Harsh climate, location tests the mettle of vehicles, the skills of technicians
From the beauty of the Northern Lights to the sights of wood bison and the adventures of white-water kayaking, running a garage in Canada’s North provides some great lifestyle benefits impossible to find elsewhere. At the same time, for RDV Mechanical of Fort Smith, Northwest Territories it comes with a set of unique challenges.
As one of five garages serving the needs of the 2,500-person community that lies just over the Alberta border, RDV Mechanical provides repair services for both automotive and heavy equipment. Dwayne Venema, owner of the two-year-old garage, says his two biggest challenges in running RDV are maintaining a consistent supply of parts and maintaining his customer base.
Fort Smith’s remote location and sometimes harsh winters present challenges to vehicle owners unheard of in Canada’s largest urban centres. As small as the community is Venema is not without competition. His two-bay garage competes against four other garages in town, some of which focus strictly on automotive or small engines while others offer a broader range of services. For Venema, who is a Red Seal Certified automotive service technician and certified for on- and off-road heavy duty equipment, his range of services provide a way to maintain a business in an area with a small potential customer base.
“In the North, being that Fort Smith is a small community of 2,500 people, the more diversified the business can be, the better the business will do because there’s more work,” Venema says. “If you say ‘I’m just heavy duty,’ you might get by; or ‘I’m just automotive,’ you could probably make a go of it. But when you have a limited customer base, you want to be able to draw as much business as you can.”
RDV is a two-man operation with two vehicle bays — one outfitted with an 11,000-pound hoist and another with a 9,000-pound hoist. Venema and his apprentice, Andrew Turner, keep busy with a steady stream of business from town residents, as well as contracts with the Government of the Northwest Territories, Parks Canada and nearby Aurora College. The duo work on everything from cars and trucks to heavy duty commercial vehicles.
The One-Stop Shop
Although RDV’s specialties are automotive and heavy duty, Venema also sublets space in his shop to Tri-Star Small Engine Repair, a one-man operation run by Kelsey Frauts. Tri-Star complements RDV’s operations by servicing only small engines, steering clear of RDV’s services.
Frauts, who learned small engine repair through an apprenticeship program in high school, spends most of his time servicing snowmobiles — a common mode of transportation on the trails around town. He also services motorcycles, lawnmowers, chainsaws, ice augurs, ATVs and any other small engine. According to Frauts, approximately 60 per cent of his work is on snowmobiles.
“The winters are longer than summer, so it makes sense,” Frauts adds.
Combined, RDV and Tri-Star provide a one-stop shop for most repair needs. One of the services the shop doesn’t offer, but that is provided by a competitor in town, is glass repair. Most of Fort Smith’s roads are paved, but there are still many of gravel roads, so cracked windshields are a common site in town.
“Having a cracked windshield is just about a fact of life in the North,” Venema said. “If you want to keep them perfect, you’re probably going to be putting a new windshield in on an annual or bi-annual basis.”
The expert mechanic said he is busy enough with his current business and doesn’t want to expand into glass repair, encroaching on his competitor’s market.
Go North, Young Man
Vehicle maintenance comes with its own share of challenges in the North due to colder weather. As many town residents have moved to the town from southern Canada, one common job RDV does is block heater installation. During the winter months, days frequently drop below –30 Celsius, and the noted low on record is –49.4 Celsius. The cold causes a lot of no-start problems during the winter, which can keep the RDV staff busy.
“The extreme cold here is very hard on velocity joint boots,” Venema adds. “I’ve seen after-market replacement shafts fail within two years due to the boots failing due to the –40 weather. The rubber just gets cracks.”
Another common problem during the winter is power steering hose failures, particularly in newer vehicles equipped with a power steering cooler. At –40 Celsius, viscosity of the thin power steering fluid thickens until the return side can’t move it back to the reservoir, building up pressure that eventually blows connections and hoses apart. Venema says there are also a significantly high number of high pressure hose failures for similar reasons.
During the summer months, one of the biggest problems is dealing with damage caused by gravel and mud.
“In areas where there are predominantly gravel roads, you’ll find accelerated front-end wear, accelerated tire wear. You’ll wind up with wheel balance issues due to mud in rims, particularly rear wheels. It can wreak havoc with brakes, as well. It’s just generally harder on everything,” Venema says.
Mud causes plenty of brake noise issues because it embeds itself in brake pads, and customers look to the garages to deal with their squeaky brakes.
One problem that Venema says his customers don’t have as frequently as vehicle owners in southern Canada is rust.
“Here in the North, you don’t see the corrosion issues you see in, say, the Toronto area or jurisdictions where they put huge amounts of salt on the road,” Venema adds. Cars simply don’t rust out as quickly as in large urban centres, he said.
Finding Labour and Getting Training
Hiring skilled labour and getting training are problems that many businesses in the North struggle with to one degree or another. Only a small few people make the Northwest Territories their home, and for garages, good mechanics are often drawn to the diamond mining companies because of the high wages.
“Skilled tradesmen are in very high demand. Those jobs pay extremely well in the North. It is literally impossible for a business of this nature to compete wage-wise and benefits-wise against the diamond mines, which is why my operation will probably never grow beyond myself and my apprentice,” Venema says.
Training and education is also a problem, as it’s impossible to get automotive training North of 60. Although the local Aurora College campus provides the first two years of the heavy equipment service technician program, students have to head south to Edmonton or Grande Prairie to complete their training. Any automotive training has to be done elsewhere.
Turner, who has been working as Venema’s apprentice for the last year, will begin his heavy equipment training at Aurora College in the fall, and he plans to go south once the time comes to complete his education.
Word Travels Fast
Word-of-mouth advertising also plays a big role in businesses in Fort Smith. Reputation is everything, and any bad word-of-mouth can be very unforgiving and have a significant impact on business, Venema says.
Information and rumours spread through the town quickly, and it’s important to maintain good relations with customers or risk losing them. In a limited customer base, poor customer relations can be devastating to a local business.
“People need to walk out the door like they’ve been treated with respect and treated fairly,” he adds.
Without a good parts supplier, a garage is dead on its feet. Keeping a steady supply of parts is a major logistical problem that Venema has to continuously work on and be aware of. The parts supplier he deals with is Kingland Freightliner in Hay River, the nearest town that is over 270 kilometres to the northwest.
RDV has parts trucked from Hay River to Fort Smith twice a week, so Venema has to plan his orders in advance for upcoming repair jobs.
“Your biggest challenge in running a garage in a small, isolated community is your parts supply. You’ve got to be working with parts suppliers that are very knowledgeable and that will follow through for you. If you wind up getting shipped the wrong parts, it can cause real logistical problems,” Venema says.
In an emergency, parts can be flown in same day, but the cost to do it is considerable.
“We time things. There’s a lot of logistics. You have to make sure the stuff is coming. It’s not like living in the city where you’ve got your parts supplier within town.… Those types of circumstances don’t exist in the North, so relationships with your parts suppliers are paramount, as well.”
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