BRIDGING the CHANGES
Prince George-based Ruskin Construction has been at the centre of recent significant changes in how the forest companies handle their bridge-building requirements.
By Jim Stirling
Prince George’s Ruskin Construction is a company on the move. The full service bridge designer and builder has completed projects, large and small, from Alaska to the southern Caribbean. But lessons learned from the forest industry in central British Columbia have created a cost-effective model that’s revolutionized how other resource industries solve their access problems. Andrew Purdey is president of Ruskin Construction. He’s had an absorbing interest in bridges since working with them during a summer job as a 13 year old kid. Bridges became and remain his professional focus.
Ruskin Construction began in 1989, doing work for Doman Industries out of Bella Coola and Kimsquit on the central BC coast. It was pretty much a chain saw and pick-up operation, building log crib bridges, recalls Purdey. But as Doman expanded, so, too, did Ruskin. There was also a stint working for Husby Forest Products on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Then Purdey started looking further afield and into the BC Interior. There were more forestry companies there. Prince George was at the hub of one of Canada’s major lumber producing regions. And there’s lots of water in the Interior, an important consideration when you’re in the bridge building business. Ruskin moved to Prince George. The company runs satellite offices in Victoria and Grande Prairie, Alberta. But Prince George is home and the operational control centre, says Purdey.
The work with the forest industry in the 1990s was characterized by rapid growth. It proved a double-edged sword. Each year, they’d increase the number of employees, their capacity and equipment, relates Purdey. But the sheer speed of development triggered cash flow problems. Ruskin overcame them, and in the late 1990s began expanding the company’s base into the oil and gas sector and other heavy industries. On all its industrial fronts, Ruskin succeeded in developing a loyal customer base, adds Purdey. It was Canfor, focused on its own objectives, that supplied the impetus for a new way of doing business in the bridge building industry. Canfor launched an aggressive re-appraisal of its operations, beginning around the time it acquired the assets of Prince George-based Northwood Pulp & Timber in 1999. Every aspect of the forest company’s operations was examined and re-examined.
The goal was to drive costs down and remain competitive in the challenging markets for its wood products. The process included analysis of the goods and services Canfor needed and how the supply chain for those services might be improved. “Canfor wanted to condense its vendor list and we in the bridge building industry were at the tail end of the economic food chain,” explains Purdey. Canfor opted to issue a request for proposals to package all of the bridge construction services it required for its operating areas. It was part of the company’s strategy of lowering costs, increasing output and selling its commodity. The design and construction of logging road bridges is obviously important, but providing access is not Canfor’s core business—it is Ruskin’s.
Consequently, specialist companies like Ruskin understand the complexities and disciplines required. They include a range of engineering services, environmental services, geotechnical services, bridge construction expertise, material handling and inventory management. “I was quite skeptical of the approach at first,” confesses Purdey. “But it’s working.” What Ruskin did to meet Canfor’s requirements and ultimately be awarded the work was head up a consortium. Maple Leaf Engineering and Construction is comprised of Allnorth Consultants Ltd, Environmental Dynamics Inc, Geonorth Engineering Ltd, Western Industrial Contractors Ltd, and Ruskin. “It’s a full service model,” he explains. “They are all Prince George companies.
Each company remains a separate entity and each one provides a role to Maple Leaf,” he summarizes. It’s great for Canfor. “Canfor deals with one project manager and one invoice. We at Maple Leaf have control of all phases of a project and we manage it all internally through to its ultimate delivery,” explains Purdey. “And hand-in-hand with that goes the responsibility for the project.” The relationship is now in its third successful year. “It’s been a win-win for both parties. We’ve shown a cost savings each year compared with historical norms.” Their arrangement is complex and it’s all market based, continues Purdey. They base their prices on global markets, and have the power of bulk buying and control of inventories, he adds.
Purdey credits Canfor’s supply and services department for delivering the opportunity and providing the glue to put the model together. The astute folks at Dunkley Lumber were quick to recognize the advantages for them to this type of outsourcing. The consortium looks after Dunkley’s crossing needs from concept through engineering and environmental management, material supply and construction of whatever type of structure is required. Again the consortium looks after the details, the red tape (permitting challenges, euphemistically) and takes away the unknowns, while controlling the costs.
Ruskin built the team for the forest industry, but it’s taken the model and transplanted it to other markets and industries internationally. It’s helped change the way business is done in the oil patch of northeastern BC. Purdey says the oil patch is different, planning-wise, from the forest industry. Most work has to be done in an approximate six-week winter window. “It’s hot order work.” But Purdey’s team is poised to react fast. “We have the inventory and the crews ready to go.” Purdey credits the BC government with making smart moves in the oil patch. “The government has been pro-active in welcoming the oil and gas industry. They’re working with the industry to make it all-season by building high grade roads.” Ruskin’s people are key to the company’s success. “Right from 1989, all the employees we started with, we still have,” says Purdey, in a statement that speaks volumes for Ruskin. “Our turnover is miniscule. I’m really proud of that.” Early this spring, Ruskin had about 100 people working in the field. Jobs included a mining road bridge in Alaska, a $7 million structure in Fort Nelson and a $200,000 logging-road bridge near Fort St James.
He says the company’s highly trained crews adhere to the Ruskin motto—safety, quality, production—with each assignment. The introduction of the Forest Practices Code in BC spiked business for Ruskin and costs for companies. “The forest industry underwent an environmental revolution, if you like, and has changed drastically in the last 10 years,” says Purdey. “It’s stabilized, and we know the terms of reference now. But it was neat to be part of the transition and exciting for us as a company to be on the leading edge,” he recalls. “Now we work as a team to increase productivity and the deliverability of our product to the world.”
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