As the boom continues in Western Canada’s mining and oil and gas sectors, new opportunities are emerging for nimble Canadian companies that are able to keep pace with the growing demands of industry. Whether it’s the oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alta., or the mining sector in northern Canada, the frenzy of development is creating a huge demand for skilled workers. According to a report by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada, Oil Sands Labour Market Outlook to 2021, Alberta’s oil sands is projected to grow its workforce by an astonishing 73 per cent by the year 2021.
Finding these workers is one thing, but moving them and all of their necessities of life to a remote location is yet another. Skilled workers are in short supply, and it’s an employees’ market. Accepting a job up north no longer means disappearing into the bush for a six-month stretch. To attract and retain good employees, companies must offer previously unheard-of perks: modern accommodations, good food, entertainment, and fast, reliable transport to and from work. In response to this last need, the natural resources sector has adopted a new method of workforce transport, known as the fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) model.
Although some large exploration and development companies have established their own airstrips at remote locations, few of them are interested in overseeing the day-to-day logistics behind workforce movement. Market changes – including the boom in the oil and gas and mining industries, the unprecedented need for skilled workers, and the adoption of the FIFO workforce movement model – have created exciting opportunities for companies such as Executive Flight Centre Fuel Services Ltd. (EFC).
EFC traces its roots back to 1946, to a fixed-base operation (FBO) in Calgary, Alta. In the early 1970s, it was purchased by Peter Bawden, an oil man who acquired a group of aviation-related companies, among them a commercial air charter service, a flying school and three leasing companies.
In 1978, Ken Lett – an aviation icon who flew Spitfires for the RCAF in World War II, later climbing to the rank of Major General while serving as the Deputy Chief of operations for NORAD – came to Calgary to manage Peter Bawden’s aviation assets after his death.
Several years later, in 1991, Lett got together with three other partners and purchased the company. After some years as an FBO, the group decided to focus on refuelling operations in Calgary.
Ever since then, we’ve had a goal to bring aviation fuel to all sectors of the market, explained Lett’s business partner and company president, Dean Buckland. As the business has grown, we’ve decided to offer other services around selling fuel. We basically have three different business channels: the fuelling side; an airport management division; and our EFC Developments arm.
Buckland likens the EFC business model to that of a gas station that not only sells fuel, but also provides a host of related services. The company’s repertoire includes FBO operations, fuel delivery, fuel storage, drum shipments, airport management services, ground handling, and the construction and operation of industrial charter terminals. Today, EFC operates 10 bases in Western Canada, with nine affiliated dealer locations. The company delivers bulk fuel to more than 100 airports throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.
EFC also specializes in providing airport management services. Its onsite staff members have been running the private Fort MacKay/Firebag aerodrome in northern Alberta for energy giant Suncor since June 2010. We have proven with Firebag that we can do everything at the airport, said Buckland. Snow removal, landscaping, fuelling, ground handling, radio operation, check-in and terminal operations – we do it all.
The newest division of the company is EFC Developments, which is responsible for the establishment of on-airport facilities. It owns buildings at three airports in Western Canada, and leases them out to customers. EFC Developments is also involved in hangar construction, with a team of five staff members devoted to this arm of the company.
As the mining and resources sectors exploded and the FIFO model was increasingly adopted, EFC management recognized new opportunities emerging in the areas of airport management and ground handling services. Over the past five to 10 years, the company has expanded rapidly in order to serve the growing demands of industry.
Joel Gibbs, EFC director, sales and marketing, quantified the growth. In 2009, we had about 67 employees. In January, we were just over 300.
While the company’s explosive growth is welcome, this expansion brings its own set of special challenges.
Wayne Smook, EFC’s senior vice president of airport services, summed it up this way: Certainly, the first challenge is the growth itself. We’re responding to changes in the industry where some of the major oil companies are getting out of FBO operations, and we’re trying to fill in the void after those companies leave some of these sites.
Smook, a 30-year veteran in airport management, said the FIFO model has had a huge impact on EFC’s business. One of its fastest-growing business streams is the emerging industrial charter terminal and facility market.
We move a lot of people on behalf of oil companies and mining companies and air carriers, to and from sites, said Smook. There are many projects planned in northern B.C., the Arctic, and in the oil sands. It’s about responding to the needs of these companies, and moving the workforces back and forth multiple times throughout the year. Often these projects are on the books for years, and then the market changes; the time is right, and these companies pull the trigger on these major projects. All of a sudden, they need to move workforces back and forth.
