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NOBA 2020: Manroc Developments is this year's Company of the Year (51+ employees)

Manitouwadge-based Manroc is known for the development of the Alimak system used in mine construction.

Manroc Developments and the Alimak mining system are synonymous.

The Manitouwadge-headquartered mining contracting firm is widely regarded as a world expert in this method of underground raise-boring and stope mining.

The company's adeptness with this old-school, but effective, technology has taken it overseas to Ghana, Tanzania, Honduras, Uruguay, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Peru and the U.S., but it is northwestern Ontario where Manroc maintains its mining roots.

Yet the 250-member company takes as much gratification with its well-earned reputation as being a small, tight-knit group of friends working together to make the mining industry better in both safety and production.

The open-door, collegial, and safety-driven culture has been ingrained in the company's DNA since Don Simoneau bought the then-five-year-old company in 1989, starting with 14 employees, run out of his basement home office in Manitouwadge, a community of 2,000 between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie.

"We're well known in the industry to be a smaller company but one that truly cares," said Katie Simoneau, Don's daughter, and now the co-owner and vice-president of Manroc. 

"It may sound cliché, but no employee is just a number. We pride ourselves in having those one-on-one relationships with our clientele, with employees, with communities that we work in; we have a complete buy-in of supporting everything as a whole."

Over the years, Manroc has strived to be known as an employer of choice, as a firm that supports its workers and the communities where they operate. Should an employee experience a personal problem, or whether something vital is needed in a community, like a shipment of PPE, Simoneau said Manroc often demonstrates it's a company that steps up with donations, charitable endeavours, and sponsorships of local events and sports teams.

Simoneau believes that's factored into their long-term success in attracting and retaining workers that span family generations and sometimes even employs entire families.

Katie Simoneau and now-president Chris Sproule purchased Manroc from Don in 2014.

The family-owned business maintains its head office, warehousing and mechanical shops in the nearby North Shore community and has opened a Thunder Bay office for its accounting and engineering team.

Well-entrenched in northwestern Ontario, their long-time clients include Newmont's Musselwhite Mine, Impala's Lac des lIes Mine, Barrick's Williams Mine in the Hemlo camp, and Wesdome's Eagle River Mine.

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Manroc takes a very hands-on management approach, with its senior team being frequent visitors at project sites, all the better to cultivate and nurture a better working and safety-driven environment. 

Their bread-and-butter is the Alimak stope mining and raise-boring system that they work to continuously perfect. 

A raise is a vertical or inclined excavation that runs between levels (or drifts) of an underground mine that can be used for mining, ventilation, or transporting ore, waste rock or personnel. 

The Alimak is a caged platform that climbs like an elevator on a rack-and-pinion rail system. From the platform, contractors have the ability to drill, load, blast, muck and haul.

Its niche is for tackling steeply dipping ore bodies, but the big advantage is the cost savings to clients from having to do excess underground development. Their expertise now extends to lateral development and production drilling and mucking.

"It's a big cost savings for the client," said Simoneau, by eliminating a good portion of the development work that would normally be required using a different mining method.

"There's a higher recovery rate using the Alimak system," she said, "and you have the ability to go back in if things get missed."

At their shops in Manitouwadge, Manroc has refined and fabricated their customized solutions for the Alimak over the years, including a patented drill pedestal and a protective canopy over the platform for the safety of workers.

"That's an ever-evolving system that we pride ourselves in and are always looking for ways to do it more efficiently," said Simoneau.

With mineral commodity prices doing well across the board, Simoneau said there's a boom going on the mining industry, especially among contractors like Manroc. Mining projects once deemed too dicey to put into operation are now getting the green light and Manroc is starting to receive plenty of project tenders.

One industry trend that Manroc has latched onto is providing contract labour on the production and mine operating side.

The firm is currently on a hiring blitz sourcing truck and scoop operators, supervisors, and construction and production miners for Barrick Gold's Williams Mine and Newmont's Musselwhite Mine.

The increased use by mining companies of contractor labour – or rental support labour – is one evolution in the industry that didn't exist in the sector a decade ago, but is one that clients are increasingly flocking to, especially in the last five years.

"That's been a huge change," said Simoneau. "We've been able to attract bodies faster to get people to the project and working. Every contract we have today, we have a portion of that (contract labour) with our regular scope of work."

The company places a huge emphasis on having diversity in its workforce in offering career-building opportunities for women and Indigenous people, a policy stance that has total company buy-in within all levels of the team.

"We have excellent women working underground that have done an outstanding job for us and we don't see that changing," said Simoneau, in mentioning wives of Manroc workers who've been brought on board, given common core training, and assigned entry-level positions. 

"Women are fully capable of doing these jobs, something I will always promote."

Manroc has board-of-director representation for Women in Mining's northwestern Ontario chapter and lends support to a women's entrepreneur business advisory board group called Elle-iance, focused on women business owners leading medium-sized corporations.

Manroc also understands the value in offering employment opportunities to Indigenous people, provided they possess the required skills and experience. Simoneau said they have First Nation miners working for them at Musselwhite Mine.

She said it goes hand in hand with their stated policy of supporting communities in the areas they operate with job opportunities. 

"You have to go in with a huge amount of respect and appreciation for their culture. You have to have an open mind of their beliefs and truly understand where they are coming from to make that a successful relationship."

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.