In 2003 when Chris Sliskovic opened Life Drywall Systems in Oakville, a suburb of Toronto, Ontario, the timing proved fortuitous. Construction in Canada’s largest city was brisk and the pace still continues today—despite the two-year pandemic and other economic hurdles along the way.
The 44-year-old, who has gone through his own economic swings in residential and light commercial over the past two decades, now specializes in metal stud, insulation, drywall and acoustics primarily for large custom homes in and around the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). It might be a downshift from where he was a few years ago, but Sliskovic is tackling the jobs he wants, not needs, and he is keeping his overhead in check. “I am enjoying my work and take things as they come,” he says. “I’m confident that I will be busy for the next while.”
Notable jobs over the past year include a custom 18,000-square-foot home in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. Employing a small crew of boarders, tapers and framers, the unionized contractor installed 12,000 linear feet of cold-formed steel stud framing for exterior sheathing, 20-gauge metal stud framing for interior walls and ceilings and 70,000 board feet of 5/8” drywall with a Level 5 finish. DensGlass Gold sheathing and a stucco finish were applied for an indoor pool.
Sliskovic says while CFS framing is uncommon in single-family residential in the region, his credentials as one of the first contractors to receive a CFS certificate from the Steel Framing Industry Association has helped him secure several custom jobs with the metal studs. His first was a 16,000 square foot home in Oakville outfitted with smart technology. The job called for Level 5 finishes for domes, arches and oval-shaped ceilings. CFS was specified for its exacting dimensions.
Most custom residential jobs might be straightforward by comparison to that Oakville contract, but one challenge remains constant: there is little repetition in the work. “That poses labor complexities,” Sliskovic points out. “It is not like the interior of an office because you have different framing systems and varying ceiling heights.” He adds that unusual geometries present additional hurdles for his crews. Skillsets for everyone on the job have to be high.
Custom homes are his speciality, but not every contract has gone smoothly. A job that dragged a year behind schedule brought his momentum to a halt. Sliskovic explains: “It set me back and I decided to pump the brakes a little and downsize. I didn’t need an office or any office staff for the small jobs I became focused on. I realized I couldn’t bite off more than I could chew.”
Through the pandemic skilled workers were readily available because some jobs were on hold, but the labor situation is changing as construction activity ramps up again. The union hiring halls are short of workers, says Sliskovic, whose company is signatory to Drywall Acoustic Lathing and Insulation Local 675 and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local 1891 in Toronto.
Julio DaSilva, business representative, of Drywall Acoustic Lathing and Insulation Local 675, knows Sliskovic well. He says the field is going through “a tough time”—particularly for small contractors like Life Drywall. While it is the busiest period in decades, competition is fierce for contractors with annual business volumes of less than $1 million.
DaSilva suggests while Sliskovic might face less competition by expanding his operations to take on bigger jobs, the business representative understands why he stays pat. “Chris is happy doing what he is doing,” DaSilva says. “His kids are growing up … he has more time for his family. I believe, though, that Chris will eventually go to the next step, which will be mid-size residential, small-size commercial. It will make it a lot easier because you weed out half of your competition.”
The pandemic coupled with an aging workforce in the GTA accents the pressing need for labor recruitment initiatives. Local 675’s outreach efforts are to high schools, through social media, and it even call ups for additional workers from affiliated locals across Ontario and Canada.
While Sliskovic hasn’t experienced trade shortages to date, DaSilva suggests if scarcities crop up, the contractor might consider applying for workers through the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which allows skilled tradespeople a temporary work visa in Canada. “You might end up with a few guys you want to keep, and maybe you can help them get permanent residency papers,” he says.
DaSilva says other challenges that small wall and ceiling contractors face in the region this year are material shortages and escalating prices. Suppliers might meet pricing on large material orders for big customers but will be less apt to hold those prices for small contractors. He also thinks that because competition for custom homes is competitive in the region, contractors such as Sliskovic might have to drop their prices to get jobs.
