A Balanced Approach
Biloski Bros. Sand and Gravel achieves success by finding its niche.
By Andrew Macklin
In booming infrastructure markets across Canada, small and medium sized
operations sometimes struggle to find market share as the biggest
players in our industry flock to the scene to take over major projects.
In booming infrastructure markets across Canada, small and medium sized operations sometimes struggle to find market share as the biggest players in our industry flock to the scene to take over major projects. But despite the ups and downs of infrastructure projects in Thunder Bay, Ont., Biloski Bros. Sand and Gravel Ltd. continues to be a major player in the creation of northern infrastructure despite having a modest 12-15-employee operation.
|Sand and gravel deposits at Biloski’s two gravel pits are only excavated during downtime, allowing the company to maximize the productivity of its workforce.|
Established in modern-day Thunder Bay (Fort William and Port Arthur amalgamated in 1970 to form Thunder Bay) in 1947, Biloski Bros. Sand and Gravel is a family operation currently being run by Scott and Jason Biloski, the third generation of the family to take the helm of the business. Five brothers (Stanley, John, Edward, Edwin and Albert) originally started Biloski Bros. shortly after the Second World War, providing granular products and contracting services in Port Arthur, Fort William, and nearby municipalities. Edward’s son, Edward, along with his wife Susan, would take over as the second generation of the company before Scott and Jason, sons of Edward Jr., eventually took over just a few years ago.
Finding Its Niche
Two major factors have allowed three generations of Biloskis to remain in business in Thunder Bay: strong employees and a stronger reputation.
|When Biloski Bros. needs crushing work done, it relies on rented equipment from Gilbertson Enterprises, located over 750 kilometres away on the southeast shore of Lake Superior. |
“The quality of the work we have done has allowed us to build a strong reputation,” says Scott Biloski, who acts as operations manager for the company. “The quality of our employees and the commitment of myself, Jason and of course, our family, have allowed us to do very good work in this area and, as a result, we have been able to continuously find work.”
Part of building that reputation has been finding areas of expertise that Biloski Bros. can be relied on for. That work has included site prep for roadbuilding projects and supplying aggregates that meet or exceed quality control specifications. Those core services have become a strong foundation for the company, in part, because of the materials the company have been able to use, and in part because of the workers’ familiarity with those products.
Scott’s expertise has led Biloski Bros. to be involved in several significant building projects in the Thunder Bay area in the commercial, industrial and government sectors. Biloski Bros. staff and aggregate supplies were heavily involved in the construction of the Thunder Bay International Airport Solar Park. Biloski Bros. was involved in work on the expansive roadways leading to and through the park, excavation of the property and site preparation as well as drainage of the site. The resulting 8.5-megawatt solar farm, completed in October 2011, is now providing enough green energy for 15,000 homes and was recognized as one of the top solar projects in North America earlier this year.
In addition to its work in providing aggregates for local building projects, the company is used for roadbuilding and road preparation projects. Part of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s Northern Highways Program has involved four-laning sections of Highway 11/17 in the Thunder Bay area. That portion of the Trans-Canada Highway enters Thunder Bay from the north, around Lake Superior, and exits the city in the west end, separately heading towards Atikokan and Dryden, and providing a major corridor in northern Ontario. Biloski Bros. was there providing equipment rentals to get the job done as well as on-site hauling.
Over this past 2012 season, Biloski Bros. spent the entire season rebuilding roads and working on secondary road reconstruction projects in areas around Thunder Bay. “After the flooding in the spring in the Thunder Bay area, there were a lot of roads that needed repairs as well as roads already phased in for reconstruction,’’ adds Michelle McRae, the company’s contract administrator. The company also hauled aggregates to a nearby mine on a regular basis and carried out everyday hauling of private and commercial orders.
