A Northern Ontario Success Story
Greg Seguin, the general manager at Lopes Limited, says his firm is “quite sophisticated, as far as Northern Ontario goes.” It is a good description for the award-winning, family-run firm that performs fabrication and other industrial services. Lopes is based in Coniston, Ontario, on the outskirts of Sudbury, which puts it close to the geographical center of Canada. As such, Lopes is strategically located near the Trans-Canada Highway and major rail lines.
Services include custom fabrication, piping, sheet metal and HVAC, industrial construction and maintenance, electrical contracting, structural steel fabrication and erection and a scaffold erection division to support it all. The company serves the mining, mills, agriculture, hydroelectricity, oil and gas, pulp and paper, energy generation, chemical, transportation and refinery sectors.
Lopes is particularly focused on its fabrication work. “We’ve got a substantial fabrication shop, with a lot of CNC equipment … We service many different customers for custom fabrication as well as structural steel fabrication,” says Seguin.
Custom fabrication involves making products according to client specifications from a variety of materials including carbon steel, stainless steel, and aluminum. Its structural steel fabrication division designs and builds steel structures and will erect them if a customer so requests. Lopes’ industrial segment does construction and maintenance work while the piping division fits pipes for all pressure and process applications.
The sheet metal and HVAC segment handles ventilation and heating systems projects. Another division does electrical contracting, which entails designing, supplying and installing electrical systems. A scaffolding/civil segment puts up scaffolding for construction projects and does concrete forming and placement.
While most of the firm’s work is based in Ontario, Lopes has successfully completed jobs in Wisconsin, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan and as far afield as New Caledonia, off the coast of Australia.
Company founder Felix Lopes Senior moved to Canada from Portugal in the early 1970s. He founded Lopes in 1976, basing it originally out of his garage. In addition to being a skilled sheet metal worker and astute businessman, Lopes Sr. had an eye for innovation. After viewing new industrial equipment at a trade show in Toronto, Lopes Sr. acquired one of the first CNC plasma cutting tables in northern Ontario.
“That gave him a good edge on the competition. He was an early adopter of technology. We like to say we’re continuing the tradition by adopting technology. We want to stay on the leading edge of computerization and automation,” says Seguin.
In the early days, the company mostly did work for the pulp and paper industry. When the pulp and paper industry began to decline in Ontario, the company sought to branch out and began doing projects for the mining sector. While still heavily involved in mining work, Lopes continues to diversify, and the company has been moving into areas such as infrastructure and railway bridges.
Lopes remains a family business. With Felix Sr. retired more than a decade ago, his son, Felix Lopes Junior, now is president of the company.
Company revenue slid last year, a situation Seguin blames in part on slumping commodity prices which in turn caused a decline in mining. The Northern Ontario economy is heavily resource-based, so naturally, dips in commodity prices hit the region hard.
Optimism is in the air, however. “We think 2017 will be a good year. We’re on track for hopefully having a record year. But who knows. In [our industry] anything can happen.”
The bottom line is not all that matters at Lopes, however. The company has “a core of around 160 employees … We try to keep them whether we have work for them or not. We believe our ‘secret sauce’ is our high-performing team. If we laid them off in tough times, then we wouldn’t have a team to push through the good times. So at times we carry a lot of our people,” says Seguin.
As proof of the company’s commitment to its employees, Lopes recently put an estimated $4 million worth investment into improving its facilities. Most of the work was performed by Lopes employees, to keep them busy and to position the firm for future growth, says Seguin. About 12,000 square feet of shop space was added, and new equipment was installed.
“A lot of companies would just lay off [employees] when times get tough, but we appreciate their value,” says Seguin. The firm does use sub-contractors in addition to full-time staff, but mostly for installation jobs.
Lopes wants new hires who have skill and ambition. The latter quality can sometimes be difficult to find, confesses Seguin. Ideally, new workers will remain loyal to the company, while moving from apprentice to journeyman to foreman, he says. Such in-house progression ensures that Lopes foremen will retain the company’s culture and pass on its values.
Lopes’ corporate culture reflects a family-oriented, cooperative spirit. Different trades get along well, and employees are not treated like “a number … If any employee needs help, we’ll help them out. We also try to keep bureaucracy to a minimum,” says Seguin.
This does not, however, mean the company is anything less than totally professional regarding workplace quality and safety. Lopes has daily ‘toolbox talks’ with workers to discuss safety issues and more in-depth meetings on a weekly basis. The firm tries to make everyone aware of safety concerns and any injuries or incidents that might occur. By being transparent, Lopes hopes to keep its workers as safe as possible.
The company has ISO 9001 certification and full-time quality control staff. Seguin is quick to add that quality is something with which all Lopes workers are imbued.
Lopes has been recognized with industry honours and won the Minister’s Apprenticeship Employer Recognition Award in 2009 from Employment Ontario and the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities. The award is given to companies with a commitment to apprenticeship programs.
The commitment to young people does not end there. Lopes has a Northern Development Scholarship program which awards a renewable $1,500 scholarship for tuition, books and living expenses to two students annually.
In March 2016, the company won a Community Builders Award of Excellence for economic development. The awards recognize leading Sudbury-area companies and individuals.
Seguin says the company’s biggest challenge is “getting our name out there for what we do … we were once kind of pigeon-holed as a mechanical contractor [and] we’re not just a mechanical contractor anymore.”
Lopes has a website and started doing social media about six months ago. For the most part, however, the company promotes itself traditionally: through cold-calling prospective customers and relying on its own good reputation to generate new work. Word-of-mouth, says Seguin, is still one of its most powerful promotional tools.
In five years, Seguin says he can see the company enhancing its services to the mining sector while strengthening its position by increasing its share of railroad bridge repairs and infrastructure work.
One of the biggest recent projects completed by Lopes was the rail-line portion of the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridges, which connects Canada to the U.S. over the St. Mary’s River. The entire structure is about three kilometres long, and Lopes was contracted to work on three lengthy spans. Among other things, the company removed old rivets, put in new bolts and then installed plates.
Working on a rail-line over water was particularly tricky. Space was extremely limited, and to make things even more complicated, the worksite was somewhat remote. To serve the workers, Lopes organized a procession of hi-rail trucks (road vehicles adapted to travel on train tracks), a rail-mounted trailer with meal facilities and rail carts loaded with equipment and tools each morning to travel to the worksite.
“At the end of each day, we had to get all the stuff off the track in order for the train to go through,” notes Seguin.
Such a complex operation posed safety challenges. Lopes arranged to get workers onto the bridge safely via suspended scaffolds, bucket trucks and special platforms.
The project was completed in September 2016. In the end, some 600,000 pounds of reinforcing steel was fabricated and installed, over 20,000 rivets were removed, and roughly 50,000 bolts were installed and torqued. The project finished safely, on time and within budget.
“It was a pretty top-notch job. Our customer was impressed,” states Seguin.
In many ways, the Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge job epitomizes Lopes’ ability to provide multiple services. Not many companies can do steel fabrication, assembly, design and installation all in-house, Seguin points out.
“We take full control of the whole value stream,” he says, proudly.