Western Camp Services brings at-home comfort to oil sands employees in the Peace Country
President Menno Admiraal says the partnership that forged his company was equal parts luck and fate
by Alix Kemp
#21 on the Fast Growth 50
Western Camp Services
Head Office: Edmonton
Industry: Resource Industries (Oil & Gas)
2011 gross annual sales: $43,500,000
2010 gross annual sales: $20,055,242
Photograph Ryan Girard
If you ask Western Camp Services president Menno Admiraal, the partnership that forged the company was equal parts luck and fate. He was an accountant helping with the sale of a company, going to meetings at the Tin Pan Alley Pasta House, when he was introduced to the restaurant’s owner and chef, Wayne Sopp. The two struck up a friendship, and in 2003 decided to go into business together, founding the camp catering and hospitality company. “Being a chef, [Sopp] loved the food and the staffing side of the business,” Admiraal says. “As an accountant, I loved the numbers, but one of my greatest passions is operations. So that partnership worked really well. That was a partnership made in heaven.”
Western Camp Services celebrated its 10th anniversary in October, and the company has seen a lot of changes and challenges in the past decade. Among those was Sopp’s departure due to health concerns in 2008, and his subsequent death from cancer in 2010. That tragedy shook the company for obvious reasons, and also meant facing certain logistical challenges. “When he was diagnosed with cancer, it was a very difficult transition for the company,” Admiraal says. “There was a period of time where we really had to look inwards as to how we were running the business.” The company had to step up its internal documentation and the structure of its decision-making process. “For the most part, it was just Wayne and I … Without that relationship, the business became more dependent on senior management input.”
But Admiraal says it’s the one thing about the company that hasn’t changed that is most responsible for its growth over the past decade: its culture. “It’s the culture we have in the field that separates us. Our competitors, we all buy our food from Sysco or GFS. Your differentiator has to be the people, because that’s all that’s left.” Camp services, like the industry it serves, is a very seasonal business, and keeping employees on board from one year to the next is a challenge. That’s an area where Western has excelled, and Admiraal says many of its employees have been with the company for five years or more. That’s largely due to its hiring process, which he says focuses on finding people who will fit in with the company. “Instead of hiring by skill, we evolved into a process where we hire by attitude, and then we’ll train the skill,” Admiraal says. “Because you can’t train attitude.”
High rates of employee retention have in turn helped Western retain its clients. Admiraal says much of the company’s growth over the past three years, from $20 million in revenue in 2010 to $43.5 million in 2012, has been thanks to work with repeat clients.
The company has also had to evolve to keep pace with changing trends in the oil and gas industry. As workers in the oil patch have gotten younger, they’ve also gotten more demanding, and expectations have risen. That means camp service companies like Western have had to raise the bar to meet those expectations with healthier food, more services and greater connectivity. Guests, as Admiraal calls the oil workers who stay in the camps, expect Internet access to keep in constant contact with their family, good food to eat, and workout facilities.
“They’re working 12 or 14 hours in the cold,” he says. “All they have is food and their accommodations to break up that day.” But providing fresh groceries and Internet access to the remote parts of the Peace Country where Western operates presents a host of challenges, and Admiraal says the industry is governed by Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will.
“It seems like grocery day is usually a blizzard at the camps. That’s how my life works.”