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THE DRIFT: The business of taking leaps of faith

Rock-Tech builds reputation on risks, radical change and opportunities
Rock-Tech has undergone a number of expansions since its launch in Alban, just outside of Sudbury, two decades ago, growing from a distributor to an original equipment manufacturer of underground mining vehicles. (Supplied photo)

Rock-Tech has come a long way from being a distributor in a rented office trailer.

Much of its growth and change are firmly rooted in customers trusting the company, said president Ricky Lemieux.

That trust comes from being as open as possible about how the operation works, from hosting welcome tours to being willing to hire and train almost any person eager to learn to do a job.

The business currently manufactures and services its line of Rhino XD stationary rockbreakers and the Titanium line of utility vehicles, along with in-house research and development for custom orders. Rock-Tech also manufactures and services SatStat fuel and lubricant handling systems

Rock-Tech is keen to be proactive and listen to those clients by keeping up with innovation. The focus for the company’s research and development efforts has been in telemetry and automation, with plans for continued application to products as the research evolves.

“Last year, about 75 per cent of our rockbreakers left here with a remote operation system that can be controlled from surface,” Lemieux said. “That's a huge shift when most of the machines will be operated underground without a person on it.”

The next big leap for the industry will be artificial intelligence, which Lemieux said is inevitable.

As products and technology change, so does the corporate culture. A temperature- and humidity-controlled manufacturing space can be just as important to manufacturing as it is for employee comfort, Lemieux said. Manufacturing and moving large parts in and out of the facility can cause wide temperature gradients that make working on the floor uncomfortable and distracting.

Rock-Tech has also eliminated much of the pollution hazards of manufacturing, installing independent ventilation systems to capture airborne particulate in the manufacturing and blasting processes. In many cases, if it can be recycled, it is, with a full recovery system for collecting steel shots used in the sandblasting process.

Other modifications include having removable mats in the painting room to collect excess paint for easier cleaning and storage. 

The company has also reduced leakage of fluids to the outside by installing more in-house filtration systems and introducing policies that consider the environment.

Safety and environmental protection have always been critical for the company, which has gone as far as inviting the Ministry of Labour to come and audit the facility.

Even as Rock-Tech’s products become more advanced, the company will train anyone willing to learn. Lemieux said they've had several employees apply for jobs on the plant floor with little to no experience.

“There's a few that pretty much know every aspect of the manufacturing process because they trained and moved to another area,” he said. “They came in and said they were willing to take on the job and they worked hard.”

Rock-Tech was started in Alban, about 45 minutes south of Sudbury, in 1999. At the time, the company focused primarily on distribution, doing some service, repair and subcontracting work.

Growth really took off in 2004, when the business and its five employees moved to Sudbury, into a 5,200-square-foot facility in the Walden Industrial Park.

Lemieux said, at the time, it felt like such a huge space he wondered if they had bought too much.

The investment paid off, however, as Rock-Tech became much more involved in manufacturing after buying the patent for the SatStat portable fuel and lubricant storage systems.

In short order they needed more space, so they acquired a building next door and set it up for full-fledged manufacturing and assembly. Shortly after, the company leased a third location.

Rock-Tech took another major leap of faith in 2011, when the company decided to end distribution.

“It was our main line of revenue, and that was a big dynamic shift,” Lemieux said. “A lot of people doubted my decision, but I told them the clients want something different and they believe in us, so I convinced them we can attract those people to buy the first one.”

While it was a heavy decision, Lemieux said there are no regrets. The success of the company speaks to what a good choice it was.

However, focusing on manufacturing has its own set of challenges. The company has to be much more focused and disciplined in all aspects, from engineering to manufacturing and especially controlling costs.

The change didn't slow its growth. In 2015, Rock-Tech moved up the road to its current location, a 31,000-square-foot facility, gutting and repurposing it.

Lemieux believes there's a lot of room for the company to expand west and into the United States. Until Rock-Tech taps their maximum in what he calls “the backyard,” the company is sticking primarily to the North American market.

“There's still plenty of opportunity for us right here,” Lemieux said. “Much of our business has been with pre-existing clients. One of the successes that got us through the shift is when a client purchases from us, they tend to reorder. We live off that backbone.”

The Drift magazine, a new publication from Northern Ontario Business, features profiles on the people and companies making important contributions to the Northern Ontario mining service and supply industry.