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ATB Private Equity helped Surepoint write its next chapter

With the help of ATB Private Equity, Surepoint Group transitioned to broad-based employee ownership and laid the foundation for a strong future.

By 12 June 2023 8 min read

ATB advisor speaking with client

Surepoint’s is a story told in four parts (so far). It’s the story of a company that experienced tremendous growth in its early years, sold to a US investor, lost touch with what had made it successful in the first place, then course corrected. It’s also an example of how, when two organizations are aligned on vision and values, great things can happen.

This is how Surepoint, with the support of ATB Private Equity, brought itself back — to its employees, its values and a strong outlook for its future.

Surepoint 1.0

Surepoint Group was founded in 2003, when Cordell Weber had a vision to build a company of entrepreneurs. He brought together nine local “farm kids” — tradespeople who’d grown up in communities around Grande Prairie — to form an energy services company. “We wanted to create a company that was different, with a different set of values, where we all just showed up every day, worked hard and had a lot less structure and politics,” says Trevor Muir, CEO of Surepoint Group, and one of those kids.

The company thrived. In five years, the original team of 15 had grown to over 250, and revenue had increased from $4 million to approximately $65 million. They’d built a strong company culture based on caring, which Muir credits as being a foundation of Surepoint’s success.

All that success garnered attention and, in 2008, Surepoint sold to a US private equity group.

Surepoint 2.0

With the new investment and leadership, things changed quickly. The mandate was to grow rapidly. Muir says that not only was Surepoint’s team not ready for that, but they also didn’t understand how to effectively do it.

In addition, with their financial lives significantly changed overnight, some of the ownership started to disengage. Surepoint also began to lose key people who had been integral to its early success. As they left, they’d tell Muir it felt like nobody cared anymore. It was a refrain he heard over and over again. “We ended up going in a totally different direction with the company, and culturally we started to degrade,” he notes.

Yet Surepoint was still growing — into areas it lacked expertise in and with large projects it wasn’t structured for. “It became extremely chaotic,” remembers Muir. But in 2013, he was offered, and accepted, the CEO role. With that, the leadership team started down a path of rebuilding the company based on a foundational core value of caring. Then, in 2018, the US private equity owner notified Muir that it intended to sell Surepoint.

Muir didn’t like the idea of the company being sold to someone else, so he talked to the CFO and other colleagues about buying it back — with one stipulation: they needed to be on board with Surepoint becoming a broad-based employee-owned company. Everybody agreed, and so began …

Surepoint 3.0

To pull off this next move, Surepoint needed an organization with both the financial capacity and the expertise to execute the deal. Muir and his team looked at a few options but discovered there weren’t many investors willing to support Surepoint’s strategy. But Muir knew that having a really good corporate culture along with employee ownership was a powerful combination. He just needed to find an investor that shared that same long-term vision and a willingness to help it transition to broad-based employee ownership.

Enter ATB Private Equity.

ATB Private Equity (PE) is a minority-interest fund that partners with Alberta-based companies to help them take their business to the next level. It looks for a few key traits in its potential investees: a solid management team and cash-flow-positive business. 

Terry Freeman, Head of Investments, says they were attracted to Surepoint on several counts. “We liked their concept,” he says, “of being a multi-dimensional business.” They also liked the focus on employee ownership, a model Freeman says works well for services and construction operations. Finally, Freeman saw a great opportunity in bringing the business back to being Albertan-owned and helping Surepoint return to its core values and vision.

Waiting in the wings was Tom Redl, Executive Chair of the Surepoint Board. Formerly CEO of Chandos Construction, Redl had been looking for an investment opportunity where he could also contribute to the management team and asked the Private Equity group to keep him in mind should the right opportunity present itself. Redl also liked the idea of broad-based employee ownership, something he’d done in his last company. He was in too.

