Outpost Recruitment: Don Breen Career Profile

How can I be a Client-Side Project Manager in Calgary? Our career profile of Fergal Duff.

Curious about a career as a Client-Side Project Manager in Calgary? Get a snapshot of what it’s like, thanks to this career profile of Fergal Duff.

At Outpost Recruitment, we strive to build learning tools to help newcomers be successful in Canada. We’ve invited a range of successful immigrants, across various construction and engineering roles, to share their experience in moving to Canada and growing their career.

Next up in the series, Fergal Duff chats with Ruairi Spillane and shares his experience in moving to Canada to work as Project Manager in Calgary (Owner Representative).

Fergal Duff – Project Manager in Calgary (Owner Representative)

Project Manager in Calgary

Fergal grew up on a farm in County Laois, Ireland. In 2000, he graduated from University College Dublin with a degree in Architecture. He has worked in a variety of roles related to real estate development in many countries across the world.

While still a chartered Architect, Fergal is now a full-time professional Project Manager in Calgary and since moving to Canada in 2012, he was employed as a Director with Pivotal Projects before setting up his own consulting practice, Vision Development Management.

He is based in Calgary but works on projects for clients across Canada. He is married and has a one-year old daughter. When he’s not delivering complex development projects, Fergal enjoys being a parent, driving, mountain-biking and snowboarding.

Your move to Canada

Why did you choose Canada?

Canada became a destination very suddenly and unexpectedly. In 2012, my wife and I had been living in Doha, Qatar for several years and had no immediate plans to leave. In March of that year, we got married in Houston, Texas, where my wife is from. We had invited my old boss, who had relocated to Canada. On the morning of our wedding he emailed me to say he couldn’t make it but asked if I’d be interested in joining his new team, saying: “Something to think about when you’re walking down the aisle.” Throughout that day, our guests asked us what our future plans were and we replied that we would probably stay in the Middle East, at least until my US Green Card was approved and then we would see. However, within a few months of going back to Doha, we decided the opportunity in Canada could not be declined. We arrived in Calgary in late October 2012, so it all happened quite quickly.

Was career progression or lifestyle a bigger decision factor in the decision?

The work experience I gained in Doha over a relatively short time cannot be surpassed. When I left Doha I was the Project Manager on a $2.6 billion mega project – an opportunity that rarely comes along. So, the decision to move to Canada was definitely made due to lifestyle and culture. Speaking as a European, even though it is quite a progressive country there is very limited freedom in Qatar. As a non-Arabic speaking, foreign worker, it is also a frustrating environment to live and work. Canada seemed like a good compromise between my cultural expectations and my wife’s American, yet socially liberal, sensibilities.

What made you choose Calgary?

In all the research we did about the Canadian economy while making our decision, Alberta seemed like the safest bet from an economic perspective. I was still bruised from the experience of the Global Financial Crisis and an economy closely linked to the energy industry was familiar, in terms of our experience in Qatar and our links to Houston. Initially, when we started seriously talking with Pivotal about a possible move to Canada, the likely destination was Edmonton. In the end, Calgary was chosen for us because of the projects that were in the pipeline here. It turned out to be a very good cultural fit. My wife’s parents recently moved to Colorado, so now we are in the same time zone, which helps communication.

Did you move alone?

I arrived in Canada with my wife in October 2012 and our daughter was born just under a year later. I have family in Toronto, but that was not a factor in our decision to move to Canada. 

Your education and professional experience prior to Canada

What motivated you to study Architecture?

I have always been very creative and I felt that I needed a more artistic outlet than what engineering could offer me. In fact, I remember doing a career guidance test which recommended either Art or Engineering as a career choice, so Architecture seemed like a logical compromise in university. My older sister is also a very talented architect and established her own firm shortly after registration. She was definitely an influence on my initial career choice.

To what extent did your career diverge from the original plan (if any)?

I was a good student and always did well in college, but I was never fully committed to the design aspect of the practice of Architecture. I was more interested in the implementation and delivery side and I always got along well with clients, who responded well to my no-nonsense approach. This eventually resulted in my being hired by an Australian client as a Development Manager and Design Director. I was always surprised by the number of consultants engaged on Australian projects and architects generally did a fairly ordinary job of coordinating and managing them all. It was in this role – as a Owner Representative – that I was first introduced to the concept of Project Management as a separate profession; it made sense to me.

Briefly highlight your career path prior to moving to Canada.

