Collings Johnston

Wealth of Experience

By Leah Kellar


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For a company with the unconventional aim of staying relatively small, Collings Johnston Inc. (CJI)—specializing in technical management and consulting for major transportation infrastructure projects— has secured and completed leadership roles on some of the biggest projects across Canada.

In only its 15th year, CJI’s nation-wide experience features roles on well-known projects including BC’s $2.4-billion Port Mann Highway #1 Improvement Project, Ontario’s $1.5-billion Windsor-Essex Parkway Project, Quebec’s $1.6-billion AutoRoute 30, as well as projects in the Yukon Territory and Alaska.

“We’ve achieved our objectives which are basically to retain a core group of management staff and be selected for key roles on major projects, which we have done very successfully,” co-founder and half namesake of the company, Robin Johnston, tells Business Elite Canada.

The other half of the company’s namesake and co-founder is John Collings. Both men have developed particular expertise in public-private partnerships and design-build projects since these two delivery methods were introduced to Canada. They started the company in 1999 recognizing their strengths and ability to work together effectively and to complement each other’s strengths. Their skillsets had been realized during their time at a major international consulting company for over 20 years.

“Collings Johnston was formed to get out of the big corporation, the bureaucracy, all of that sort of thing and to provide value to clients by doing work that we enjoyed. The market niche we pursued was facilitation and management of client initiatives and projects. This has involved working closely with clients, effectively being part of their team, and making projects happen,” said Johnston.

It takes a unique skill set of experience to advise, design, implement and oversee management services to owners, lenders and contractors for major transportation infrastructure projects. Johnston acknowledged that CJI’s challenge is really to optimize the value of major transportation infrastructure projects while reducing risk exposure to all parties. Often that requires an innovative drive and the willingness to work within and adapt to a political framework, while always keeping the “big picture” goal in mind.

The company’s niche strength really lies in maintaining a group of specialist associates, and connecting the technical consulting and business side of project development.

“Our desire was to work in the realm of management as opposed to traditional consulting engineering. We saw an opportunity between the traditional consulting and the financial and business professionals where we could provide valued services in terms of bridging those gaps,” said Johnston. Essentially, CJI attributes its success in attaining large-scale project involvement nationwide to the quality and caliber of service it provides to clients. He notes their model has worked extremely well, leaving industry experts ready to collaborate.

Johnston says it’s more about being versatile and utilizing talented resources to bring to clients a team tailored to their specific needs. “We’ve looked at various options and questioned whether we should have other business locations, and we’ve decided against that in the short term.” We don’t need a network of offices in order to efficiently provide services to our clients; one key location has allowed us to be responsive,” said Johnston, who takes some satisfaction in not having to spend energy, time or resources on these efforts as would be typical of most other companies.

CJI has added value to clients through their management of risk. They bring expertise in identifying, allocating and managing project risks, contributing to business model options through risk evaluation, and structuring practical contract terms and conditions. CJI also provides considerable experience with the scoping and feasibility of major highway and rapid transit projects, and in evaluating, structuring and implementing different project procurement methods including public-private partnerships and design-build. As a result of their successful track record on major projects, they have advised on P3 projects across Canada and internationally.

From start-up to close-out, CJI offers services throughout all stages of a project including leading technical teams, strategizing initiatives, coordinating delivery processes, preparing project feasibility and risk appraisals, undertaking independent technical due-diligence, and preparing and managing documentation relevant to project agreements and contracts. CJI provides services for the procurement of engineers and contractors and management of project and contracting teams within political frameworks. The provision of all of these services highlights the need for a versatile array of expertise.

“Our focus is on “technical management.” Essentially this means working with clients who are infrastructure owners, usually governments or developers, as an integrated component of their team, to advise, facilitate, and if required, manage the development and implementation of major projects,” explained Johnston.

We have a broad base of knowledge and are well known in the linear infrastructure industry. This enables us to source additional expertise to suit specific project requirements. CJI’s roles have involved a broad range of management related activities including environmental assessments, legal disputes, and contract negotiations. We tend to be the hub of the project development process, making it all come together. I believe that’s where most of our value is generated.”

CJI had their early experience with P3 projects in the 1990s in Hong Kong and Malaysia. Their first major Canadian project was the Fredericton-Moncton Highway Project at a capital cost of approximately $750 million. CJI led the team that represented the government of New Brunswick on technical matters for project development, documentation, procurement and delivery of the project to commissioning.

“As technical manager, we committed key personnel to a project office in Fredericton and kept seats on Canadian Airlines fairly warm traveling back and forth for six years,” recalls Johnston. “That was the role we have built on and have applied to subsequent projects. Our team was integrated with members of the client’s staff with the view to transferring the knowledge and understanding of the processes. The project was commissioned successfully in 2001 on time and on budget. New Brunswick has since adapted the process to other provincial P3 projects.”

The Golden Ears Bridge Project in British Columbia was another major P3 project   that CJI was involved in. CJI’s commitment to the Golden Ears Bridge Project continued for seven years and reached completion in 2009. The project, having a capital cost of approximately $850-million, included development of a new road system integrated with existing networks north and south of the Fraser River, connected by a new 3 kilometre long six-lane toll river crossing in eastern Metro Vancouver. CJI’s role was technical director for the development and procurement phases, and implementation manager during the design-build phase. CJI was awarded the Consulting Engineers of British Columbia’s 2006 Annual Award for Engineering Excellence for its work in managing the development, scope, documentation and statutory approvals for the project.

“We developed a small, highly cohesive and specialized delivery team for the project” recalled Johnston, “And again the project was completed on time and on budget.”

