Entrepreneur of the Year 2023: How Michael Menzies fast-tracked the Universal Group’s success

The company has acquired nine others in just over a decade

The Kickoff: After fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a police officer, Michael Menzies spent only a short span as a cop in his hometown of Winnipeg before he caught what he calls the entrepreneurial itch. “I realized that I didn’t want midnight shifts and apple fritters to be the rest of my life,” he recalls. Still, he managed to find another, less glamorized way to serve and protect: his first business venture was a security service he launched in 1981. He transitioned to the traffic control management business 30 years later, when he came on board at the Universal Group (formerly Universal Flagging)—but in 2011, the biz wasn’t exactly thriving. “I saw it as an industry that had an opportunity for someone to come in and truly professionalize it,” he explains. Menzies was on the case.

Action Plan: To improve the company—and the industry as a whole—Menzies says he focused on his employees: specifically, on hiring, training, development, supervision and compensation. “At the end of the day, we sell safety,” he says. He calls B.C.’s two-day mandatory course for those directing vehicles on roadways “fine and dandy,” but asserts that the reality of working in traffic control requires a much more robust, hands-on education.

After the mandated provincial course, employees at the Universal Group take part in side-by-side mentor training with experienced traffic-control personnel. Then, roving field supervisors (called occupational health and safety officers) observe them, providing follow-on training if needed. “Our supervisors check in to make sure that new folks feel comfortable in what they’re doing,” explains Menzies. Additionally, new employees are assigned to an area manager during their first 90 days on the job—another avenue of support. “We invest an awful lot into our overall health and safety structure, resources and training—that area of the business is extremely important,” says Menzies.

In 2020, the Langley-based company kicked off its five-year strategic plan. The goal? Oh, just national domination. “We wanted to be the largest traffic control company in Canada,” Menzies recalls. To that end, the company zeroed in on large urban markets and made acquiring their competitors a key objective. As the biz grew, Menzies and his leadership team developed a strong and supportive centralized office, adopted a new management software and HR system and invested in new technology (for example, automated flagger assistance trailers, which cut the number of flaggers required on-site in half—allowing the company to take on more jobs).

Closing Statement: The Universal Group has acquired a total of nine other companies in just over a decade and is now the largest traffic control company in the country. (Yes, just three years into the five-year plan.) Many successful businesspeople are secretive about money, but Menzies isn’t one of them—“Happy to, actually—quite proud of it,” he says when asked if he’s comfortable with sharing the numbers. In 2011, the company was sitting at about $4 million in annual sales and had fewer than 40 employees. “We’re now north of $200 million in revenue and sales, and closing in on about 2,500 personnel,” says Menzies. Safety first pays off.


What advice do you have for up-and-coming entrepreneurs?

Focus on the three “Ps” in business: have a good product, good people and good processes for whatever you decide to do.

Odd job you’ve had?

When I was 14, I used to turn Christmas lights on and off at dusk and dawn outside the apartment building we lived in. They paid me $2.50 per week.