Technology With a Purpose: Modern Niagara’s Chris Ovens on Innovation


Staying at the forefront of the construction industry for over half a century requires a dedication to new ideas, technologies, and innovations. Modern Niagara, Canada’s leading mechanical, electrical and services contractor, has been doing that since 1959. Staying on top of innovations is a full-time job though, which is why Modern Niagara created a new role: Executive Vice President, Innovation, and brought Chris Ovens on board, a tech industry executive and entrepreneur. Ovens sees his role as one providing “outside-in expertise and perspective,” focused heavily on analytics, design thinking, field enablement through technology, and more.

BuiltWorlds sat down with Ovens to discuss how Modern Niagara is continuing to push the industry forward in 2018.

What kind of work have you been up to since joining Modern Niagara a year and a half ago?

“Our work has been focused on field enablement and innovation from a technology standpoint, but technology with a purpose. Part of driving innovation as a culture is becoming comfortable enough to experiment and potentially fail. That, I think, goes against some of the core DNA of the industry. Construction is an industry with small margins of error — mistakes can be the end of companies.

When I think about technology, I think companies get in trouble when they approach technology for technology’s sake. Put technology on a bad process and you end up in bad places quicker. What we’ve tried to do is be cognizant of the end goal. It often gets repeated that in construction, especially the specialty trades, ‘all the risk is in labor.’

Modern has taken a deliberate approach to this challenge, which is, ‘the risk is all in labor, so let’s make sure our foremen and field teams have the best training, the best tools, and the best information to be able to do their jobs.’ By doing that, and by providing that level of support, not only do we get the best out of our people, but we attract the best to our company.”

Is it fair to say that in this industry, it isn’t obtaining the technology that is difficult, but rather, getting the culture within the company to adopt it?

“This is an industry with thin margins and lots of risk. So, yes, getting people comfortable with investing in technology can be a hurdle. Really, at the end of the day, technology is easy. Having people understand the desired outcomes and business benefit — that’s the real work. On a recent site visit, I had one foreman tell me a story that moved me. He said, ‘Chris, my dad was a foreman for 30 years and I’ve been a foreman for 20 years. For 20 years, I’ve done the exact same job he did until you gave me this iPad. Now everything’s changed and I’m excited for the young guys coming up in the industry. I can see where this is going.’

There’s a tremendous opportunity to do things more efficiently by spending less time on low-value tasks — the paperwork, the manual data collection — and more time on the higher-value work. We allow our best to spend more time doing high-value work and then we supplement that with the best information.”

BuiltWorlds also inquired about the most fulfilling part of his work leading this new endeavor for Modern Niagara:

“We pride ourselves on building the nation’s institutions that people spend their lives in: the office towers, the hospitals, the stadiums, the courthouses. We are doing this work from Ontario to British Columbia and we take a lot of pride in that. Our core purpose is to enrich lives. That includes our employees, the companies we work with, and the people who interact with these buildings that we bring to life through the work that we do.

Personally, I get beyond excited on a daily basis at the idea of how we can be part of the revolutionizing of an industry. We can completely change the way construction work is done and really turn it all on its head by putting our people on the front lines and giving them exactly what they need to do their great work and make a difference.”

BuiltWorlds partnered with Modern Niagara to bring you this article.