Little Giants

Heavy metal love: To its diminutive hometown, Mulgrave Machine Works is both an economic engine and industrial magnet

Mulgrave is a town of fewer than 1,000 people nudged up against Cape Breton’s Canso Strait. When Bert Lewis, business development manager at Mulgrave Machine Works, looks out his office window, he can see his house in Port Hawkesbury.

Mulgrave Machine Works employs between 50 and 100 welders, fitters, riggers, millwrights, machinists, mechanics and labourers. The metal fabricator works primarily in the oil and gas sector, along with other heavy industries across the globe.

It was started in 1969 by Mulgrave businessman Bob Reid and focused on the forestry and fishing sectors. When Reid died, the business was taken over by his son and daughter, Sean and Roseanne. As other business settled in the area, the company diversified.

“The company has grown with the heavy industry that’s located within the Strait of Canso area,” Lewis says.

Mayor Marney Simmons says the company’s importance spreads out beyond its staff to the work it hires other local companies to do. It also pays its staff well enough to allow them to buy homes in the area, further fueling the local economy.

“It’s a very valued company in the town because it has been here so long and it employs a lot of local people. Because it is a family-owned business, they have no plans to move,” she says. “It’s one of the staples of this town – it keeps the town going.”

Simmons, who lived in Tokyo, London, and Toronto before being elected mayor of Mulgrave in 2008, says she’s not the only person drawn there. “Every Nova Scotian who’s out in Alberta is just dying to come home. I have to hand it to Mulgrave Machine Works because they have brought a lot of people home and offered them good paying jobs and security,” she says. “It’s been really good for the town.”

Sean Reid says his company prides itself on “repatriating” skilled workers from Alberta by building products the oil sector economy needs. He points to Dave Gillis, who left Mulgrave years ago to find work in Alberta.

“I spent about 10 years, mostly in Fort McMurray. I just happened to be on the internet and saw Mulgrave was looking for someone, so I called and put an application in – and now I’m here,” he says with a smile.

Mulgrave Machine Works rode the Nova Scotia oil and gas boom of the 1970s and stayed strong when the industry subsided in the 1980s. Lewis says diversification was key to keeping the engine running, as the company found work building pressure vessels, bulk storage tanks and silos, high and low pressure piping, pipe racks, flare booms, pedways, stairs, ladders and elevated walkways. Its clients included power generation plants, steel plants and pulp mills, as well as mining and oil industries across Canada and around the world.

When oil and gas picked up in Nova Scotia in the 1990s, it was able to provide tools needed to work the Cohasset, Panuke and Balmoral oil fields. Lewis says the key to weathering economic storms is its talented and dedicated staff.

“I think it’s the people who are employed here. A lot of our employees have been here their entire working careers and they’re very skilled people,” he says. “They have opportunities to go other places, but they remain here. I think that’s a testament to the company itself and the way it treats its employees.”

In 2004 Mulgrave Machine Works expanded its operation, only to be hit by economic downturns in 2005 and 2008. “There’s no guarantees,” says Lewis. “In 2008, we were doing some large orders for down in the Caribbean area and then that worldwide recession hit.”

They had a major contract for a mining operation, but it seemed it might fail. It took a couple of years, but both sides completed the job and Mulgrave Machine Works is now doing a second order for the company. It’s also exploring options in Brazil’s offshore industry, as well as more oil-and-gas work in Alberta, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.

“The future looks bright when I hear people from these international organizations walk through our shop and look at what we can produce and they say that we have quality people here and we turn out a quality product,” Lewis says.

By Jon Tattrie

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