I worked for a successful design firm in Dublin for a few years before a mini-recession in late 2001 prompted a move to Australia in 2002. I briefly worked in Singapore as an architect on a sub-way extension and then settled in Sydney until late 2007. In that time, I moved around different architectural firms fairly frequently before joining a small boutique development company. I moved back to Ireland and gave architecture another go, joining one of the largest firms in the country in 2008. A second, somewhat more serious recession provoked my move to Doha, Qatar in 2009 where I reinvented myself as a Project Manager. In Doha, I made a significant investment in training to get my PM credentials up to speed with my experience. Later, I enrolled in an executive MBA with the Manchester Business School (Dubai), which has been an enormous benefit to my career.

Preparing for the move

What did you know about your career prospects in Canada?

I had a job pre-arranged before setting out. I would not have done it any other way.

What did you do to prepare for your move? What was the biggest challenge?

I negotiated a contract that included a generous allowance to cover our moving expenses and accommodation for the first month after our arrival. Even still, we had about nine suitcases, which were a challenge on the flight transfers! Pivotal’s HR department was very supportive in helping us get set-up, otherwise.

Did you have a professional network in Canada prior to your move?

I didn’t quite have a professional network prior to my move, but a few contacts – including, most significantly my boss, who had made the same trip about 12 months before me, so that was a great help. I inherited an extensive professional network when I joined Pivotal at work on my second day in Canada.

Your professional development in Canada

What are the key differences between your role in Canada and Qatar?

The role is similar although given the difference in scale of projects, the work is done by a smaller project management team so everyone has to be a generalist. In Doha, I managed a team of up to 48 specialized professionals on a single project. In Canada, I have five others on my team and we manage multiple projects concurrently. The level of pressure is much lower in Canada as the working environment as a Project Manager in Calgary is a lot more collaborative and not as politicized. I have about the same amount of spare time, but infinitely more choices of what to do with it.

Working environment in Canada

Is the working environment as a Project Manager in Calgary similar or different to previous locations in which you have worked?

Culturally, the working environment here in Canada is a huge improvement over the working environment in the Middle East. I definitely don’t feel like an outsider or an expat here. The optimism reminds me of Australia in the mid-2000s. However, I believe Calgary is unique in that it is very business friendly and feels like a small town, particularly in the real estate and development industry. A lot of deals are built off relationships and networking activity.

What are the three main challenges you had to overcome to adapt to your role as a Project Manager in Calgary?

Climate has been generally challenging but not to my role per se…

  1. I was very suspicious of people when I first arrived from the Middle East. It is difficult to explain the effect of spending over four years feeling like you could get fired and deported any day. It took me a while to realize that Canadians are as trustworthy and honest as they are friendly.
  2. The proclivity of developers to engage contractors on construction management contracts was surprising. There is great deal of trust between clients and contractors that I haven’t experienced before. There is always a place for CM contracts, but it would not be my default recommendation.
  3. It has been challenging to deal with some of the financial aspects of moving to Canada, particularly the access to finance as a temporary resident, despite a healthy salary.

What actions did you take to help you settle into your new work environment?

I listened a lot. I have a lot of international experience but I felt it was a good idea to learn as much as I could from the people around me. I attended as many networking events and got introduced to a lot of people the industry. This has been very valuable, especially in the context as a Project Manager in Calgary.

How is the work-life balance as a Project Manager in Calgary?

It’s fairly good. Obviously it all depends on the workload in any given week but in general I feel like I have enough spare time and lots of interesting options for spending the time.

How would you rate the career prospects for newcomers in your role/industry?

At the moment I would encourage anyone with good prospects to consider moving to Alberta. I’d rate the prospects to be reasonable. I know that we struggle to find experienced candidates when we have an open position. Unfortunately we compete with the energy industry for good PM’s. Oil and Gas companies  seem to have deeper pockets but they tend to be more volatile and have less interesting projects, so we differentiate on the basis of culture, creativity and stability.

Your lifestyle in Canada

What do you like most about Canada?

The people and the landscape are what make Canada a wonderful place to live. It is one of the safest places I’ve lived and I can’t think of a better environment for my children.

What actions did you take to help you settle in Canada on a personal/family level?

It didn’t take much in fairness, but we made a decision at the outset that we wanted to live close to the city if possible. We felt that settling in suburbia would have limited our ability to have a good social life and to integrate successfully into Canadian life.

Do you see Canada as a long-term home?

We have no reason to think otherwise. I don’t see us moving back to Ireland, but if an amazing opportunity came up in the States or somewhere in mainland Europe, I think we would give it serious consideration in a few years.

Success factors

What was the best career advice you have received?

“It is better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done.”

What advice would you give to people looking for work in your field?

Do your research. Trust professionals to give you important advice, not Facebook pages. Present yourself honestly and in the best possible light you can. Make a memorable first impression. If you have the qualifications and experience, it is only a matter of time and flexibility.

Follow Fergal’s path

Interested in working in construction or engineering within Canada? Want to build a career as a Project Manager in Calgary like Fergal?

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Other articles in this series:

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