All Systems Go
Canaan Land set sights on leveling up
The makings of a successful business aren’t found on the profit and loss statement alone. Most businesses that have a long and prosperous life have a set of values outside of simply making money—from paying employees a respectable wage to paying it forward into the community.
Those are among the goals Kanaan Khalil has for his own business, Canaan Land. The Portland, Oregon-based contractor offers a variety of specialty services, ranging from custom tile and plumbing to fencing and decking. He’s grown the company through his own sweat and ingenuity and wants to see his employees grow professionally and personally in the same way.
Khalil grew up in construction, helping his father on residential remodels and new construction. In 2008, during the Great Recession, he started his own business in his home state of Oklahoma.
“When I started back in 2008, I went from door to door, I knocked, I handed out cards. I did things on the spot, things as low as pulling weeds,” he recalls.
The business and Khalil’s experience grew steadily as he took on more and different kinds of work, even working with tree care.
And why is Khalil’s company spelled with a “C” rather than a “K”? Simple, back in 2008 when he started the company, people were still using the phone book to choose a contractor; “Canaan” meant his business would be closer to the front of the book.
In 2017, he moved to Oregon for the opportunity to learn tile work. His wife had family in Oregon who could teach him the trade, and there was a need in the market for more skilled tradesmen. He thought that would be that, and he’d shift to tile work—but his customers loved working with him and wondered what other projects he could help with.
“I did fencing for a lot of years in Oklahoma, and coming here I said I would do tile and wouldn’t touch fencing again,” he says. But enough customers were asking for it that he decided to test the waters.
“We pushed pretty hard on it and gained traction pretty quickly,” he says. After just three months, he added nine employees to the fencing division. Now the focus has grown to include decks and outdoor living spaces, which also often require tile work.
Early in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began putting a temporary halt to business as usual, Khalil knew he had to think fast to preserve not only his company’s fortunes but to keep his most precious asset—his employees—working.
Pivot to Plumbing
Decks, fences and tile work weren’t considered essential during Oregon’s shutdown in the first months of the pandemic; plumbing, however, was an essential service. Khalil pivoted his business to include it in his mix of services.
“With the pandemic, we figured there’s got to be a need somewhere, it’s just a matter of finding it,” Khalil says. “That’s when we launched the plumbing division here.”
Anyone who’s ever had a plumbing emergency knows how essential it is when the toilet clogs or the garbage disposal grinds to a halt. Khalil said they immediately achieved a return on their investment.
“Within one week, we brought in a full-time service guy at 50 hours a week just unclogging toilets and garbage disposals,” he says.
With the inclusion of plumbing services, Khalil was able to grow his business, and the company now has 30 employees.
“In the year since nonessential services came back online, it seems as though there’s barely been a slowdown,” says Canaan Land’s Business Operations Manager Cameron Wick.
“Outdoor living spaces are booming right now,” he says.
The pent-up demand for outdoor living spaces and home improvements is at the heart of this seemingly endless busy season, but it’s also been exacerbated by older contractors who decided to get out of the construction industry during the pandemic, Khalil says.
Also at play, Wick says, is an unusually high number of fly-by-night contractors who give homeowners a low-ball estimate, collect a deposit for the work, then never show. Serving those homeowners is helping Khalil’s relatively young company grow and gain a toehold in the greater Portland area.
“We are already able to stand out in the market because we actually show up for the estimates,” Khalil says.
Consistency and dependability may be old school, he adds, but they haven’t gone out of style. “One of my mentors strongly pushes that concept. He says, ‘Show up.’ It doesn’t matter what you need to do—just that alone will get you a job.”
Responding to Demand
Testing the market and diversifying as needed has kept Khalil and Canaan Land nimble over the years, and anticipating market demand continues to be one of his top strategies. Currently, Wick is working to develop a wildland management division to assist landowners in the urban-wildland interface, the swath of land that serves as the transition from human development to wilderness. This interface is where wildfires typically cause the most structural and monetary damage, and Canaan Land would like to help property owners take steps to protect their structures.
Wick says that in 2019 less than five structures in Oregon were lost due to wildfires and in 2020 that number was over 3,000, making a sound business case for the division.
Property owners can hire Canaan Land to evaluate their property and do the required maintenance and prevention work. “It is a niche not yet filled in the region and with the lengthening wildfire season, it could become a profitable one at that,” Khalil says.
Khalil was receptive when Wick came to him with the idea, in part because he knows just how devastating fire and natural disasters can be.
“I was in a fire when I was a kid,” Khalil says. “It was a devastating thing. We lost half of our home. Memories, everything up in smoke—poof!”
“Growing up in Oklahoma,” he says, “we had tornadoes. It’s hard to relate fire to tornadoes, but I feel like they shake hands a little bit because you can still lose everything in a matter of moments. With this new service, I think we can help a lot of people save what they have.”
All Systems Go
When Wick came aboard in the spring of 2021, he was tasked with helping Canaan Land get to the next level by developing business systems and branding.
“We’re building our ‘phase two’ image, if you will, and our values along with that,” Wick says. “One of the things we’re focused on is making sure we have the right systems set in place.”
With the abundance of projects right now in the industry, it’s really a matter of figuring out how to handle the demand, he says.
“It’s almost as if the GCs (general contractors) are walking through an orchard full of fruit, but they can only gather as much as their systems are oriented to gather and process,” he adds.
To that end, Wick is working with company leadership to fine-tune those processes as well as develop a strategic marketing plan.
Wick wants to be able to showcase not just the quality workmanship of Canaan Land but also the less tangible qualities that he hopes resonate with customers.
“You’ve got to do good business as it relates to things other than money if you want to scale the business, and Kanaan knows that,” Wick says.
Growing the Legacy
For Khalil, growing the company requires a two-pronged approach: Providing customers with both excellent work and education—and giving the same to his employees.
“Executing work to a high professional standard means Canaan Land won’t come in as the least expensive bid,” Khalil says, “but the level of service and care for each customer are qualities that don’t have a price tag.”
“One thing I stress always to my guys as we gain new customers is that people entrust us to handle things in their personal space,” he says. “Whatever crisis they may be dealing with, we must make it lighter for them.”
Furthermore, Khalil believes in educating the customers about their homes and the rationale behind the work being performed. “We give them education—tell them why, how, what to look out for so they can be knowledgeable when issues arise,” he says.
For his employees, Khalil also believes education is key. He is willing to spend the time, money and effort to bring an employee up to speed if they have the drive to succeed.
“As we grow, my idea is to train up leaders, and those leaders will train more leaders. You create an umbrella effect,” he says. “If I can do anything for these guys, I would like to give them a life they can be proud of and they can then train others to walk in their steps and work toward their own goals.”
As Khalil grows Canaan Land, he’s also growing a family with three children and another on the way. He hopes his children are watching and learning the business. He’s hopeful he can light the same spark in his children that he does for his employees.
“I hope I can give my kids the understanding and the training they need, so that they’ll want to take the business over someday.”