With the support of ATB Private Equity and Redl, Surepoint became the first employee-owned trades-based business in the energy services industry. And over the next four-and-a-half years, the PE team was involved with corporate governance, strategy, mergers and acquisitions, financing and modelling, with two PE people, including Freeman, sitting on Surepoint’s board.

Both Muir and Redl agree that Surepoint couldn’t have accomplished what it did without ATB Private Equity. “They were in the game with us,” says Muir. “They gave a lot of time and energy to Surepoint.” Redl remarks on how closely ATB worked with Surepoint’s CFO. “A typical board member might show up at quarterly meetings, maybe receive monthly reports,” he says. “But ATB proactively set up one-on-one sessions with our CFO, every two weeks.” Naturally, there were discussions and disagreements along the way, but it was always with the company’s best interests at heart. “We were all committed to the same outcome,” says Redl. “We wanted to build a great company that was sustainable and profitable.”

Then came the pandemic. “One day things were pretty good and we were on an awesome trajectory and the next day they weren’t. It was very scary,” Muir recalls. During that challenging time, Surepoint appreciated ATB’s commitment to financial discipline. There was also the unintended benefit of the peace of mind it gave clients and employees alike, knowing ATB Private Equity was in Surepoint’s corner. “Weathering the pandemic would have been challenging to do without ATB,” says Redl.

Muir is especially proud of the fact that Surepoint kept the majority of its employees. At a time when so many companies were shedding staff, Surepoint went back to one of its core values: We Care. Muir knew that this, of all times, was the time to show that. So they doubled down on their people and used the pandemic as a chance to build a better culture. Surepoint qualified for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program and, more notably, the entire company voluntarily gave up between 10% and 50% of their salary. “It’s probably the proudest moment of my career,” Muir recalls.

That moment didn’t come easily, of course. Redl had many conversations with the CFO and board. The bottom line was that, if the company could afford it, they would support it. Muir doesn’t think he’d have got that commitment from any other board. “It was a risky, and odd, approach to handling our way through a pandemic.”

In 2021, Surepoint relied on PE’s expertise again when it acquired Ironline, a competitor in the gas compression space, also owned by a US-based private equity firm. The PE team led the negotiations and structured the deal, which effectively doubled Surepoint’s size, while repatriating another Alberta-owned company. Muir believes that without the leadership and expertise of ATB Private Equity, they would never have been able to do that acquisition.

By 2022, Surepoint was back on course and in a good position. They were also ready to have a higher percentage of employee ownership. The time was right to buy ATB PE out. So, in April 2023, ATB Private Equity made its exit. Designed to be an enabling transitional investor, it had done its job. “We were enabled,” says Redl. “The company was doing well and the future was bright.”

The PE team agreed. “It was the right time in the evolution of their business,” says Freeman. When ATB Private Equity divests of a company, it defines success by a few metrics: a strong capital structure, diversity of operations and a path for continued growth. “We want to leave a company with a level of sophistication they didn’t have when we first invested, to help them be a better business overall, and a resilient one.”

In Surepoint’s case, ATB PE also helped this Alberta business transition from out-of-market ownership to employee ownership in a way that allowed everybody to succeed. “We consider that a good result,” says Freeman.

Surepoint 4.0

Now in its latest chapter, Surepoint is off to a great start. “We have a tremendous amount of work we want to do, and we’re definitely still a work in progress, but we’ve got a line of sight on it, and we’re going to do it,” says Redl. However, Muir notes that the underlying vision hasn’t changed — they want to deliver good returns to shareholders and do good in their community, all while living the corporate culture of caring.

But he’s looking even farther ahead. “I want to make sure that Surepoint is around for a hundred years. That’s always been my dream: for Surepoint to be well and its people to have a good place to make a living, one where they feel valued and cared for.”

Muir credits ATB Private Equity with helping Surepoint get to where it is now. “They were incredibly invested in the success of Surepoint and of all our people. When they challenged us, they were doing it because they really did care about making sure there was a future for our people. I’m grateful for everything they did for us.”


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