Q. How did you get started in the machine tool business?
I grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo. When I was young my father worked for a company selling carbide cutting tools, abrasives, and other consumable supplies. After a failed attempt in his own manufacturing business, he landed back at a job calling on old customers, only this time selling used machinery. In high school I remember him telling me how much he loved it. After school when faced with going to university I decided to take a year off, and wound up travelling and working at a warehouse job. During this time I became increasingly interested in Alberta because we kept hearing about the opportunities here. When I decided that going west would be my next adventure, my dad asked me if I would be interested in calling on machine shops and asking what equipment they were looking for. That was in the summer of 1980, and that’s how I got started.
Q. When did you decide to start your own business?
The Ontario company I came west with struggled during the economic challenges of the early 1980’s, so in 1982 I joined a local Edmonton company, Wessel Machinery. Henry Wessel had developed a successful business importing used equipment from Germany. He would go on buying trips for two and three weeks at a time. He’d fax descriptions of the machines he’d found and I would try pre-selling them. The best used machines were always in good condition from reputable builders. As long as they were priced right there were buyers and it was fun!
In 1985 things were tight and there was no end to good buying opportunities. Henry Wessel invited me to throw some cash in the ring and partner with him on specific machines. These joint venture deals were the beginning of BFG Machine Tools. Four years later Henry Wessel dissolved Wessel Machinery and retired to Vancouver Island. I found myself again at a crossroads and pretty quickly decided to continue in the career path I had come to know. So in 1989 I committed myself to working full-time in BFG. The following year we incorporated and moved into this very building we are still in, which incidentally is also where Wessel Machinery operated from since 1983! In fact I’m even still in the same office!
Q. What was your original vision for BFG?
That’s an interesting question. That was a long time ago. I don’t remember really having a vision in the beginning. I just tried to make deals and keep things going. I did everything by myself for the first couple of years. Then I hired a salesman but it soon became clear that I needed office support, so my brother-in-law came on. I definitely wanted the business to grow, but I still don’t think at that time I had a picture of what it could become. In 1992 I was approached by Monarch (Machine Tool Company) and asked to represent them for new CNC Lathes, VTL’s, and VMC’s. That was my first experience selling new equipment, and they certainly taught me a lot. By 1998 we employed about a dozen people in sales and service, and represented a variety of new equipment lines. I suppose it was then that I began to see what could be possible for BFG.
Q. Who were your mentors in the early years?
That’s a great question. Mentorship has been very important in my life. The most important mentors in my 20’s and 30’s, whether they knew it or not, were: Henry (Wessel); Tommy Hallett of Argus Machine; and Wally Kuchar of Tri-Service Oilfield Manufacturing. And of course my own father who is still in Kitchener and will turn 84 on October 18th. There were many others too that helped me along the way that I owe a great gratitude of thanks for.
Q. How have you seen the machine tool industry change over the years?
Well the manufacturing industry has changed. But it’s interesting to consider whether those changes have been driven by advances in machine tool technology, or because industry demanded different products? I think the answer is both. When I started, 99 percent of machining operations were done on traditional “conventional” machines – drills, mills, lathes and grinders. NC controlled machine tools were brand new. Programmable positioning of toolslides, variable speed spindles – these things were all new. And memory was in its infancy. There were no cell phones or even fax machines. We used land lines and telex machines. We were only beginning to grasp the difference between hardware and software. Polaroid cameras, measuring tapes, pens and paper were our tools of the trade. As the late seventies and early eighty’s unfolded, NC point to point controls gave way to multi-axis simultaneous cutting paths. And the days of duplex mills and “automatics” single and multi-spindle bar and chucking machines with cam actuated slides and pegboard controls were dead! Industry no longer wanted batch part production in the thousands. Quantity sizes shrunk now that there was a way to efficiently produce smaller orders. And conversely smaller piece-counts meant companies had to invest in more efficient equipment, or they would soon be out of business. The exact same principles hold true today. Technology evolves to make possible the production of better components at lower costs. Whether it be faster processing times, less manual intervention, different materials, or better quality controls, higher throughput equals lower cost, and lower cost equals competitive advantage. Therefore new technology equals competitive advantage! The manufacturing industry must continually be investing in new technologies or it will find itself on the outside looking in. I used to have a poster on my wall that says: “The machine you thought you could not afford, winds up on your neighbour’s floor and you pay for it anyway through profits lost to him!” I have seen this to be true!
Q. What are the biggest obstacles your industry faces?
Over-competition. There are too many machine tool builders from too many countries all trying to get their little piece of business in Canada. And there are too many dealers representing too many product lines in small and in some cases shrinking markets. Finding good people. It has always been extremely difficult to find quality, experienced sales and service representatives. Economic instability. Economic uncertainty weakens confidence, resulting in contraction of credit and swings of capital investment. We like green-light economies!
Q. What are the keys for future success in the machine tool industry?
There are many good machine tool builders out there today. While innovation is important, machine tool and control technology is pretty widely understood. There are very few secrets. What sets these companies apart is their corporate leadership. Executive and management teams that insist on producing quality products in a timely manner, and back them up with expert technical and engineering support will succeed.
On the local level, a strong in-house, fully staffed customer service department is essential. All trades must be covered – mechanical; electrical; electronics; and applications. They should also have crews for rigging and installations. The successful local dealer employs skilled technicians who understand that positive customer experiences mean everything. Total customer service must exceed expectations.
Local dealers must also promote new technologies. They must be well capitalized. And they must represent machine tool builders with excellent reputations. And finally they must be friendly and approachable at all times!
Q. How is BFG positioned for future success?
I think well. The companies we represent are stable and well established. We have identified ourselves with them for many years now. The products we offer are well received, and for the most part our customers are very happy. We have an established customer base in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and in recent years have extended our reach into BC; Ontario, and Quebec.
We are essentially now a second generation business. We have 17 young men and women employed in our Edmonton office, more than any of our competitors. We have 7 Service Techs, 4 Sales Consultants, 2 in Marketing and Sales Support, and 4 in Operations, Administration, and Finance. Our average age is around 33, which is coincidentally the number of years I have personally been involved in this crazy business.
On the CNC control side we service Fanuc; Siemens; Mitsubishi; and Fagor. We are continually discovering and introducing new technologies such as Accurapuls Peening Systems. We also offer training; automation consulting; turnkey engineering; and we are committed to Service First!
Finally we are locally owned and have the largest parts and new machine inventory in Western Canada! I think we are in good shape to serve our customer needs in the future.