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When Gowing Contractors started out, it comprised of Jane Gowing—CEO, president, and founder—and her dog Caffrey, toiling away in the basement office of Gowing’s home. Despite her 18 years of experience in construction, securing financing from the banks was a major barrier to growing the business from its modest beginnings.

“Construction is a dirty word to the banks,” says Gowing, nearly 20 years later and with markedly fewer budget woes. “If you’re putting in a development, for example, and none of your houses sell, it’s a risk—it’s a huge risk.”

Banks tend to lump all contractors into the high-risk construction sector, she laments. Gowing’s business, which does mechanical work on water and waste water systems for municipal governments, is less risky than the average construction project. (“If someone like the city of Toronto goes bankrupt, we all have bigger problems than whether I’m going to get paid or not,” she notes). But the argument fell on deaf ears.

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That was until she started forming alliances with other companies in the industry. In a business built on a competitive tendering process in which the lowest bidder gets the job, Gowing says approaching the project tender with a packaged deal can be a huge advantage. “Everybody seems to like one-stop shopping,” she says. “Having strategic partnerships with different contractors means we can go after a specific job together and present a package to somebody.”

It’s certainly worked for Gowing, who placed #28 on the 2016 W100 Ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs. And the strategy isn’t just attractive to clients—allying with established, reputable contractors eventually won Gowing the trust of traditional financial institutions. “As the size of our contracts and the margins got bigger, then banks were more interested in loaning us money,” she explains.

Forming these pivotal alliances involved required Gowing to leverage her reputation in the industry. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” she says, “and if I phone up a general contractor and say, ‘I want to talk about how we can work together,’ they don’t normally say ‘No.’” Even if you don’t have that track record to trade on, Gowing recommends expressing interest in working as a team—rather than as adversaries—to other industry players. “People are receptive to that,” she says

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Gowing’s well-nurtured relationships became particularly important following the 2008 recession. After pumping money into infrastructure to stimulate growth, government funds eventually dried up as the economy stabilized. “When the money stopped, there were very few jobs out for tender. Everybody was underbidding just to try and get work,” says Gowing. “It was a very difficult time.”

On the brink of closing shop, Gowing saw that a $40 million contract—more than five times bigger than anything Gowing had ever worked on—had been issued for tender by the City of Toronto. “We knew we had the talent to do the job, but there are some financing impacts, and we knew we would have to bigger and hire more people,” says Gowing. “There were a lot of sleepless nights [wondering] are we prepared to do that?”

More than two years later and halfway through the project, Gowing is thrilled she made the leap. Gowing Contractors has grown from a $10 million to $20 million-a-year company, and has doubled the workforce from 20 to about 40 staff, depending on the project. “Having alliances have been so important with these larger projects,” Gowing says. “There are more things to go wrong and you need to be able to rely on the partners you’re working with.”

It comes down to trust, particularly when partnerships aren’t contractually bound. “You make agreements, figure out how to work together for us both to be successful, [and] shake hands,” Gowing says. “And then it’s a matter of living up to what you say you’re going to do.”

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Have you used or considered using partnerships and alliances to grow your business? What other advantages are there to working with, not against, the competition? Let us know by commenting below.

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