Barb Courte knows all about the rigours of the diamond drilling business from both ends of the stick.
“I was the wife of a driller and I know what the guys go through,” said the president of Thunder Bay's Cobra Drilling and Northstar Drilling.
In the hallways and boardroom of her new Russell Street headquarters, photos of her brawny and rugged-face employees adorn the walls.
“It's the employees that are important, they are my company,” said Courte, of the pack mentality she has cultivated among her employees in her 15 years in business.
Northstar is a family-owned outfit, while Cobra is a venture she shares with an undisclosed Sudbury partner.
The two entities split six drill rigs, a combination of modern hydraulic and older “gear jammers,” and 50 employees.
Once based in Manitoba and later Timmins, the company made its mark drilling in Beardmore-Geraldton, but is heavily involved in exploration campaigns throughout northwestern Ontario.
Five years ago, Courte, a mother of three, was all packed up and ready to start a new life in Thunder Bay.
Her husband Garry, a 25-year drilling veteran, had big plans to relocate from Timmins to the northwest where exploration was beginning to take off.
She had followed him on many projects across Northern Ontario and over to Sweden.
The couple separated for a brief period, then reunited in her native Montreal where they scripted a new chapter in their lives.
While staying overnight in a North Bay hotel in June 2007, Garry had a massive heart attack and died. The dream could have vanished, but Courte made the agonizing decision to keep going.
“I had three kids, a brand new house, I was moving into a town I didn't know anything about, and a business with two drills,” she recalled. “I was, like, overwhelmed, let's say.
“When you think about it, the two biggest stresses in life are moving and death, and I had them both at the same time.”
Only hours after her husband's death, the traumatized family was heading west on Trans-Canada Highway.
“We made the choice, and the choice was we could have gone back to Montreal to be around family, or we could start a new life. We took the hard route. And I looked at my kids and said, 'pity breeds weakness and we're not weak, we're going to continue,' and we did.”
That determination and perseverance put her in the right place at the right time when one of her rigs struck high grade gold in the Beardmore-Geraldton gold belt, known as the Golden Mile.
Courte was summoned to meet the president of Kodiak Exploration.
“He shakes my hand and said, Barb Courte, I'm going to make you a millionaire. I started to bawl. I thought, holy cow, how am I gonna do this?”
It hasn't been easy. Drilling season is now a year-round business and there are few breaks to relax.
In the Municipality of Greenstone, the demand for her drills was so high one junior miner offered to buy her rigs. Another executive from Sage Gold called her “the most powerful person in the Greenstone region.”
But the stressful 20-hour days of scheduling and running equipment back and forth took a ragged toll on her health.
She's learned to delegate responsibility and moved her home-based business into a city industrial park.
Two of three daughters, Melissa and Rachelle, help ease the burden at work.
Admittedly quirky and emotional, Courte is straight-talking and blue-collar blunt.
Born of Polish and Ukrainian immigrant parents who ran a delicatessen in the working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Ville Emard, Courte jokes that she graduated high school with an Italian accent.
And coming from good Eastern Europe stock means being able to harbour a good, healthy grudge.
The mining industry is a tight-knit community. But Courte was considered an outsider when she stepped into her husband's shoes.
As the female owner of a drilling company, Courte heard all the snide remarks from competitors and remembers the hurtful whisper campaigns. When she walked into hospitality rooms at the mining shows, many would turn their backs on her.
Clients and suppliers urged her to stay the course.
“It took every ounce of courage and self-esteem that I had.”
She learned to deliver a verbal jab as good as she took one.
“I've developed a good sense of humour, so I'm one of the boys. But when I get mad, I'm not nice.”
For anyone who belittles her employees or denigrates the profession, they've got an all-out fight on their hands.
“If anybody says 'stupid drillers' I will attack them.”
Drillers do have a rough-and-tumble reputation. Many of her employees come from the forestry industry and First Nations. Not all come from stable backgrounds.
“We've lost four guys from this company due to addiction, and we're not going to lose anybody else.”
Courte knows all too well the half-inch margins of safety and has zero tolerance for booze or drugs. She's tough on her supervisors to run a tight ship.
All employees can refuse unsafe work, “and nobody will fire you.”
In return, she expects employees to take full ownership for the job they do.
“I do not want to call their mothers, wives or girlfriends to tell them that they've been hurt or killed.”
Courte watches their backs, gives them second chances, and occasionally kicks them in the butt with a mix of tough love and compassion.
“Walk a mile in their shoes. Everyone has a story if you take the time to listen. Then you get to know what these people are all about.”
She adopted her husband's philosophy of treating her crews better than he was ever treated, with a family-first way of operating.
“Nobody will mess with them. I protect them. I've got guys that will go way above the call of duty.”
At Geraldton, Courte felt her company had a social responsibility to give back to the area communities devastated by the forestry industry collapse. She buys and hires locals whenever possible, supports Aboriginal training, and her employees donate to the local women's shelter.
One of her admirers, Cynthia Le Sueur-Aquin, president of Laurion Mineral Exploration, a junior miner with a Beardmore gold project, describes Courte as a “Mother Hen...with really big claws.”
In their three years of working together, the two have become friends and often travel together up to the drill site. “As far as I'm concerned she's the only one for me.”
Small juniors have to pinch every penny. Le Sueur-Aquin said Courte's contracts are always “very fair” and above-board with no hidden costs.
“I really love working with her because it's always give and take. It's always a very honest and easy relationship with her.”
Le Sueur-Aquin respects the way Courte relates to her crews and her hard-nosed ability to run a safe operation.
“There's absolutely no give on drinking and substance abuse. She's very tough on that. And she manages to assemble good teams of people. Everybody has hiccups, but she cares for her people.”
Le Sueur-Aquin is a kindred spirit having endured her share of discrimination.
“I really appreciate that because being a woman in the mining industry, coming up through the ranks in South Africa, there is a lot of verbal abuse and you've got to hold your nose and keep on trucking.
“Barbara is all heart,” she said. “She's very determined, and I know she's sensitive to comments made about her, but she still has the ability to rise above that and soldier on.”