumental in steering Canwest’s transition from home healthcare to elevators was Dave Davies, Canwest’s technical services manager for nearly 15 years until his retirement in February. When Canwest got into elevators in 2005, Davies, Mendes says, “was the only one who knew what an elevator was at the time.”

Mendes has, of course, learned all about elevators over the years, today being bolstered by key employees such as Eric Hartman, who is the company’s “hands-on expert.” Hartman has been with Canwest seven years and will become the company’s sixth certified mechanic later this year, which Mendes says is “very exciting for us,” as gaining certification through the Alberta Department of Industrial Relations is an expensive and arduous proposition for a nonunion company.

Modernizations: Challenges and Rewards

Notable recent jobs include several modernizations, including the low-rise office building Sunrise Square in Calgary. Located on one of the city’s busiest streets, the building provided no rooftop access, and no cranes could be used. That meant all the old equipment had to go out, and all the new equipment had to come in through stairs and tight corridors punctuated by hairpin turns. “It was quite difficult, logistically, getting all the equipment in and out,” Mendes says. On that job, Canwest worked with suppliers including Motion Control Engineering, Torin Drive and Matte Fixtures to modernize a pair of elevators.

Canwest also recently handled the modernization of five early 1980s elevators at Mayfair Place, an iconic Calgary building at one of the city’s busiest intersections at Elbow Drive and Glenmore. The process took approximately six months and was challenging, as it took place in a building that is both commercial and residential. “Hundreds of people come through the building on a daily basis,” Mendes says. “We had to make sure the client stayed happy and didn’t get too many complaints from their tenants.”

Mendes notes the Mayfair Place job is an example of the type of work Canwest is seeing a lot of in the city. Modernizations “have to happen,” he says, and are typically accounted for in capital budgets and, therefore, not affected by economic downturns as much as new-build projects. That’s why, he says, “building relationships with property owners is really, really important.”

Relationship building has been a major factor in bringing Canwest through what Mendes describes as “probably the longest recession in Alberta history.” Having a strong maintenance portfolio with repeat clients has positioned Canwest well, he says, for the business boom that he believes lies ahead.

Still, Canwest has performed some significant new-construction jobs. An example of a particularly interesting series of projects is accessibility lifts Canwest installed for law courts in Calgary and Edmonton. Mendes elaborates:

“The courts have a couple of judges who have mobility issues, so getting them in and out is really difficult. Someone in that position who is in a wheelchair doesn’t necessarily want to broadcast that fact. In Edmonton, we customized an inclined platform lift to bring the judge up to the courtroom in a very discrete fashion where the lift can’t be seen or heard by the public. We try to solve problems for our clients.”

Canwest Continues to Give Back

Throughout its evolution, Canwest has held fast to its original plan to give back to the community. Most of its clientele, Mendes notes, are people with disabilities, so a “great appreciation and understanding” of the challenges such people face has come naturally, an understanding bolstered by witnessing poverty firsthand during his time in Indonesia. After taking a course that challenged Canwest employees to “change the world,” Davies came up with what would become Give a Kid a Lift, a partnership with Garaventa and Easter Seals Alberta in which Canwest provides a lift at cost, and employees donate their time to a family in need. Six families have benefited so far. Mendes says:

“It’s been really wonderful. [Quadriplegic] Lorinda Bye, who was the first recipient in 2011, came to work for us for two-and-a-half years. She is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known. She rappelled off the Sunlife Tower in a wheelchair, which was very inspirational.”

For about another month, Canwest will be headquartered in a two-story metal building on the busy Calgary thoroughfare McCloud Trail. In September, the company will relocate to a big warehouse-type building in a more industrial part of the city. At press time, the new location was yet to be decided, but Mendes says it will consolidate everything under one roof and provide more usable, working space. This, he says, will position Canwest for the growth he believes is just around the corner. Mendes states:

“We’re starting to see things pick back up again. Urbanization is really the plan for most major metropolitan cities, including Calgary. I think that in Alberta, the recession is officially over, and I think we’re going to see the industry come back very strong.” 

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