Acquisitions fuel Inflector’s eastern expansion
The company is the largest environmental services contractor in all of Atlantic Canada.
It all started in an Ottawa basement with Jeffrey Clarke Sr. in 1994.
“My father was a serial entrepreneur from Nova Scotia,” said Jeff W. Clarke, his son. “We moved to Ottawa so he could have a government job but that wasn’t working out for him. He couldn’t shake the entrepreneurial spirit.”
Clarke Sr. decided from his travels and conversations that environmental services was a good space to be in. He eventually connected with an environmental contractor named David Walsh. They partnered up to form Inflector Environmental Services in a basement and it began to grow.
Like father, like son
With Clarke Sr.’s son, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit as well,” said Clarke.
Growing up, he was an avid skateboarder. Not content to just ride, he opened up a skateboard shop in his father’s shed.
“Anything that I loved I wanted to turn into a business,” he said. “I grew up watching my father and I was fascinated with seeing him open and close companies, the struggle, the turmoil.”
At 16 he started working for his father and quickly learned the ins and outs of Inflector’s hazardous materials remediation and demolition services.
“I was in the field right away with the tools so I got some great experience,” he said. “I loved it – the camaraderie, being on site, being one of the only kids in school that could afford to buy lunch was awesome. I worked weekends, holidays and even sometimes after school.”
By his third summer he was running his own projects as a superintendent. Eventually he decided to move back to Nova Scotia to study. He graduated with a general commerce degree. During his last semester as he was gearing up to continue his schooling, his father told him he had lung cancer and there wasn’t much time.
“He said he would appreciate it if I stepped into the business if something were to happen,” said Clarke.
Four months later, his father passed away and Clarke followed his wishes to keep the business going.
Taking the reins
“It was a baptism by fire. The first year was a wild ride. I would look in the mirror and say ‘you are not going bankrupt today’. I had no crazy goals. I just took it one day at a time to keep the lights on and keep employees comfortable and confident about the business and its future. It was definitely a shocker,” said Clarke.
His strategy for growth and success was simple: money and people
“For the first year, you have to make sure you run a business that is profitable and reinvest in the business in an intelligent manner,” he said. “You need to use that money to attract and create a culture where the best people in the industry want to work. It’s not much of a secret sauce.”
Clarke went after some of the most innovative and competent people he could find and attributed much of the company’s success to his team.
“I really believe a lot of the success has nothing really to do with myself but the people that came here and our ability to motivate and support people to do what they are good at, to innovate stuff and leave their mark,” he said.
The company has since started taking on larger and larger projects, getting out of its comfort zone and bringing on people that could execute.
“It sounds boring, but the people built Inflector and I am lucky enough to be part of it,” he said.
One of the first major projects was a multi-million dollar project working on a government conference centre in Ottawa.
“It was our first time working in an extreme heritage environment,” said Clarke. “We moved out a crazy tonnage of asbestos. It was insane the amount of concrete that was coming out. It was a wild job.”
Today Inflector is the largest environmental services contractor in all of Atlantic Canada with offices in Halifax, N.S. and Moncton, N.B. Recently they have been making moves to grow through acquisitions. Atlantic-Canada-based EnviroBate was the company’s first acquisition in July of 2022. Ontario-based Donalco Inc. was the company’s second in February this year.
“Inflector grew organically for my first eight years in the business, but it’s a lot to go around the country opening offices organically and self funding for so long,” said Clarke.
Not only was the travel becoming unfeasible for the team, but the company needed to expand its services.
“It was time for us to look at other ways for geographic growth as well as service line diversification,” said Clarke. “You can’t do the same services forever because eventually markets go through cycles. If there is a slowdown in one cycle, we need to pickup something else.”
In the case of Donalco, the acquisition helped the company branch out into fireproofing/firestopping space.
“They have been an industry leader for a long time. They have a great reputation, a strong business model and amazing people,” said Clarke. “One thing we look at when we are considering an acquisition is you have to have amazing people. In construction, we aren’t making a widget that is the same thing every day. A lot of the stuff is contract to contract. And you need people who can execute.”
Clarke is also looking at getting into other speciality contracting services that have a high barrier to entry.
“The market size may be small, but those that do it well can survive,” he said.
One major trend Inflector has identified in the sector is the revitalization of historical contaminated sites, including buildings, ships and others. Clarke explained that these structures are being brought into a new generation of environmental impact.
“From the logistics team to the field teams and others, there is an enormous sense of pride to be on historical projects,” said Clarke. “Lots of buildings come and go, but these ones will be around forever. It’s a legacy building moment for a lot of the team here and we are proud to have them on our resume. Morale is extremely high and everybody really wants to do their best.”