Big Builder. Big Heart. Big Impact.

February 02

Interview with Paul Cocker, Construction Lead for Innovation Works

Paul Cocker, retired owner and CEO of McKay-Cocker Construction Ltd, sat down with Kaitlynn Bonin, freelance writer, to discuss his role with Innovation Works. In addition to building many of the bridges and water treatment plants in London, some of his company’s well-known projects include the Covent Garden Market, the Dr. Oetker Pizza Plant, the London International Airport expansion, Starlim Sterner, and 3M’s Corporate Head Office, Tartan Place.

Even before selling the company 5 years ago and fully retiring 2 years ago, Paul was no stranger to volunteer work. He gives a lecture at his alma mater, Ryerson, once a year, while also sitting on their Program Advisory Council. He’s been on the London Middlesex Immigrant Employment Council since it started, joined the United Way Leadership Cabinet, is on the board of the Arts Project, and served on the boards of London Hydro and the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada. In addition to Innovation Works, he’s also currently volunteering with the Children’s Museum and will join the Fanshawe College board this fall. He was recognized by the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame and as a Ryerson University Alumni of Distinction.

What is your background?

McKay-Cocker was founded by Colonel Hugh McKay and my dad Herb Cocker in 1946, making this month their 70th anniversary. I started working there in 1969 after graduating from Ryerson Polytechnic in Civil Engineering Technology. I’ve gone through all the different roles, like project manager, estimator, and I have my carpenter papers.

In 1991, my cousin and I bought the company, making us partners. I was the deal-maker and strategist which made for the perfect balance with my methodical partner, Jock Tindale. After Jock’s untimely death in 1997, my two partners David Blake and Paul Shanks continued to provide that balance. I feel that I’ve been able to apply quick critical thinking and decision-making skills with Innovation Works.

Who approached you about being on the team?

Sister Margo Ritchie, who I met while building the residence of the Sisters of St. Joseph with McKay-Cocker. She introduced me to Lina Bowden (the Social Finance Consultant for Innovation Works) a year and a half ago.

What do you do with Innovation Works?

I co-chair the construction team. They have a construction manager who’s running that project, and I give more of a higher overview. I look at the plans and provide input. This is a collaborative nonprofit, and I help to keep the budget in line. I’ve also slid in to help the Fundraising team because I’ve found that I’m naturally connecting people from different projects and boards, and helping them solve a shared problem.

Why are you involved?

One of the things I’ve become convinced about is that Innovation Works really has a strong business model. I’ve been impressed with Michelle Baldwin and Pillar’s efforts, professionalism and dedication.

How much time are you spending with this project?

A lot. I was directly involved in securing a location for Innovation Works. Before they bought their current location, (the old GoodLife), they looked at about 15 buildings, including Kingsmill’s. I spent a lot of time talking with trades and consultants and city employees.

What are you learning as part of this collaboration?

I’m learning that Michelle Baldwin and Pillar have created a really diverse and deep team, and I’ve certainly learned that there is a need for social innovation. Some of the tenants will be for-profit, but if you rent a desk and you’re in some little office area working on your own at a shared office location, you don’t have that natural collaboration. I think the fact that the dialogue will get going and there will be a multi-faceted discussion – the benefits to our society because of that will be magnified many times.

What advice do you have for others in the community about participating in this kind of endeavor?

I think people need to do their research because there’s a lot of ways of volunteering and all of them are necessary. So many skills are appreciated and needed. I’ve been fortunate and never regretted anything I’ve been involved in. Be willing to try a new change.

What stage is the construction at now?

Several phases have been established. The Accessible Ramp is complete. Renos to the 2nd and part of the 1st floor will begin in March. Pillar moves in in June, and the current tenant GoodLife moves out in August, allowing full use of the building by Innovation Works.

What does success look like for you?

I’ve been fortunate, but I’ve worked hard for my success and was never given anything, other than good examples. I’m honoured for the recognition I’ve gotten later in life like the Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame, the Ryerson University Alumni of Distinction Award, and the Ontario General Contractors Association Jock Tindale Memorial Award for Integrity in the Construction Industry.

I’ve enjoyed using my experience to mentor high school students with businesses they’re doing through Junior Achievement. I’ve been thanked for my involvement in Innovation Works and told it’s been a gift. Hearing something like that, to me that’s a measure of success.

What advice would you give to a younger self?

Patience. I learned from others’ examples and that maybe saved me from making a rash decision that wouldn’t have worked out. I would give my younger self advice not to overthink things, but to stand back and look at the big picture.