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Company focus Feb 13, 2023

Introducing Stratus Designs

How do you go from a bronze to gold-tier Reliable Controls Authorized Dealer in less than 2 years? The team at Stratus Designs unanimously rates responsiveness as a key to success. Relationships thrive on clear communication and delivering what you promise. Yes, their unique combination of skills also helps. Adam Clarke, Eric Heel, Michael Richards, and Mark McLellan are referred to as “the cannabis guys” in British Columbia and beyond, but what these building automation experts are increasingly known for is their innovative business approach.


The Stratus team puts people first. When they choose to work on a project, they want that client for life. Rather than rapidly expand their business—and they certainly could—they prefer to grow sustainably. “Turning down projects is the most important thing I’ve learned to do,” says Adam Clarke, who started Stratus Designs with his lifelong friend Eric Heel with the vision of providing a level of service and flexibility they had yet to experience in this industry.


From left to right: Eric Heel (co-founder and COO), Mark McLellan (controls manager), and Michael Richards (senior controls tech).


The company’s goal is to design and deliver solutions tailored to clients’ needs. They ask what’s best for the project and the client, then find a way to make it happen. “We don’t want to be pigeonholed into doing things the way everyone else does,” says Eric. Adam has big ideas backed by extensive experience. His advice is forward-thinking. Candid conversations help clients see how the choices they make today will impact their business in the future. His selling point: Stratus will be there every step of the way.

Vertical integration means getting involved with planning and designs, handling the installation and operation of building management systems, then providing ongoing service. That’s a level of responsibility few controls dealers offer. It’s not about winning bids; this is about earning trust. Their reputation gets them in the door, and their dedication to excellence is what grows business. 


“Reliable Controls has a very open approach, which is one of the reasons its products work so well for us.”


Adam Clarke, co-founder and CEO


Long-term investment in clients’ success pushes the team to continually do better. “Reliable Controls has a very open approach, which is one of the reasons its products work so well for us. Open integration and backward compatibility make a huge difference,” says Eric. “The company doesn’t try to force us down a certain track by saying their equipment can only talk to this specific brand, or we can use only that sensor. We’ve converted quite a few clients from other controls systems that use very closed ecosystems who were frustrated at the lack of freedom to do the most basic things.”

According to Adam, the single most important thing for anyone who has a controls company is to make sure you have great programmers. His technicians, Michael Richards and Mark McLellan, have roughly 35 years of experience between them, and they’re both under 40. Mark’s father, John McLellan, was one of the very first Reliable Controls Authorized Dealers. Before Mark even graduated from high school, he was honing his expertise. “I’ve been working with Reliable Controls products since before RC-Studio®, so I know all the generations and nuances. It’s been cool to watch where they came from to where they are now,” he says. 


“I chose Reliable Controls because I have such good relationships with the people there.”


Adam’s own relationship with Reliable Controls is largely why he decided to align with the Victoria-based company. “Direct digital control basically started on Vancouver Island by a small group of people—Roland Laird (the founder of Reliable Controls) being one of them. I was trained by people closely connected to this group.” Adam has worked in HVAC and refrigeration since 2006. He used to design and install ice rinks. His last project, the Langford Sportsplex, won the ASHRAE award for being the most efficient public assembly building in North America. “I chose Reliable Controls because I have such good relationships with the people there,” says Adam. “That personal connection is more important to me than anything else.” 

Mutual respect is a qualifier to work with Stratus Designs. If the team doesn’t enjoy working with you, they won’t. Consider it a form of quality control. People tend to give their best to the projects that motivate them most and the people they care about. “I know most of my clients on a personal level, and I’m not just there to talk work all the time,” says Michael, who advocates that authenticity builds trust. “Sometimes we have dinner. Sometimes we stand in the office talking about our personal lives. Those are the things that make me who I am. I like to know people. Part of the fun of going to work is relationship building. The majority of my long-term friendships within the business have been built on just having a conversation.”

Adam is the first to admit being selective about clients is a privilege. He also knows his clients are equally discerning. The cannabis community is tight knit—everybody knows everybody. Adam has been in the market for a long time and cultivated contacts worldwide. His acute understanding of Health Canada regulations, reporting requirements, and the industry’s legal nuances are part of what makes Stratus so successful.

Cannabis is a niche market within the building automation industry. It demands in-depth knowledge of growing cycles and the exact conditions plants need to thrive. “When plants are little, there isn’t much load in the room, so you really need to fine-tune what the equipment does. It’s like driving a Ferrari in a school zone,” says Mark, who has suffered many sleepless nights when automating a new growing facility. Typically clients invest tens of thousands of dollars in their plants. “You can very easily kill the crop if it’s too humid, too hot, or too cold. Conditions have to be steady to within a few degrees and percent; otherwise you can develop mold or burn the plant.”

Until recreational cannabis was legalized in Canada in 2018, the industry was out of the public eye. Even now, discretion is still important. How they grow, which recipes they use, what seeds they use—people are growing for different tastes and aromas versus mass production. It’s a lot like craft brewing. From a building automation standpoint, this means it’s hard to make templates. Things will never be the same from one facility to the next.


The Stratus team’s expertise extends beyond cannabis to the food and pharma worlds. Always looking ahead to what will be legalized or decriminalized next, either from a medical or recreational standpoint, Adam is constantly developing new projects. He’s also on a mission to supply his local community with microgreens (radish, garlic, arugula, sunflowers), grown year-round in shipping containers—perfectly controlled environments—on his Gulf Island farm. 

Galiano Grow House is fully automated with Reliable Controls products. It’s the perfect setting for Mark and Michael to learn about indoor farming and practice their programming—often proving ways to use new products sent from suppliers for testing. Even though the guys are encouraged to experiment, they treat the farm with the same professionalism as any project. To Adam it’s not just a testbed; he’s serious about the well-being of his plants and the people he employs to help run the farm. 

Eric, who manages company operations and alleviates Michael’s and Mark’s workloads by handling project details, sees the farm as a way for the team to have fun and prevent burnout. “Everybody loves fresh, locally grown veggies. When we work on projects that make us feel good about helping the world on some small scale, I think it leads to a sustainable company.” It’s with that same logic that Stratus likes to take on clients and projects that are doing good things and help them do even better.

Timely responsiveness is a distinguishing factor for Stratus. “When a grower contacts us with an issue, they’re often fully gowned in PPE, getting their hands dirty,” says Mark. “They can see a problem with the environment in their grow room and need someone to respond quickly to help them troubleshoot.”

The team is unanimous in how they approach customer service: when somebody calls, they answer. If a client needs something, they do it. Any small struggles are usually resolved within 5 or 10 minutes. Larger issues require an appointment.

The biggest complaint from users, according to Adam, is their inability to reach the contractor after an install. Adam experienced it himself, where the contractor messed up something so his buildings didn’t work, and they wouldn’t fix it because they were already working on a new job. “It’s why I’m a Reliable Controls dealer today—to do things differently,” he says. “My clients never have to worry about that.”

The Stratus team with regional sales manager Robb Shipley and (far right) VP of sales and marketing for the Americas, Al McElhone.


Since becoming an Authorized Dealer in 2020, Stratus Designs has received the Reliable Controls Most Valuable Player of the Year and Entrepreneur of the Year awards, recognizing excellence, innovation, and collaboration. Stratus welcomes opportunities to share knowledge and experience with dealers in the Reliable Controls network. As Michael says, “Apprenticing makes the industry better.”



 Learn more about the cannabis industry and how Stratus Designs approaches business in this interview with the team.


 Learn more about Stratus Designs