Five aboriginal firms find success in the oil sands
A crop of entrepreneurs takes advantage of new opportunities
Western Canada’s aboriginal population has long felt the effects of being socially and politically marginalized. That marginalization has also carried over into the Canadian oil patch. There was a time when aboriginal people only participated on the fringes of one of the region’s biggest economic engines. But slowly, the tide is turning.
The energy sector has recognized providing First Nations with meaningful opportunities is good business. And as the aboriginal population continues to grow, there is a burgeoning business class keen to take advantage of those opportunities. What follows are five profiles of aboriginal entrepreneurs who have carved out a niche in a vibrant, but often volatile, sector.
Aqua Industrial Ltd.
Gerry Gionet learned to be an ironworker from the legends of the trade. When he was 25, Gionet spent four years ironworking in New York City with the Mohawk tribe, a people known for their skill in constructing steel-framed skyscrapers and bridges.
He recalls working 60 stories off the ground with around 150 Mohawk tribe members, most of them young men like himself. “I was majorly influenced by that,” he says. “Not only did I learn what it meant to be a good ironworker, [I learned] the importance of who you are,” he says.
That experience has left a lasting impression on his life as a businessman. He returned to his home in Saulteaux-Dakota/O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation in Manitoba just before he was 30 years old with the belief that aboriginal people should play a more central role in Alberta business. He spent a few years hopping around Alberta and British Columbia, but he struggled to make ends meet. Through word of mouth, he heard the Athabasca oil sands were a promising hub for oil and gas development. Soon he was in talks with some of Alberta’s largest oil and gas firms, pitching himself as both a competent ironworker and a link to the aboriginal workforce.
The work paid off, with Gionet eventually signing a contract with Suncor Energy Inc. in 1996. The contract included numerous steel jobs as well as regular maintenance of the company’s main plant. “They gave me an opportunity to tell them what I believed was the aboriginal component to employment – to business – and to bring forward a common goal,” Gionet says.
That was the beginning of Gionet’s role as chief executive officer of Aqua Industrial Ltd., a steel mechanic installer. The company grew from about 100 employees in 2005 to 350 in early 2007. Currently it employs between 100 and 160 workers.
Aqua installs thousands of tonnes of steel every year, and works multiple contracts at a time. But Gionet’s main focus is on Aqua’s training and apprenticeship programs. He learned his craft from some of the best, and he hopes to pass that on to the next generation of young aboriginals. “They trained me, and I’ll train them.”
Note: An earlier version of this story had Mr. Gionet’s hometown as Fort McKay, Alberta.
Oilsands Shovel Products
For years, the only reward Denis Lacoursiere earned for welding his specialty steel products was a coffee mug. He was a welder at Suncor Energy for 33 years, where he hand-crafted numerous side projects that helped the company’s mining operations run more efficiently. But his latest product, a high-voltage cable satellite ball, has earned him more than a pat on the back.
He and his partner Randy Ringheim recently launched their own private company, Oilsands Shovel Products, and have sold over 120 satellites in 14 months – each retailing for $5,200. “I had done so much work for other companies I thought I would start doing something for myself,” Lacoursiere says.
That “something” has proved popular since the two partners started the company in October of 2009. Suncor has been one of their main customers, although the fledgling company has also sold to Wolverine Coal and Shell Canada, as well as a South African company that bought a shipment of satellites through Mine Supply International.
The satellite is essentially a safety product. It is strapped onto the high-voltage cables that power oil sands mining shovels, and is used as a grabbing mechanism to move the cable along as the shovel operates. Before making this product, companies would use shoddy steel crates or rubber tires.
But Lacoursiere says his product is built to last. The web-like structure is built so that before it’s welded, the joints all fit snug, which is essential as the satellite is constantly being dragged through the mud. “These things take a real beating,” he says.
Breaking into the oil and gas industry hasn’t been easy for Lacoursiere, especially with limited resources. “It’s very hard to get into the oil companies. You’ve got to be very lucky, or you’ve got to have a great product,” he says. “You’ve got to remember these companies are getting bombarded every day.”
While aboriginal companies have struggled to gain a foothold into the oil sands industry, Lacoursiere doesn’t attribute the sector’s reluctance to his Métis heritage. “They really don’t differentiate for me. It’s more or less tough for everybody.”
If the company takes off, he and Ringheim – who is a welding instructor at Fort McMurray’s Keyano College – hope to take in young aboriginal apprentices to train them in the craft. They already have one part-time helper as the company starts widening its product base.
Bouchier Contracting Ltd.
Nicole Bourque-Bouchier never thought she would be chief executive officer of a heavy equipment contracting company. When she first started Bouchier Contracting Ltd. with her husband David Bouchier, there was a major learning curve involved. “The first year I was in business I didn’t know what an excavator was,” she says. “Now I could probably sit back and bid any job myself because I’ve learned so much over the years.”
The couple started Bouchier Contracting in 2004 with only two pieces of equipment. Their first job was building a temporary access road for Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., and they’ve been carving out roads throughout the harsh winter months ever since. “We didn’t get into it thinking we’d be a road-building company,” she says, though it now makes up about 70 per cent of the firm’s contracting business.
Their main clients include companies like Cenovus Energy, and BP Canada. But Bourque-Bouchier will be pushing for more year-round work in the next few years − specifically with mining projects like Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake − to keep more of the firm’s employees working full-time.
