Gaining a foothold in the Alberta oilsands hasn't been as easy as John Jurcik anticipated.
It's been feast or famine to secure work in Western Canada for the president of Venshore Mechanical, a Thunder Bay general contractor and pipe fabricator.
Alberta has been a tough nut for Thunder Bay shops to crack, but companies like Venshore have made solid inroads in neighbouring Saskatchewan.
“We're about $25 million worth (in projects) over the past two or three years there,” said Jurcik, in landing heavy industrial work in that province's uranium, potash and power sectors, and even an infrastructure project with a wastewater treatment plant upgrade in Regina.
“In these booming towns, everybody's out on the job site and all that municipal infrastructure gets pushed by the wayside,” said Jurcik.
Jurcik is also chairman of the Thunder Bay Metal Fabricators Association, a not-for-profit group consisting of five lead companies and about 30 associate members.
With 120 employees, Venshore has a combined 32,000-square-feet of space, including its new Montreal Street fabrication shop.
Many Thunder Bay metal and machining shops began looking for work out west when northwestern Ontario's forestry industry crashed.
With the encouragement of local leaders, they formed an industry marketing group in 2007, initially branded as the Thunder Bay Oil Sands Consortium.
It was thought that Alberta was screaming for manufacturing and fabricating capability, and that much of that work could be done in Ontario and shipped west.
“It's been a little tougher than that,” said Jurcik.
Starting out as strangers in a strange land, companies like Venshore made initial headway working on small projects until the recession hit in 2008-2009.
Then whatever work was available was given to Alberta shops.
As conditions improved, the oilsands companies began awarding work for large fabricated plant modules to overseas shops.
Those modules often pass through the Port of Thunder Bay.
“That's a real kick in the nuts,” said Jurcik. “They've got a mindset to go offshore to get competitive pricing.”
Even the Alberta procurement process proved onerous for Thunder Bay companies.
Just meeting all the stringent pre-qualification criteria to even bid on work didn't guarantee success. Venshore constructed a new 20,000-squarefoot fabrication shop in 2010, built to Alberta specifications on floor space, roof height and crane capacity.
“We stuck our neck out,” said Jurcik. “We met the criteria of what was out there but we still had a hard time breaking into Alberta, even today.”
In Saskatchewan, Venshore's work is split 70-30 between potash and SaskPower projects.
“We're doing very, very little work locally.”
Jurcik said it's easier to land work in Saskatchewan because the demand for labour and capacity often outstrips supply.
“They run out of resources a lot faster and they're more in a position to outsource.
“We just completed a modular project for a big potash producer and it was a huge win for us.”
The fabrication was done in Thunder Bay and a Venshore crew spent a month in Saskatchewan assembling it. The company has also realized success with emergency orders for parts or components that require a fast turnaround time.
Closer to home, despite all the optimism over potential mine and infrastructure construction in northwestern Ontario and the Ring of Fire, Jurcik harbours doubt whether local shops will be see much work.
Once multinational contractors with their supply chains get involved, it'll be tough to get a foot in the door.
“A win is not getting the job, it's just quoting the job. Being able to get to the door and quote the job is a win,” said Jurcik.
“Just because it happens in your backyard doesn't mean you're getting a ticket to the show.”
The idea of setting up a branch shop to better service Western Canada has never entered his mind. “We're a family-owned business since our inception 25 years ago,” said Jurcik, who took over the business in 2002 from his father, Mike. “I have family and friends within the company. They don't want to move, and it doesn't make sense to move out there by myself and employ Westerners.
“It doesn't really enhance my company in Thunder Bay or help people here.”
Jurcik hasn't given up on Alberta entirely.
He was making plans in late October to attend the National Supply Chain Forum in Calgary in mid- November to showcase the skills of the consortium.
“We're still here pounding on the door and we're available.”