Local company bucking the trend
There’s a bewildering array of shops and equipment over at Heavy Equipment Repair (HER) in Slave Lake. Owner Herb Gehrling leads the way on a tour of the property, from the truck repair shop to the welding shop to the machine shop to a shop just for cutting metal plate – even a shop with a ‘daycare’ where we meet his tiny granddaughter for a playful fist bump.
“Her mom works in here doing autoCAD drawings,” says Gehrling.
The number of dark brown buildings of ‘Heavy Herb’s’ as it’s popularly known, in the northeast industrial area of Slave Lake have been growing steadily over the past few decades. It now covers several acres and what used to be two or three separate industrial properties. In an era that has seen considerable shrinkage in the number of industrial shops servicing the oilpatch, HER has been going firmly in the other direction. So what’s the secret?
At the annual Chamber of Commerce business awards recently, Gehrling gave credit to support from local businesses. That was crucial early on and continues to be. But the little repair shop that started in the early 80s with Gehrling and one other guy now does big jobs for big companies all over northern Alberta.
“I started with myself and a helper,” Gehrling says. That was in a rented Quonset across from Lindsey Construction. “In ’86 I had 14 mechanics.”
Now he’s got 64 employees in a sprawling complex of shops on (or mostly on) Balsam Rd. NE.
“We’ve had ups and downs with the oil industry,” Gehrling says. “Key factors are the willingness to diversify and the skills and abilities of the people.”
Asked for an example of diversification, Gehrling points to a set of black steel devices on a pallet in the machine shop.
“Those are for repairing Caterpillar treads. They’re patented. We sell them literally all over the world.”
Another impressive example of diversification is the work HER landed a decade or so ago for Syncrude, the oilsands giant in Fort McMurray. That has grown into a multi-million dollar contract refurbishing valves and making and repairing other steel components.
Similar stuff goes on for all the forest products mills in Slave Lake, plus others in High Prairie, Peace River and elsewhere. HER has got any number of machines for manipulating steel into whatever shape, size and design specifications required by the customer. Some of it is done by computer-controlled equipment; some even by robots.
Equipment repair and industrial parts are other important parts of the business.
Gehrling says he has over $4 million in stock. And of course the truck repair part of the business – where it all started – continues as always.
As noted, it started out very small and has grown and continues to. Originally from Brandon Manitoba, Gehrling began in business as a service truck operator, on the road repairing heavy equipment. He and his wife Barbara moved first to Saskatchewan as he plied that trade and then in ’82 to Slave Lake. His first job here was as a mechanic for Gilliat Motors. When it went out of business he opened his first truck repair shop.
“It had no heat and three lightbulbs,” he says. “We heated with firewood. We had an eight by 10 parts trailer in the yard.”
It was small stuff, but companies such as Carwald, Seguins, Lindsay, Marcel’s and Slave Lake Specialties had lots of work for him, and it grew. After a couple of years he was able to rent a bigger and better shop from Daryl Schueller, more or less where the current operation is. Since then it’s been a matter of constant diversification and gradual expansion.
One recent example of being in the right place at the right time with the right expertise is what HER was able to do for Valard, the company putting in a big powerline near Slave Lake.
“We provided them with parts, service, welding and machining, 24/7,” Gehrling says, adding Valard is “an exceptional company to work for.”
Heavy Equipment Repair itself is a pretty good outfit to work for. Gehrling says people tend to come looking for work these days, rather than him having to scour the country for qualified people. The status of the company in the community was recognized in the Chamber awards on March 9. HER won the Industrial Business of the Year award. It was cited for its knowledgeable and extremely helpful staff. In the words of one of the nominators, “I’ve always been impressed with their selection of parts and the willingness to help. Whatever they are doing for employee training and development, keep it up.”
Whatever it is – it seems to be working.
Gehrling again praises his people.
“They’re willing to change and grow,” he says. “We’ve got a good mix of young and older staff, and a strong management team. They’re very good people.”