Tony Ciarla

Tony Ciarla, vice president of the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology and executive vice president of Alberta-based KLS Earthworks & Environmental, recently spoke with CIC’s marketing manager Bernadette Lockyer. He recounted the importance of both recognizing his “aha” moments as his career progressed and the key connections that provided guidance and mentorship for him.  

Tony, you graduated from Mount Royal University and have spent much of your career thus far in Alberta.  How have the up-and-down turns in Alberta’s economy affected you? 

In 1995, the year I graduated from the environmental chemistry program at Mount Royal University in Calgary, oil prices were somewhere between $35 and $40 a barrel, Alberta’s unemployment rate was around 8%, tuition costs were rising, and people were moving away from Alberta.  Fast forward to 2017-2018 and these stats are strikingly similar.  Then and now I believe that it is not all gloom and doom.  Hard work, a positive attitude, and a genuine willingness to learn and take on new challenges are three key elements that are needed throughout your career to be successful.

Sage advice indeed.  How did you launch your career in such uncertain times?

I can share with you a few stories about what the last 20 years have looked like for me and point out what I think were the key “aha” moments that took me from a junior laboratory analyst to executive vice president of KLS Earthworks & Environmental. Staying connected with the professors that had an impact on my studies, my fellow students, and making new connections has been important for me. 

One of my key connections was Ken Cummins who helped me get a placement at the Bonnybrook lab for four months, which really launched my career and led to my employment at Environmental Test Laboratories (ETL).

Did you plan to work in a laboratory setting throughout your career?

Yes, I loved the lab but I was given an opportunity to also run the sample receiving group database, allowing me to cross over between inorganic and trace organics — this is not normal.  Then my phone began to ring and clients wanted to speak directly to me.  My boss offered me a job in client services — which should have been my first “aha” moment — but I turned it down. I was singularly focused on wanting to stay in the lab:  running our sample login group and in charge of ICP metals, phenolic compounds, and ion chromatography.

After several more months, my boss approached me again and said “like it or not, you are actually part of the client services group”. Clients were calling me and completely by-passing the client services group. Aha!

As you were being drawn from your comfort zone what began to happen?

First, I want to mention here that my boss was Don Laberge, a Fellow of the Chemical Institute of Canada. Don encouraged me to join the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology, which has given me invaluable exposure to professionals in my field with great knowledge and experience to share. 

My involvement in login and client services in Canada gave me exposure to the company’s largest projects and contracts, including new lab development and strategic planning that allowed me to get involved in the business and the criteria that the clients needed from our tests.  This was my next “aha” moment, as I began to understand how our clients used this data for their assessment and remediation projects.  I spent almost 11 years at ETL. I was a shareholder, helped build the lab to 10 locations across Canada, and was in the transition leadership group when we sold to a global commercial lab called ALS Laboratory Group.

Where did this experience lead you in the next step of your career?

In 2006 I was approached to join the environmental projects and construction group at HAZCO which eventually went on to be one of the groups within [Calgary-based] Tervita.  I joined as the manager of business development for the projects group.  How does a “lab guy” get into a construction group? Aha! All of the criteria — and the chemistry — I have been immersed in was very important to the remediation of contaminated sites, making me an “environmental guy”, which led to my involvement in the demolition and mass excavation market.  In 2006, 2007, 2008 Calgary was undergoing major downtown construction — the Bow Building, 8th Avenue Place, Kai Towers just to name a few, but much of downtown had contamination in soil and groundwater. Aha! I needed to get exposed to construction, understand the process, be a resource to the company and our clients on how to deal with the contamination from a construction perspective.

Was soil contamination unique to Calgary?

No not at all. By 2009, I was director of business development for all of the environmental projects groups for Canada. I travelled the country, including the Northwest Territories, which provided exposure to another level of complexity. As the projects grew, so too did the need for collaborative business agreements, partnerships and joint ventures. We were chasing projects that required a team that included engineering, construction, and waste management.

That was the next “aha” moment — proposal and contract management!  Tervita asked me to lead the development of a standardized proposal process that all of the business units could use. With 4,000 staff and more than $4 billion in revenue, this involved understanding the needs of all of the business units and their largest opportunities/clients. Aha! I needed to learn about general contractors, major oil and gas companies, major mining companies, and municipal, provincial, and federal government contracts. We built a small, creative, and nimble team. Within 120 days we created and launched a standardized process that all of the business units implemented.

Impressive!  How did this facilitate your next “aha” moment?

Fast forward to June 20, 2013. The southern Alberta floods devastated much of Calgary and surrounding areas.  One example was the Saddledome and Stampede Park that were flooded, threatening the ability of the Calgary Stampede to take place that year.  My next “aha” moment.  I negotiated the major project management and engaged all of the Tervita business units and staff from across Canada to get the Stampede ready in under two weeks.

The message I want to convey here is that we were faced with a crisis and decided to take control rather than be controlled.  It wasn’t easy and required exhaustive hours by many team members but the rewards and gratitude we reaped by far overcame the sacrifice. 

By fall 2013, my interaction with all of the business unit leaders led to a new role for me: director of account management for all Tervita Canada major clients. I recruited the best of the best for a team that managed the largest group of accounts and we were responsible for building a $2 billion annual business in Canada.

What direction did your career take next?

In late 2014 KLS presented my next opportunity. I was hired to lead the diversification of KLS — a civil construction company — to provide environmental services, including demolition, remediation, and environmental construction but we lacked knowledge of the regulations and criteria. KLS has all of the tools and skilled personnel to take on these projects, but getting exposed to these clients, projects, and solutions was the next step. Aha! I had a network of clients — oil and gas developers, environmental consultants, etc. — who needed these solutions. With the understanding of the scope and project management, we targeted these clients and sectors with a plan to grow and diversify KLS. Within 36 months environmental work went from zero to nearly 50% of our business.

So, let’s tie this all together.  As the “lab guy” who is now the “executive vice president”, what advice do you have for young people embarking on their careers? 

I encourage young people to stay connected and embrace new opportunities. Stay in contact with their professors who have extensive networks and they can be a long-time technical resource.  Join their professional associations, which are training grounds that can offer experience that employers are looking for.  Look for unexpected mentors —  my career mentors have been supervisors and colleagues. I did not seek them out and perhaps at the time didn’t even recognize them as such but as I reflect back these were the people that I admired and who supported me along the way. Finally, don’t be afraid to zig and zag through your career. It is easy to leave the blinders on and think that the skills you have may not be relevant to another company or industry. That is not true! Challenge yourself, continue to learn, and don’t hesitate to take on new opportunities.