EFC operates industrial charter terminals in Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, and for Suncor at Fort MacKay/Firebag. The company doesn’t operate the aircraft that transport workers, but it does provide all aerodrome support services.
This FIFO model has really been developed in the last seven years, and we’ve really grown with it, said Gibbs. We’ve been doing this for five years, and we’re continuing to improve our operation to increase efficiencies. These major companies are seeing that there’s a lot of benefit to flying workers in and out. It’s easier to attract staff; it’s hard to get people who want to live in remote areas indefinitely. There are a lot of advantages to this model.
Over the last few years, some major oil and mining companies have gotten out of the airport business, preferring instead to focus on what they do best; namely, oilfield development or mining. As they pull out, EFC can fill the void they leave behind. Smook added that changes at Transport Canada (TC) in recent years – including downsizing and the transfer of certain responsibilities to airports – have allowed private companies such as EFC to assume more extensive airport management, inspection and audit duties.
These big companies are looking for someone to bring in all the expertise surrounding setting up the airport, bringing the fuel, ground handling, and the terminal check-in, and we have that expertise, added Buckland. It becomes like a one-stop shop for them.
Its ability to be a one-stop shop is what sets EFC apart from its competition. The company’s senior management team has a combined portfolio of expertise that covers the full scope of fuelling, airport and related ground handling operations.
As well, Buckland said EFC benefits from being a responsive, privately-run organization. In the fuelling business, we compete against the major oil companies, he explained. Our advantage is that we’re nimble enough in the marketplace to take advantage of opportunities that pop up. The large oil companies are starting to rationalize their markets, and that is opening up opportunities for us to expand into other locations.
Smook thinks there’s even a case for municipal airports to use EFC’s airport management services. As TC steps back a bit, we’re able to help airports with some of their regulatory requirements, he said. Smaller facilities are not gold mines; they’re more like coal mines. We can go in there with fuel, look after the airport, aircraft de-icing, baggage handling, check-in, VIP service. We do it all.
Recently, EFC Developments got the green light for a significant project – the construction of another terminal in Edmonton. The $5 million, 15,000-square-foot terminal will house EFC Fuel Services and will provide industrial charter space for oil sands and mining companies that want to move passengers back and forth to remote sites.
As well, Calgary International Airport will be the site of EFC’s largest single-building operation yet. The company announced in late March that it had secured a parcel of land from the airport, adjacent to the existing control tower (which will be decommissioned once Nav Canada completes construction of the new replacement). EFC expects to break ground for a huge multi-use complex this summer, with the 280,000-sqft charter terminal/hangar complex ready for operation in the fall of 2015.
Gibbs said negotiations for the land had been ongoing for six to eight months before approval was granted. We currently operate a departure terminal at Calgary from a rented facility, which we might retain, so we can run separate sections of our business through different buildings, he said. The multi-use charter terminal will attract industrial charter companies and eventually acquire tenants who will take possession of the hangar space, and run their customers through the terminal.
He added that the model will be similar to what EFC is already doing in Edmonton, where it provides all ground support, hangar storage and office space for Canadian North, the primary tenant in one of three terminal buildings owned by EFC.
These industrial charter terminals that we’re designing and building for this FIFO program are specific-use terminals, added Smook. These facilities are set up to turn passengers quickly. We’ll turn an airplane in 20 minutes. There is parking attached to the facility, so workers can leave their cars there long term while they’re away. The time they spend in the terminal is very short. The whole goal is to get the worker up to the site as quickly as possible.
Buckland said there’s still a lot of work and opportunities in the West, and Smook estimated that with EFC’s projected business over the next five years, the company may find itself employing as many as 500 people in the next few years.
And therein lies another challenge, added Buckland. We have to find good, capable experienced staff to make our rapid growth possible. We’re developing programs in remote locations, including housing and our own FIFO programs, to get workers up to specific bases, he said. I think that companies today have to really look at their human resources side, and focus on meeting the needs of the workers, and setting themselves up so they can attract good, qualified people.
Executive Flight Centre has found tremendous success through its willingness to change with the times, adapting its business model to suit the present-day requirements of industry while forging ahead to meet the needs of tomorrow. Smook summed it up well: We have a can-do attitude. We’re not scared to try anything. We may not do something today, but we absolutely could do it tomorrow.