Effective Use of Equipment Resources
One of the biggest challenges facing small to medium-sized operators continues to be the difficulty in purchasing machinery when needed. The cost of purchasing equipment can be a challenge for any operation, but that task is made even more difficult in a market as volatile as Thunder Bay.
|The Thunder Bay International Airport Solar Park. Biloski Bros. was involved in work on the expansive roadways leading to and through the park, excavation of the property and site preparation as well as drainage of the site.|
“We have to get the most out of our machinery,” says Scott Biloski. “That means making sure that we take good care of everything we own, and making sure we properly clean and maintain our machines.”
That’s exactly what Biloski has done with its fleet. When not in use, the equipment can be found sparkling at their maintenance facility, where cleaning and repairs take place. That fleet includes Cat excavators purchased from the local Toromont dealership in Thunder Bay, as well as John Deere and Komatsu WA250PT wheel loaders. It also includes Western Star trucks with King trailers, used to transport their aggregate resources to their job sites as well as to customers throughout the region.
“We need to get as much out of our equipment as possible,” says Scott Biloski. “The only way that happens is if we take care of our machines. It is also important for equipment to run properly while doing a job. Breakdowns mean down time and that can lead to other costs no one wants. It is important to us to finish a job when we say we will complete it, and not have to give excuses about machines or equipment breaking down. Things do happen but we try our best to maintain all the equipment so it runs as expected, when expected.’’
As the company is obviously hauling aggregates or machines of some form on a daily basis and travelling up and down highways, secondary roads and city roads, McRae, also acting as the Health & Safety co-ordinator, developed a driver training program specifically geared towards tri-axles and tractor trailers. As an instructor, she brings her expertise to the company to ensure their drivers safely operate whether they are building new roads, hauling aggregates or hauling heavy freight on infrastructure already in place. “An important part of quality is quality control, and that’s where driver training comes in. We need to ensure drivers are not putting themselves or others at risk, or equipment, or property. We need to ensure everyone, everywhere, returns home to their loved ones every day. If our drivers cannot properly operate the equipment, then we are not offering quality. And quality, is our middle name,’’ notes McRae.
One piece of equipment Biloski Bros. doesn’t worry about is crushing equipment. Financially, the cost of ownership of crushing equipment for their two gravel pits is much higher than the cost of renting equipment based on annual production. As a result, Biloski Bros. relies on Gilbertson Enterprises of Richard’s Landing, Ont., to provide rental equipment to meet the company’s crushing needs. Gilbertson is Biloski Bros.’ best option despite the fact that Richard’s Landing is almost 750 kilometres away on the southeast corner of Lake Superior.
“There aren’t a lot of rental options available in northern Ontario,” says Scott Biloski. “Gilbertson has proven to be both reliable and cost-effective for meeting our needs for crushing equipment.”
The flexibility offered by Gilbertson is a big reason Biloski Bros. rents its crushing equipment from the company. In order to create efficiencies within their operation, aggregate crushing and pit work is used as downtime work in between major contracts. That allows workers to always have tasks to do even when site work is not available. And based on the amount of aggregate they both use and sell each year, the company has used the system very effectively. Also, renting the equipment means that current staff doesn’t need to be trained, or new staff hired, in order to run the crushing equipment. Machine operators instead continue to work on the excavators and wheel loaders necessary as part of the crushing operation.
Those multi-use equipment operators are very important as part of the Biloski Bros. operation. As a company providing general contracting services, highly skilled wheel loader and excavator operators are vital to its operation. They also become experts in the properties of their aggregate supply, which allows them to provide a valuable knowledge base on the job sites.
But diversifying assets doesn’t just mean hiring staff with multiple skill sets, or owning equipment that can work on several different job sites. It also means seeking new opportunities for income streams, something that Scott Biloski is always looking for, and has already taken advantage of.
“We are always looking for new opportunities to stabilize our income,” says Scott Biloski. We recently added a self-storage facility on the extra land of our office property in order to provide a secondary income that is pretty consistent.”
It’s diversification, and a strong reputation built on a solid work ethic, that has helped Biloski Bros. continue to be a profitable operation in an area more and more large Canadian aggregate and roadbuilding companies are targeting for growth. For Biloski Bros., the quality of the company’s work should allow for a fourth generation to continue the family tradition.