Illustration: Ryan Snook

At a retail broker conference hosted by Laurentian Bank Securities last year, Ben Vendittelli caused a stir. The bank’s senior VP and head of equities asked attendees to raise their hands if they had advised clients to buy Google stock in time to catch its stratospheric rise. He then asked for a similar show of hands for Apple. Just as the hand raisers were feeling chuffed for their prescience, Vendittelli said, “Well, you may have done your clients a disservice, because they would have been better off if you had put them into Stella-Jones.”

He flashed on the screen the 10-year stock charts of each company: The tech behemoths’ gains were dwarfed by those of this obscure Montreal-based manufacturer of utility poles and railway ties, two of the most pedestrian, old-economy markets around.

The man in the CEO chair during that entire decade has been one Brian McManus, a former mechanic who, through a fluky combination of business acumen, family connections and sheer serendipity, landed the top job in 2001. When he joined, Stella-Jones Inc. had roughly $10 million in sales. Last year, the company recorded revenue of $1.56 billion; the percentage growth number would need a lot of digits. Even in a relatively sluggish economy, the company’s 2015 sales were up 25% over the previous year. In the past five years, the stock returned 432%. “We’ve had a bit of softness in our share price lately,” McManus grumbles.

Still, it’s the consistency that has left analysts grasping for superlatives. Stella-Jones has racked up 15 continuous years of earnings growth, routinely beating analyst estimates. “Of all the companies I cover, I would put them in the absolute top tier of management teams,” says Leon Aghazarian, an analyst with National Bank Financial. Vendittelli, a 20-year veteran of the capital markets, goes further: “If Brian was running a slightly larger company in a slightly more flashy industry, he would have been named CEO of the Year for each of the past 10 years.”

Flashy Stella-Jones isn’t. The company buys raw lumber, processes it, and then crafts it into ties and poles that it sells to North American railways and utilities. Stella-Jones produces roughly 800,000 poles and 12 million railway cross ties and switch ties a year; it also sells smaller quantities of pressure-treated lumber to residential and industrial customers. With some 80% of its business driven by infrastructure maintenance requirements that are not going away any time soon, Stella-Jones pretty much has a guaranteed revenue stream.

McManus’s formula is simple: Identify target niches, stick to them like glue and steadily consolidate a fragmented market to become the undisputed number one player. Each acquisition the company undertakes, roughly one per year, brings greater scale and cost-efficiency to Stella-Jones’s supply network and enables it to provide more turnkey offerings to clients.

Of course, if it really were simple, Stella-Jones wouldn’t have gone through four leaders in the eight years before McManus’s arrival. When you talk to the man, you get the sense he views the company’s strategy as a no-brainer—something that has proven successful but is nothing to make a fuss about. “It’s really not that complex,” McManus says, struggling to explain what his team does that’s all that unusual, before finally zeroing in on the company’s culture. “What I’m most proud of is that I’ve never lost a senior manager—voluntarily,” he says.

Many now credit him for much more: for building an underappreciated gem that is North America’s best operator in a 100-year-old industry. So why hasn’t McManus been poached to run a much bigger company for a lot more money?

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