40 Years of Service – Reflections on a Milestone
When Terry McQuillan founded Urban Systems 40 years ago, he knew he wanted to create something different. He’d had unsatisfying work experiences in the past and wanted to build a positive work environment; a company that served its employees, rather than the other way around. He envisioned a place that was much more than just somewhere people came to work but somewhere people could meaningfully contribute to society. He wanted to build a professional practice, one where people could have meaningful working experiences that would serve both peoples’ families and the community at large. Value would be placed on generosity, trust, respect and friendliness—core ideals that the company still encourages and celebrates today.
Urban Systems is now 40 years old and has over 400 employees working out of 13 offices. It is 100% employee-owned and is only one of four companies in Canada to be named a Best Workplace for the last 10 years . We chatted with company co-leaders Steve Frith and Martin Bell about the company’s 40th anniversary and what they think makes Urban Systems unique.
Steve Frith, who has been with Urban Systems for over 20 years, says he believes that the way the company began was special. “People found companies for different reasons. Many do it as a way to make money and there isn’t anything wrong with that, but the origins of this company were different. I would say Urban came from a very good place, a good sentiment and a good person. Those are some pretty powerful starting elements.”
A Business of Choice
In an industry that has seen many companies come and go and a plethora of mergers and acquisitions, the trend is toward consolidation for reasons that are primarily economic. Steve explains that Urban Systems has not followed that trend and is continuing to conduct business the way it does very intentionally.
“Some companies just keep going the way they are because that’s the status quo, but for us it’s been a conscious choice. Making clear choices leads to better and more meaningful results. We’re here to make a positive difference for people and communities and we’re actively choosing how to do so, rather than just reacting to what comes up. With this approach we hope to be here for many generations to come. ”
And speaking of generations, over the years, people from all generations are flowing through Urban—from original founders who are now retiring to new co-op students and recent graduates joining the team.
Martin Bell says that this diversity is celebrated. “Each generation has its strengths. It’s an honour to connect the generations. We now have these great teams of people who are learning from each other.”
Recent Co-op student Sushmitha Karunakaran described her time with Urban as transformational.
“As a student starting her first professional job I did not even know how time sheets worked, let alone what the role of a consultant was. Urban defined for me what it means to be in the business of serving communities. A philosophy of serving others is embedded in their DNA. Whether you’re the owner of the company or a co-op student all responsibilities matter and all roles are important. I felt a deep sense of ownership and commitment to my work.”
A Spirit of Fraternity
Steve Frith talks about a spirit of fraternity that Urban is trying to nurture. “Fraternity is a Greek word and it relates to fraternal love. It means we embrace our colleagues as brothers and sisters not as rivals. We have the same spirit of fraternity with our clients; we don’t objectivize them, they are our friends. We often hear we are ‘good folks’ to work with and that our workplace has a ‘good vibe’. For us it’s about friendliness, fellowship and it goes deeper than a business relationship. Doing comes from understanding, and that’s the journey we’re on. We’re also humble enough to know this is something that’s aspirational. We are all human. It’s something to strive for and that we’re working toward.”
At the end of the day, Urban Systems is a place that is trying to support each person to contribute in their own unique and meaningful way—to be the best that they can be for themselves and their community. Fresh ideas are welcome and creative ways to tackle problems are constantly evolving.
“There’s a lot to be excited for in the future,” says Steve. “We are excited about the next forty years and the next generation. We want to see what unique contributions our people will make, and we want to do more than just tell them we support them—we want to show them.”
Gord Petersen is one of Urban Systems founding partners and he shares some of his thoughts on the 40th year milestone in this short video.
Urban Systems was recently honoured with placement on the Best Workplaces in Canada list for medium-sized companies, compiled by the Great Place to Work Institute. This is the tenth year in a row that Urban Systems has placed in the top fifty, a humbling experience as the placing is based on employee feedback.