The company has grown quickly since its modest beginnings, with much of the work catering to Alberta’s booming oil sands sector. The company employs 470 people and owns about 120 pieces of heavy machinery. It now offers site services as well, providing everything from medical services to security under the name Bouchier Site Services Ltd. The site services side of Bourque-Bouchier’s business employs about 55 of it’s total workforce. They have provided services to Husky’s Sunrise project and Shell Canada’s Jackpine Mine site, among others.
Nichole is a member of the Fort Chipewyan-based Mikisew Cree First Nation and David is from the Fort McKay First Nations. For them, employing local aboriginals played a key role in the decision to start the company. “It was really important for us to be able to create our own work environment with people that we like to work with,” she says.
About 60 per cent of the company’s workforce is made up of aboriginal people from the Fort McMurray-Fort McKay area. While it has become increasingly difficult to retain a steady workforce in the province’s bitumen belt, Bourque-Bouchier contends local contractors have certain advantages over their bigger brothers. “I think that it makes good business sense when you work with an aboriginal company because the money stays here,” she says.
Goodfish Lake Development Partnership
Judging by the services it provides, Goodfish Lake Development Partnership (GFLDP) seems an unlikely producer of oil. Its business consists of manufacturing and dry cleaning coveralls for the oil and gas sector near Fort McMurray. But the company’s chief executive officer, George Halfe, says they extract between 15 and 20 barrels of oil every three months from cleaning the soiled and drenched garments. “It blows peoples’ minds when they see how much oil we extract from those coveralls,” he says.
GFLDP has been in Goodfish Lake, a small community 180 kilometers northeast of Edmonton, since 1978. The company is split into two services, a dry cleaning company and a coverall manufacturer. Halfe says GFLDP cleans between 2,000 and 2,500 garments every day for over 50 different companies, primarily oil sands mainstays Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada Ltd. On the manufacturing side, he estimates the company produces over 100,000 garments annually. It’s quite a departure from the company’s beginnings, when the manufacturing side was run by a local sewing club of about six women.
From its humble start, GFLDP keeps searching for avenues to expand. Halfe hopes to center the business in Edmonton, so he can service a far larger customer base. Since 2005 the company has begun to outgrow itself. It recently moved its dry cleaning shop into a new location in Goodfish Lake, equipped with eight new high-volume dry cleaning machines.
The company also uses environmentally-friendly practices where it can. The oil it collects from dry cleaning is shipped overseas through a Nisku company and sold as recycled solvent in the Middle East. “We don’t want to sit back and say we’ve arrived. There are always improvements you can make,” Halfe says.
The company was started by the Whitefish Lake Band (#128) as part of an initiative to boost the community’s ailing economy and provide work opportunities for band members. GFLDP now employs 90 people from the community out of a total population of 2,000, all thanks to the band’s full ownership of the company. “When you actually own the businesses you don’t have to depend on anybody,” Halfe says. “You can make those decisions as a nation.”
These days, Halfe’s major preoccupation is educating young people to take his place. Holding on to local workers has been a struggle. Everyone is looking for labor right now, and some companies have more perks to offer than others. Despite its growth, GFLDP can’t offer all the benefits a company like Suncor or Syncrude can. However, Halfe says retaining local workers is essential if the Whitefish Lake Band hopes to continue to be a prosperous place for business. “Somebody’s going to have to replace us one of these days, because we’re not always going to be here.”
Birch Mountain Enterprises Ltd.
For the owners of Birch Mountain Enterprises Ltd., the only thing more important than getting the job done on time is getting it done safely. “We definitely pride ourselves on the safety aspect of our business,” says Lee Wilson, one of three owners of the Fort McKay-based trucking services company. In seven years Birch Mountain hasn’t had a single lost time injury – something Wilson believes is an enormous accomplishment considering the gritty nature of working in the oil and gas sector.
Wilson started the business along with his younger brother Chris Wilson and partner Ivan Bouchier in 2005. The company has grown from one truck to 35. The fleet includes everything from high pressure steam trucks to hydrovac units to water carriers. The company serves a variety of oil and gas companies, including Syncrude and Shell Canada.
Services typically include pressure washing, water transportation or waste disposal; although Wilson says no single workday is ever the same. The outfit now has up to 60 workers in the always-busy winter season, and will soon be relocating to a larger base in a Fort McKay-funded incubator site. All three of the owners grew up as members of Fort McKay First Nation, and Birch Mountain employs about 70 per cent aboriginals.
The company was an early success, and won the Premier’s Award for Young Entrepreneurs in 2007. “It was an accomplishment we didn’t really expect at the time, being a fairly new business, but it was very rewarding,” Wilson says. He attributes his success to the owners’ ability to work as a single unit. “It’s just a matter of me, Ivan and Chris pulling our experience together.”
But their success didn’t come easy. As certified heavy-duty mechanics, Wilson and his brother were quite familiar with heavy industrial machinery, but needed to learn the mechanics of each individual truck in the fleet. That meant earning their class 1 and 3 driver’s licenses as well as learning the trucks’ specific engine specifications to help out on the maintenance side of the business. “We took it upon ourselves to learn the trucks inside and out,” Wilson says. “There isn’t any one unit in our fleet that one of us can’t operate.”
As the company expands, however, the trio find themselves doing less hands-on work and more pencil pushing. But Wilson says he won’t let expansion get in the way of providing quality services, and doing so safely.