President, KellerDenali Construction
Hair and makeup by Amber Prepchuk
photography by Curtis Comeau
WHY HE'S TOP 40: He bet on his own abilities and built a successful company from the ground up.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT EDMONTON?: “Summer. I know sometimes it is short, but I have a hard time leaving in summer. When it’s nice, it’s beautiful here. We try to do all the festivals — the Fringe, Street Performers, Taste of Edmonton.”
Terry Whittingham’s first job in the construction industry was cleaning new homes. He was only 13 years old at the time, but sweeping floors gave Whittingham a sense of life as a labourer.
When he graduated high school at the age of 16 — he skipped a grade — he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he didn’t want to be building or lifting things. Whittingham liked the sense of pride that came with finishing a project, and he soon realized that he could get that same feeling overseeing construction projects from an office.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Whittingham studied construction engineering technology at NAIT. He worked as a project manager at several large construction companies after graduation, but he realized he wasn’t fit to work for someone else. In 2006, he decided to become his own boss. “I came home and told [my wife] I was going to quit and start my own company,” says Whittingham. “She said, ‘What? You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Trust me. It will work.’ And it worked.”
Whittingham founded Denali construction with a partner that same year. “We agreed that we wouldn’t take any money out of the company for three months and used our own means to personally fund ourselves. My wife was on maternity leave, so the funds coming in were almost obsolete, which was a real motivator to get work and start building the business,” says Whittingham. He used his savings and RRSP funds for his portion of the financing. “It was tight, but I think that gave us the motivation to get things moving quickly. There wasn’t a lot of time or money to burn.”
Denali merged with Keller Construction in October 2011, putting Whittingham at the helm of a construction company with two locations — one in Edmonton and one in Calgary — and approximately 110 employees. While most of its projects are based in Alberta, its largest project to date is the construction of a $72-million dollar perishables food distribution centre in Surrey, B.C. Projects closer to home include the Opposing Force Facility in Wainwright, the Mayfair Tea House at the Mayfair Golf Club and a CML healthcare clinic in Sherwood Park.
The secret to his success? “I had no option but to succeed. I did whatever it took to make it work,” says Whittingham. “There was a lot of sacrifice in it. Had I known everything that I know now about what it takes, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I bet on myself and I bet big. I believed in myself.”
That firm belief in his own abilities gave Whittingham the drive to apply for the prestigious Entrepreneurial Masters Program at MIT, a three-year program operated by MIT and Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). The hands-on program accepts only 60 applicants a year out of the 250 that apply. Whittingham, who is on the board of the Edmonton chapter of EO, says he has learned a lot from his fellow participants in the master’s program. “Some of the best information that you get is when you’re sitting at a lunch table,” says Whittingham. “It’s been rewarding. It’s good to know that you can socialize and also learn from high output individuals.”