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Women in the Trades: Sassy Timmins chef takes on industrial cleaning

Brianna Humphrey is navigating new territory as the new CEO of Highvec Canada
Timmins farmer and chef Brianna Humphrey is now also leading Highvec Canada Inc., a business that cleans high-voltage electrical equipment. (Jeff Klassen photo)

In her eclectic career as farmer, chef, and entrepreneur, Brianna Humphrey has learned plenty of valuable lessons.

One of the most important, Humphrey said, is this: if you can hustle a sandwich, you can hustle just about anything.

Two weeks into her new role as chief executive officer of Highvec Canada Inc., Humphrey is showing plenty of hustle as she gets ready to scale up operations at the Timmins-based industrial cleaning company her father founded in 1990. 

But ahead of her is a daunting task: learn the ins and outs of the family business while keeping an eye on expanding beyond Northern Ontario’s borders.

“I'm a big believer that if you own a business, you should know how to do every aspect of it,” Humphrey said. “It'll be a while before I know pretty much every aspect of Highvec, but learning’s been nice.”

Highvec specializes in cleaning high-voltage electrical equipment, a process that involves removing thick layers of dust and grime from underground substations, preventing flashovers and fires.

Using a mixture of ground-up corncobs, walnut shells and limestone to blast away grime and dirt from electrical components, they can clean without any downtime, meaning mines can continue operating during maintenance.

It’s a process perfected by her father, but Humphrey said it’s now time to grow the operation continent-wide.

“I definitely want to see us hire a second crew,” Humphrey said. “I want to see us expand. We already do a bit of work in Alaska. We do a bit of work outside of Ontario… and I'd like to see it start expanding outside of that. It's just an untapped market.”

She’s already opened discussions with major players in Ontario’s forestry market, and is in talks with an American automobile manufacturer to introduce Highvec’s technology into new industrial sectors.

Fulfilling that dream may seem challenging to someone who doesn’t have a background in mining, or even a ticket in electrical. But Humphrey said her success depends on a few things, including determination, curiosity, and an indefatigable work ethic. 

“Running Radical Gardens for the past 10 years has afforded me a wealth of knowledge that I could have never learned at school,” Humphrey said, noting that she dropped out of high school early on. “But I’ve been more of a hands-on learner — failing miserably at things in order to learn not to do them.”

That approach includes what she calls “200-hour weeks” while juggling her other roles as farmer (she’s the head of Radical Gardens) and catering (she’s also a chef, amassing the required 6,000 hours needed to achieve Red Seal designation.)

“The show just has to go on. It’s like the saying: ‘Nobody cares. Work harder,’” she said. “It's not about you. It's about everything else going on around you.”

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It’s a drive to succeed that manifested in her early 20s, living in Toronto while working multiple jobs concurrently — body piercer, sandwich maker for Subway, production assistant at CTV, and bartender at an illegal after-hours establishment.

She characterizes her work ethic, and the lessons learned from that period of her life, as “100 per cent punk rocker.”

“Sixteen-year-old me would punch me in the face, and call me a sellout, because I now own two corporations,” Humphrey said, “and I spend all my time going through corporate law and learning taxation.”

“I think the whole thing is just kind of hilarious, to be honest.”

Humphrey’s authenticity and refusal to accept failure may not conform to the common idea of what a CEO looks like, or what is acceptable boardroom behaviour. But it’s a refreshing and honest attitude that other entrepreneurs recognize, and allows her to continually learn from successful peers.

It’s also led to plenty of success.

For example, in 2019, Humphrey was flown to Sault Ste. Marie with other prominent players in the business world to accept an Northern Ontario Business Award for Young Entrepreneur of the Year in a ceremony celebrating influential women. 

With her rainbow hair, tattoos, flamingo pants and Bad Religion shirt, Humphrey said the other “well versed and professional” passengers likely thought she was just another kid making the trip from Timmins to the Soo. But as she began to pepper them with questions about running a business, they saw a kindred spirit.

“I just asked them a zillion questions like, how do you deal with this? How do you deal with employees? What do your reports look like?” she said. “I just spent an asinine amount of time pestering them with questions.

“I found that being very open, and being very almost vulnerable has kind of helped me in a way,” Humphrey said. 

That vulnerability, and willingness to just “let 'er rip”, has also placed Humphrey in a new role: that of mentor and role model to women in business. She’s even hired other young women — badass kids she calls them — who embody that same kind of scrappiness. 

“The idea of someone viewing me as a role model is a humbling thing. You know, I'm just a shit talker from Northern Ontario that never graduated high school,” Humphrey said.

“Thinking about being a role model, it's terrifying. But it makes me work harder. It is the reason why I will work 200 hours in a week.” 

But even with the success, the enthusiasm and her role in the community, Humphrey still remains true to herself, and the qualities that have propelled her to the top.

Next on her list: making Highvec the most well-known name in industrial cleaning.

Even if that means doing things “a little different.”

“'I’m very humbled by the idea of young women viewing me as a role model,” Humphrey said. “But at the same time, when Northern Ontario Business gave me that award, I sold vagina cupcakes all day.”

“I'm just authentically me, and I don't know how to do anything else but just be me.”