On the $1.6 billion, 30 km Montreal Bypass Project which was also delivered as a P3, CJI participated on the concessionaire team to assist with team building at the Request for Qualifications stage, and in the preparation of submissions and costing during the Request for Proposals stage. Their involvement was mainly related to the operations, maintenance and rehabilitation plans for the 30-year term of the concession.

Over the last 15 years, CJI has participated on both owner and concessionaire teams on many of Canada’s major P3 projects. These have included the $600 million Sea-to-Sky Upgrade, the $2 billion Canada Line Project, the $1.2 billion Evergreen Line Project, the $700 million South Fraser Perimeter Road, and the $2.4 billion Port Mann / Highway 1 Project. They have also contributed their technical management expertise to the Southeast, Northwest, and Northeast Anthony Henday Drive (Edmonton Ring Road) P3 projects in Alberta, as well as the Northeast Stoney Trail (Calgary Ring Road) P3 project. They are currently a team member on the Regina Bypass Project.

CJI was also involved in the $1.5 billion Windsor-Essex Parkway P3 project which commenced in 2010. CJI performed much of the same role as they did on the Montreal Bypass Project. The Ontario highway project provides border-bound travelers with direct freeway access to a future modern inspection plaza and a new international river crossing. The project has been built to strict environmental and sustainability guidelines. Depressed roadways minimize community impacts while restoring natural linkages and benefitting pedestrians and cyclists with 20 km of new recreational trails.

More recently, CJI has directed and managed such design-build projects as the Coast Meridian Overpass, a $140-million project spanning CP Rail’s Port Coquitlam Yard in B.C., The project constraints imposed to avoid disruption to the rail yard operation were extensive requiring carefully prepared specifications and requirements. The 600 metre structure was ultimately erected by push launching the entire deck from one end; one of the longest push launch cable stayed bridges.

CJI is currently providing project management services on a number of projects aimed at improving goods movement and alleviating traffic congestion. “We’re managing two projects related to increasing the movement of road and rail container traffic and also to facilitate additional rail trackage to accommodate the operation of approximately 12,000-foot trains,” said Johnston. “This requires an understanding of how the industry operates and the critical factors that impact its efficiencies.”

CJI is also the independent certifier for the Port Mann/Highway #1 Project which involves the construction of a new 10-lane Port Mann Bridge, widening 37 km of highway from 6 to 8 lanes, upgrading interchanges, implementing congesting reduction measures such as high occupancy vehicle lanes and improving access and safety on Highway #1. As the independent certifier, CJI is responsible for signing off on the key completion certifications for each stage of the project to ensure work is being carried out at each stage in accordance with the terms of the project contract.

As a result of CJI’s knowledge, experience and involvement in P3 and turnkey project delivery, the company is retained by concessionaires to provide Lender’s Technical Advisor (LTA) services. These services involve providing due diligence on technical and commercial aspects of projects, and regular reporting to owners and lenders on potential risks and project progress in support of scheduled payments. CJI is currently providing this role on the both the Ottawa LRT and the Waterloo LRT projects.

In terms of its P3 projects, CJI mainly concentrates on infrastructure such as transit, highways, bridges, railways, and port facilities. While institutional P3 projects such as those in the healthcare industry have received much attention over the years, CJI has found its niche in P3s servicing the transportation sector. However, Johnston identifies a slight nuisance with P3s in that there are different processes between the provinces in approaching development.

“The fundamental difference has arisen from the fact that B.C has been implementing P3 projects for a number of years and has developed a well established process with reasonably standardized contracts. Other provinces have subsequently adopted P3 delivery and have preferred to develop their own process, so the lack of standardization is a challenge for concessionaires pursuing projects,” he said.

Part of CJI’s success also has to do with its heavy involvement in program management and the facilitation of projects, particularly partnership projects such as those involving federal funding provided through the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative (APGCI), the Building Canada Fund ($8.8 billion) and, more recently, the New Building Canada Fund ($14-billion). These funding programs support projects of national, regional and local significance that promote economic growth, job creation and productivity.  The APGCI is a Federal program to improve the flow of goods and services between Asia and Canada through strategic investment in port, railway, and highway projects. Essentially, these are federal funds that leverage money from other levels of government and stakeholders to develop infrastructure projects.

An important APGCI initiative for CJI is providing program management services for the development of the Roberts Bank Rail Corridor Program. ( This Program is a comprehensive package of road and rail improvements funded by an unprecedented collaboration of twelve partners representing local, regional, provincial, and federal governments as well as private industry. It involves the design and construction of nine road/rail grade separation projects that will enhance the quality of life in communities through which rail traffic travels and will improve the safety and efficiency of both the road and rail networks in these communities. The six-year program addresses the objectives of the 12 funding partners including Transport Canada, BC Ministry of Transportation, TransLink, Port Metro Vancouver, four municipalities, and four railway companies. Johnston has been managing the program for the past six years.

“CJI’s responsibility is to manage and facilitate the program and to have the projects delivered by spring of 2015 within a budget of $310 million,” explains Johnston. “So it has been the challenge of coordinating and managing the objectives and funding of 12 partners while providing consultation with First Nations, coordination of environmental approvals and communications for the program. As the program nears its end with the majority of projects at completion, I am confident in saying that it has been very successful and will be within budget.”

“Our first 15 years of CJI have been a successful challenge. I believe we’ve demonstrated that there are untapped opportunities out there; that there is a market for us, and we’ve actually established a successful niche. We have our area of expertise that meets the needs of major projects, and based on the frequency of repeat business, it is providing value to owners, contractors and concessionaires. It has proved to be a very successful business model.”