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Building a future brick by brick

Sudbury-based Novenco Consultants Ltd. has made a name for itself in the mining, construction industries

One man's search for adventure after a stint in the German navy has become a successful 46-year career as a general contractor and manufacturer in Northern Ontario, from where he services the world.

"It's certainly been an interesting time," says Norbert Hoffmann, owner of the Sudbury-based Novenco Consultants Ltd.

"I wouldn't give up Northern Ontario for anything, and we're clearly here to stay."

After three years aboard German vessels as a corporal in the navy, Norbert Hoffmann arrived in Canada in 1963 at the age of 23.

A bricklayer by trade, he soon started his own general construction and masonry company before catering to the industrial and mining sectors in 1980.

By 1994, he had already begun selling refractory bricks before developing his own formula and process to create and manufacture special polymer concrete tanks. These tanks are used in copper and zinc refineries, where they are filled with a mild acid for the electrowinning process.

Since then, Novenco has also begun to manufacture the capboards which sit atop the tanks, and through which copper anodes and cathodes are inserted before hanging in the acid solution for nine days.

This marked a significant shift into a niche market for Hoffman, whose only two competitors in the world for this product are now located in Chile and Belgium.

Business has since caught on all across Canada and through the United States through Teck Cominco and Hudson Bay Mining, among many others. Local mining giants Xstrata and Vale Inco have provided a great deal of work for Novenco, who built tanks for Vale's pilot plant in Voisey's Bay.

Engineering firms such as SNC-Lavalin and Bechtel have also made use of Novenco's products, which once required arranging 48 tractor-trailer loads of red shale acid bricks from Ohio down to Mexico.

"Wherever there are refineries, that's where we work."

Over time, Hoffmann has continued to change, expand, and add to Novenco's core functions, including coated industrial flooring, plastics, wind turbines, as well as slings and chokers. He's also looking at bringing the refractory bricks into additional markets such as sawmills and co-generation facilities.

The company also serves as a general contractor as well as a repair and maintenance firm, often catering to mining producers during scheduled shutdowns.

These periods often bring staff levels to as high as 100, though difficult times in the industry have forced Hoffman to scale back to a current crew of five, shifting much of the usual crew to the company's Timmins office, which employs 20.

That 7,500-square-foot site is run by Norbert's 42-year-old son Erick, who is expected to handle the business once the elder Hoffmann retires in five years.

In the meantime, Novenco continues to pursue research and development, working with Laurentian University and renowned figures such as Dr. Greg Baiden on government projects and to make their tanks lighter and more acid-resistant.

"We haven't even scratched the surface," says Norbert. "There's a lot of work to be done in the polymer business, and our concrete could be used in any situation where chemicals are present."

The company also continues to look for new ways to service their customers, which has long been Nobert's mantra. This has meant doing whatever it takes to make sure Novenco could live up to clients' expectations, even if it means loading up a truck on a Friday and driving non-stop to Quebec to ensure an order arrives on time for Monday.

Even smaller things factor into this philosophy, as Nobert also hosts an annual "Oktoberfest in July" at his Sudbury-area farm as a form of customer appreciation.

"Service is number one in our line of work. Once they get to know you over the years, your service is good and your price is right, then you're in. But you have to be on top all of the time."

Quick questions for Norbert Hoffmann:

What's been the biggest surprise through your years of business?

I never figured we'd grow to the size we are today from the small company we were 30 years ago. You're almost pushed into it: you start with a small job, and the next jobs are bigger and bigger and bigger, and all of a sudden, instead of a $50,000 job, you have a $500,000 job. And we're still growing.

What's the secret to success?

I was sitting across an elderly gentleman 30, 40 years ago in a conference room, and he had a little box on which was written "The Stone of Success." I asked him what it was. "Well," he said, "open it." So I did, and inside was written, "Hard work." I believe that.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Your customer is number one, and you have to please them. He is the boss.

What advice would you have to give?

I always tell my coworkers that whenever we think we're getting good, that we need to get better, and look for continuous improvement. Being disciplined is also important. I'm a very disciplined man: I get up at 5 a.m., and I work many hours.

What's been your biggest challenge?

The banks, although we get along with all the banks because we make sure we look after all the pennies. We get challenged every day with many things. You deal with competitors, and that's a challenge. Diversifying is a challenge, branching out and starting different lines of work.