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Taking matters into their own hands

By Jim Chliboyko

It's a variation of the old saying; If you want something done right, you need to do it yourself.

In the case of Gord Williamson, it wasn't so much about getting the job done right; it was getting the job done at all.

Williamson had been working in the electrical sector in the Calgary area in 2006 and it seemed to take him forever to find anyone with a drill rig to get to his sites so he could proceed with the rest of his work.

“There was a definite need in the area at the time because, as an electrical contractor, I couldn’t get drill rigs to drill my big, large diameter structure bases for sign structures, high mast poles, light standards and all that hard rock drilling,” said Williamson. “It took me a year and a half of begging and plead-ing to get drill rigs to come drill my holes to complete the job.”

So, he took matters into his own hands, as they say.

“During one job, I decided to buy a rig myself and get going,” he said.

Ten years later, he doesn’t have to wait for a rig anymore. These days, Williamson is directing Ki International, a made-in-Alberta family firm, with four rigs and ten employees, based in Airdrie, Alta., near Calgary. (The name “Ki” is simply a reference to the Eastern notion of energy, sometimes spelled “chi” or “qi.”) Williamson and his crew occasionally pick up jobs in other provinces, but tend to stick mostly to Alberta. They do a lot of commercial and industrial jobs, from working in the oil and gas sector around Fort McMurray, to bridges down south and power infrastructure all over the place.

“We’re a cast-in-place concrete specialist, so we do con-crete piles,” said Williamson on his company’s focus. “Our largest diameter to date is 12 feet in diameter. Those are for large power line jobs. In our area here, 80 feet deep is exceptional but we can do 100 feet. We do a lot of power line work. We do a lot of anchor bolt settings.”

The company’s fleet currently consists of two LoDrils and two Soilmecs.

“The LoDrils can go pretty much anywhere an excavator can go,” said Williamson. “And they don’t require near the ground stability so the ground doesn’t have to be flat and level. We can drill on a pretty steep angle. Ramps and areas like that, on any kind of an interchange, we can crawl up the side and perform piles. We can reach over obstacles quite safely to perform piles. They’re an incredible, versatile machine. And that’s why they go up to the tar sands so much; (into) awkward places and drilling these awkward holes.”

This kind of experience has given the company a bit of an advantage, says Jeff Johnson, who looks after business development for Ki.

“We can do a lot of angled, battered piles,” he said. “That’s a specialty that we’ve developed in the tar sands over the years that we’ve recently used on building a bridge here in Airdrie for PCL.”

But the company is not just confined to industrial plants and cloverleaves. The Ki International team has worked on some high-profile jobs, including Rogers Place, the new home of the Edmonton Oilers, as well as the Western Alberta Transmission Line (WATL) between Calgary and Edmonton.

The company also takes safety very seriously; they have their Certificate of Recognition (COR), a trained national construction safety officer on staff and enjoyed a 2015 with zero incidents.

But with Alberta’s recent economic changes, there have been challenges. As well, the fires in Fort McMurray last spring didn’t help anyone in any industry, especially if they worked regularly up north. As with a lot of companies, however, a diversity of clients seems to be a good hedge against downturn.

“There are a lot of competitors who are primarily oil-focused firms that have moved into the commercial space against us,” said Johnson. “There were firms that 90 per cent of their portfolio were oil sands or oil and gas, and we were more focused on other sectors, like commercial, power, bridges – infrastructure. And we’ve seen them all move in and compete against us, so it’s far more competitive that way. That’s been a huge challenge, the drop off in the oil sands and the oil and gas piling sector itself has affected us but it wasn’t a huge part of our portfolio.”

“I’ve lived in Calgary all my life and I’ve seen boom and bust so many times. It’s incredible,” said Williamson.

And, despite this boom-and-bust cycle in the Alberta economy and all the instability that entails, Williamson does have goals for the next 10 years.

“We’re looking to grow,” said Williamson. “We’re right now considering what our next rigs are going to be. We’re in a downturn now. But we’ll start to climb out of that and we want to be ready to go.” 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.