Sliskovic works on a 3% profit margin, but with costs of materials and labor rising, he sees a hit coming. But at least getting paid on time or even early has not been a problem—even through pandemic. It helps that he has built a solid reputation in the field over the years, he says.
Among the tools that make Sliskovic’s day-to-day activities easier are estimating and job management software—critical to success even for small subs, he says. “If I didn’t use them, I don’t know if I could take on the work that I do,” he says.
He Knows His Limitations
Stephane Gagnon, director of estimating for the Ontario region of Graham Construction, a general contractor, says his company has awarded contracts to Life Drywall on a number of its smaller jobs. One of the largest GCs in Canada, Graham is on tap to do more than $4 billion in work this year. Projects range in size and are primarily in the ICI sector across Canada.
“I have known Chris at Life Drywall for about 10 years … and what is nice about him is he doesn’t bite off more than he can chew,” says Gagnon. “Depending on where the market shifts, that is better for him, he goes into that market.”
While Sliskovic is focused on single-family residential projects (mostly 5,000 to 6,000 square feet) now, he has done a number of industrial/commercial/institutional jobs for Graham. To get those jobs Sliskovic—like every sub awarded work by the big GC—must go through “a sturdy qualification exercise” that includes a review of financials and a capacity limit evaluation, health and safety records and other performance criteria. “It’s not strictly about low bid for us,” says Gagnon, noting that Life Drywall’s bids have “always been competitive.
“Chris is always in the range and he always delivers on his work. If somebody prices us and we know it is over their capacity, we don’t go with them. But Chris has always understood his capacity limits. He is a responsible contractor.”
While competition in the Greater Toronto Area for small drywall contractors is fierce for work under $1 million—Sliskovic’s bread and butter—he is not prepared to go after larger contracts where work might be more bountiful in the GTA and southern Ontario. “He knows where he can get the best bang for his buck, and he is getting work by reputation … great for him,” says Gagnon.
The GC is witnessing labor shortages and supply chain challenges that it has never seen before in the region. Longer than usual lead times are typical for specialty products such as acoustic panels, and while steel prices are stable now, Gagnon expects them to rise because of the war in Ukraine, a major global steel producer. Increasing fuel and labor costs will hit subs and GCs alike.
Gagnon says 90- to 120-day bid validity periods are not realistic for subtrades in this economy. The GC typically calls for a 30- or 60-day period. Some subcontractors who can’t meet that validity period offer 10- or even only five-day price guarantees. In those cases, Graham Construction applies a contingency over their price for the client’s assurance. It is sometimes easier to negotiate shorter validity periods with smaller clients.
Sliskovic says most contractors in his position estimate jobs with prices they hold for 30 days. “You put an escalation (in your contract) and hope you are covered,” he explains. “You have to charge more to lose less.”
“Chris is very strategic,” Gagnon points out. “Sometimes he tells me he is overcautious, but I don’t think so. He’s earning a living … he has built a reputation for himself that he delivers.”
Gagnon recalls the first project Sliskovic did for him about 10 years ago. The wall and ceiling contract included framing and boarding clean rooms in a laboratory. It wasn’t a straightforward job. He explains: “I’m not easy; I had to push him a bit on that project. The deadlines were very tight but he met them. He has done quite a few nice projects for us since then.”
Gagnon says the impact of the pandemic and other economic hurdles in recent years have created the most challenging period he has seen in 35 years in the trade. “On a biweekly to monthly basis, prices (of materials) are changing,” he says. The steel tariffs imposed on Canadian steel manufacturers by former president Donald Trump “are nothing compared to what is happening now.”
Sliskovic hasn’t bid on any work for Graham yet this year, but Gagnon doesn’t count him out. “I’m due for a lunch with Chris to catch up and to see if he is going to bid for us or continue on his residential track.”
Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario, Canada.