Roads & Paving
From operator to entrepreneur
Family-run business on the rise in rural Manitoba
By Andrew Snook
Small rural communities across Canada offer many wonderful advantages from the hustle and bustle of large urban areas – amazing scenery, clean air, beautiful night skies and bountiful wildlife, to name a few.
That said, employment opportunities that meet one’s needs can be a challenge to find in more remote areas, so it sometimes takes a hard-working entrepreneurial spirit to carve out a chosen career path. Just ask Rueben Wohlgemuth, owner of South Mountain Enterprises.
Wohlgemuth resides in Pine River, Man., a community with a total population of a little over 100 people within the Regional Municipality of Mountain, located more than 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg and a little over an hour’s drive from the Saskatchewan border. A little over two years ago, Wohlgemuth was working as a grader operator for a local contractor that had won a tender to maintain and service roads within Mountain. The contractor decided they wanted to sell the contract and Wohlgemuth saw it as an opportunity to branch out on his own – he had been working for the contractor for about two-and-a-half years; and about 10 years total in the industry as an equipment operator and safety rep. This is his how South Mountain Enterprises became a player in the Mountain area for backhoe and motor grader work, as well as landscaping and drainage consultations.
Armed with a John Deere 870G motor grader, a 310SK backhoe loader and an International single-axle truck for hauling gravel, Wohlgemuth services the southern region of Mountain, one of two regions within the municipality.
“The regional municipality doesn’t want to buy equipment, build a shop and get staff to maintain the equipment,” Wohlgemuth explains during an interview at his home office in Pine River. “For me it works out pretty well. They don’t have to hire anybody and I can run relatively cheap compared to them running their own [operation].”
He uses a lease-to-own equipment program for his equipment through Lease Plus Financial out of Calgary, Alta.
“I have been buying equipment from Brandt Tractor. They’re closest dealership is in Swan River, Man.,” Wohlgemuth explains. “I get great service there. I don’t do much of the repair work myself; I don’t have the time for that. I call them and they send mechanics. I also use a local mechanic, Perih Heavy Duty – best mechanic in the country.”
Wohlgemuth’s maintenance and servicing of Mountain’s roads includes ploughing the roads in the winter, which can be a challenge.
“That can be a tough one, you never know how much snow you’ll get,” Wohlgemuth says, adding that it can take two-and-half long days to clean up a snowfall.
His role with the municipality also offers some unique challenges.
“We have a lot beaver activity out here – they plug the culverts. So to get the beaver dams out, I take in the backhoe to remove them. It sometimes takes innovative ways of trying to remove the beaver dam in the culverts,” Wohlgemuth says. “They can plug a culvert in just hours if you don’t use some kind of deterrent.”
Shifting from the role of employee to employer and owner of his own company has been a welcome change for Wohlgemuth. That said, he enjoyed working for his former employers.
“As an employee I enjoyed learning new equipment and operating it efficiently,” he says. “I enjoyed being a safety rep, I got into COR Certification (The Certificate of Recognition program in Manitoba used as accreditation to verify companies have implemented a comprehensive health and safety program).”
As much as Wohlgemuth enjoyed his work, it required that he be on the road for long durations of time – not a practical scenario for a married man with five small children. “I was working away from home too much so I left to work back home. I really enjoy working for this municipality,” he says.
Wohlgemuth currently employs some part-time equipment operators, but is looking to add some full-time employees sometime in the future. He recently completed an on-site water and wastewater management course at Red River College and is looking to expand his business to offer services installing septic systems. His biggest challenges expanding his operation, like with many smaller operators, are time and money. That said, he doesn’t plan on letting those challenges hold him back.
“I’m looking to specialize in work that the other guys aren’t doing. There are also lots of other contractors that will shutting down in the next five years.” he says, adding that he wants to get involved in larger excavations, but says finding employees that will hold South Mountain Enterprises’ standard will be a challenge. “It seems like in this business, like many other businesses, word of mouth is the best advertisement,” he says. “I’m proud of what I do.”
With this one-man army already offering land levelling, driveway construction and repairs, private road construction and maintenance, drainage ditches, snow removal, landscaping services, basement excavations, and many other services, Wohlgemuth’s hard work and perseverance will likely result in the continued successful growth of South Mountain Enterprises well into the future.