Seeing the Forest and the Trees
When the forestry industry faltered, Davis McGregor found opportunity in a new sector
#22 on the Fast Growth 50
Mobile Data Technologies
Head Office: Acheson
Industry: Manufacturing & Distribution
2012 gross annual sales: $5,018,879
2011 gross annual sales: $1,578,405
Photograph Ryan Girard
When Davis McGregor left his management job at Weyerhaeuser after more than a decade with the company, he had no intention of leaving the forestry industry entirely. So how did he end up as the CEO of Mobile Data Technologies, a business that builds industrial software and hardware for oil and gas service companies? He just wanted to have some fun. “I woke up one day, I was the maintenance superintendent at the Drayton Valley facility and I was no longer having any fun. It was time to make a change,” he says. McGregor founded his own engineering and project-management company, which consulted for the forestry industry – in fact, his first job was a one-year contract with the company he’d just left.
When McGregor’s company, MD Engineering, brought on Jesse Duncan as a partner in 2008, it shifted in a new direction. Duncan helped the company develop products that it could sell to sawmills (in addition to engineering services) that included automation software and hardware. The timing, however, couldn’t have been much worse. Shortly after Duncan joined the company the global recession hit, an event that made it difficult to find buyers for the software. “I remember going on a sales trip with Jesse to sell these products to sawmills in northern Alberta, and coming into some of the mills and having them tell us, ‘Sorry guys, that looks like a great product, but we’re closing permanently in two weeks,’ ” McGregor says. “It wasn’t a very good market to be in.”
They did, however, get one unexpected client. An oil and gas service company saw the work that MD Engineering had been doing in sawmills, and wanted help developing a new monitoring system for their pressure trucks. McGregor and his team built the system in their garages, and installed it in 2009. The client was thrilled with the new system, which was much simpler than what it had been using previously, and included a remote access feature. That allowed the team to do remote updates and troubleshooting, saving the expense and time of travelling to the site to work on it. The positive reviews gave McGregor and Duncan an idea. “We decided, ‘Maybe there’s an opportunity here. Why don’t we work with the guys who are building the brand new service equipment?’ ”
They started selling the systems part time, and, at the end of 2009, after selling 11 of them, Duncan and McGregor figured they were onto something and launched Mobile Data Technologies.
They were right. Less than a year later, after hiring a small sales team that included current vice-president of sales and marketing Blair Thornhill, they sold seven systems in a single month. Just three months later in November, Mobile Data Technologies broke that record by selling 11 systems in a single day. “It was just unbelievable,” says McGregor. The company has seen rapid growth since then, too, with annual sales jumping from $310,934 in 2010 to $5 million in 2012.
McGregor says the growth has created some challenges, especially because the company’s product-based business is much different than that of a consulting company. “In an engineering firm, you didn’t need to worry about cash flow management. We didn’t have employees, we didn’t have inventory. But when I got into a manufacturing company, well, now I have employees. I have to make payroll. I have inventory, where I have to pay suppliers, and I have customers that may or may not pay us on time. That, we learned through the school of knocks. We fell flat on our face quite a few times.” McGregor says they’ve since worked out the kinks and that the effort was worth it. “When you get a customer and their eyes light up when they look at what you’ve created, that’s probably the single most satisfactory part of what we’ve done.”