Piling Canada

 Masters of the Pivot

Reliable Welding Services' ability to adapt to the sudden ebbs and flows of industry ensures their clients can rely on them
Written by Bilal Rana
December 2019

Reliable Welding Services’ ability to adapt to the sudden ebbs and flows of industry ensures their clients can rely on them

By Bilal Rana

Rick Morawski started his business as a construction company in 1978. Forty years later, fueled by a unique blend of optimism, versatility and grit, he’s still in business.

Morawski’s first major test as an entrepreneur happened in the early 1980s. The National Energy Program brought major construction projects to a halt. At the same time, interest rates hovered between 24 to 27 per cent.

Morawski knew he had to adapt. So, in 1985 he expanded the scope of his business offerings to include welding projects.

Morawski partnered with Rudy Gruger. While Gruger ran the welding shop, Morawski focused on growing the business. Things continued on that trajectory for 15 years.

The fleet-footedness Morawski exhibited in the mid-’80s served both himself and Gruger well and continues to inform the rest of their joint careers. “That versatility, we both have it,” said Morawski.

In 2000, Reliable pivoted once again to capitalize on Canada’s flourishing energy sector.

Having changed the company name from Reliable Excavating to Reliable Welding Services, the business partners built a shop on a five-acre property in Nisku, Alta. Morawski and Gruger got out of the construction business and pivoted to focus exclusively on welding projects for energy sector clients.

The downturn

At its peak, Reliable Welding Services had 42 employees and the business was thriving. They built drill rig components for the energy sector, as well as floc tanks, dog houses and mud tanks. Reliable Welding clients were among the best-known firms in the Canadian energy sector.

However, that all came to an abrupt end when oil prices plummeted in 2014. It seemed as though every other week a different energy company was declaring bankruptcy. Reliable Welding clients either couldn’t, or simply wouldn’t, pay their accounts. Seemingly overnight, the work dried up.

During the energy boom, Reliable Welding achieved annual sales in excess of $5 million. After the downturn, annual sales contracted to just over $1.5 million.

Reliable Welding’s 42-person staff was cut to a skeleton crew of six, and according to Morawski, “They were mostly sweeping floors.”

Describing how they broke the difficult news of job cuts to staff, Morawski claims that he and Gruger always strived to be frank and matter of fact with their team. They told staff, “We’re going to do our best to keep you employed. But you also have to work with us.”

They were equally candid with anyone they owed money to. They met with the banks and explained their circumstances. They were forthright, saying to the banks, “If you push the panic button, you’ll sink the ship and get nothing.” They tried to persuade lenders that, “everyone had to work together, including the banks.”

“We didn’t hide,” Morawski said, “no matter how much we owed.”

Asked if they were ever tempted to walk away and follow in the footsteps of their energy sector clients, Morawski said that they had the benefit of historical perspective. “We’d been here before in the ‘80s with the National Energy Program. Besides, I think that entrepreneurs are all optimists anyhow.”

The rise up

When their energy sector clients closed shop, Reliable’s management decided that they couldn’t afford to wait around for the industry to recover. The Reliable Welding team knew that drastic measures were called for.

They had dabbled previously in building piling products. “Before the downturn, about two per cent of our work was making piles.”

They decided to abandon making drill rig components altogether and to simultaneously ramp up manufacturing of piling products. They chose to steer Reliable Welding towards the infrastructure side of things.

One of the first things they did was sit with a consulting company. “They encouraged us to really develop our website to showcase our new product lineup,” said Morawski, “They helped us understand that we had key selling features that we didn’t realize we had.” These unique strengths included “our five-acre property and our very large loaders. The consulting firm helped us realize that we were well suited to taking on the manufacturing of larger foundation products.”

Reliable Welding could leverage both its large loaders and the storage capacity of the large yard in Nisku.

“We can handle bigger pipe. We can handle 30-inch pipe, with one-inch walls, up to 80 feet long. We have loaders that can carry that.”

A major part of Reliable Welding’s transition involved sourcing new clients. Initially, Reliable’s management sought out one major client at a time. “We hunted for that business,” Morawski said. “We started with one and worked up.”

Morawski concedes that there was a bit of a learning curve his team had to negotiate at first. “It took us a good year-and-a-half to two years to fully ramp up,” he said.

Fortunately for Morawski and Gruger, Reliable Welding didn’t have to do too much on the research and development side; their clients specified what they wanted.

When clients want something specialized, say, a custom drive shoe, “we’d sit down together and work out something on a napkin. We’d then work with the client and the engineers we contract out until we got it right.” Morawski and Gruger’s can-do attitude has undergirded all their efforts at Reliable Welding, and they have been well served by it.

Their larger clients also helped source material quantities that Reliable may not have otherwise been able to obtain on their own.

From the outset of Reliable Welding’s foray into deep foundation products, Morawski and Gruger consciously cultivated highly collaborative working relationships with both their clients and suppliers.

They also set out to purposefully operate in their own lane. They reached out to other firms operating in the piling space and signalled as clearly as they could that Reliable Welding doesn’t want to operate on the installation side at all. “We made a conscious decision not to venture into installation. We only want to manufacture.”

Looking forward

Prior to the Canadian oil industry’s downturn in 2014, piling products comprised only a small fraction of Reliable Welding’s product offerings. Today, piling products account for 90 per cent of the company’s output.

Driven pile products account for most of the company’s present success, but Reliable also manufactures helical piles and sheet pile products.

“We work with a lot of pipe suppliers these days,” said Morawski. “We do a lot of splicing work, making 40-foot-long pipes into 80-foot-long pipes. A lot of large plants, gas plants, production facilities and port projects require those depths.”

While Reliable Welding clients are exclusively Canadian, Morawski and Gruger have nevertheless shipped products all over the globe. “We’ve shipped to Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Dubai. We ship worldwide.”

Reliable Welding sales are slowly recovering to pre-downturn levels. Still, Morawski admitted, “We didn’t think it would take five years to do it.”

For now, Morawski and Gruger plan on growing the company. They’re aiming to double sales in the next five years. “It’s doable,” Morawski said in a tone that is at once both confident and optimistic. “Our facility is certainly large enough to accommodate that growth. If we’re not running three consecutive shifts, then there’s room to grow. And we’re always looking for ways to optimize.”

Reliable Welding’s staff complement is also steadily increasing. There are currently 25 employees. “Many employees that left Reliable Welding during the downturn have now returned and we’re very proud of our staff,” said Morawski.

Explaining their management style, Morawski said, “We don’t have a devoted HR person. We just try to treat people right.”

Morawski and Gruger strive to be as open as possible with their team. “We come into the lunchroom. We walk the yard every day. They see us. We try to give our staff the right tools to do the job. If we see someone not doing something correctly, we ask ourselves if we gave that employee the right information or the right tools to do what they’re supposed to.”

They must be doing something right. Reliable Welding’s longest serving employee has been on the team for 36 years.

Morawski claims that they’ll be growing the company for the next five years at least. They’re presently in the process of acquiring a firm to bolster Reliable Welding’s screw pile manufacturing capacity. They are also actively exploring opening a plant outside of Alberta and are investigating potentially suitable locations.

Reliable Welding also just opened a satellite office in Alliston, Ont., in an effort to source more work from Eastern Canada.

Speaking with Morawski, one certainly gets the impression that the Reliable Welding team is certainly gearing up for something. “The economy will pick up again,” he said, “When it does, we plan on being ready.” 🍁

Category: Profile

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