By Ray Penner
Photographs by Stuart Kasdorf
I didn’t come from a rich family and I knew I had to work at something, so I figured why not start something that would provide work for myself and others.
There are stories of overnight success. This isn’t one of them.
In his 40+ years as a founder and president of Prairie Machine & Parts, Murray Popplewell has avoided many of the pitfalls of small businesses eager to reach the top.
To him, building your business isn’t a 100-yard dash; it’s long-distance hurdles, where once you clear one hurdle, you have to carefully watch your stride to clear the next.
Ignoring his father’s advice to just do a good day’s work for a good day’s pay and go home, Murray took a second mortgage on his home in 1977 to invest in a machining business with two partners. “I didn’t come from a rich family and I knew I had to work at something, so I figured why not start something that would provide work for myself and others,” Murray explains.
“My biggest fear at the time, though, was that I wouldn’t be able to find and keep good people who could help us reach our goals.” His trepidation underpinned his determination to treat those who joined Prairie Machine as part of a family, where loyalty to the company would be reciprocated in good times and in bad.
He has stuck to that principle, even though he admits he had to learn to be more patient as an employer. “I had this one guy who I felt I just had to let go. I’d had enough. But before I called him in, I sat down with my partner to discuss it. I pointed out that the guy did come to work every day, so he had at least one redeeming quality! I decided that we should start on that positive note and see if things could improve. The fellow turned out to be one of our best employees, and he stayed with us for many years.” Several of Prairie Machine’s 150 employees now have decades of service, including one of the first people Murray ever hired.
Surviving the fluctuations
Murray has the same perspective – that it is better to strengthen existing relationships than to always replace them with new ones – when it comes to customers. From the very beginning, he tied his future to the potash industry. All of the specialty machines manufactured by Prairie Machine have been designed specifically for the big mines around Saskatoon and southern Saskatchewan. He built his success not only on the shop floor, but also in the mines, talking to managers, supervisors and employees, observing operations and discussing how things could be done more efficiently and safely. The popular term in today’s culture is “design thinking,” but to Murray and his generation it was simply talking about what could or should be fixed.
Few Saskatchewan companies have been able to endure without diversification, but for more than four decades Prairie Machine and Parts has done exactly that. Murray knows the risks, and thus the importance, of strong customer relations. “You’ve got to always put yourself on the client’s side of the table, to see things from their perspective. There aren’t a lot of customers in Saskatchewan for what we do,” he smiles. That business has not always been easy to come by if you’re seen as just a small, local company. “Sometimes to be an expert you have to be an ordinary person a long way from home, but if you can do it in your own back yard, and keep your customers in your own back yard, that’s the key.”
He’s quick to add that he is very grateful for the opportunities that potash mining has created over the years. “They were very tolerant of some of the mistakes we made, and gave us a second chance – sometimes a third and fourth chance. But also, they were very much in need of a manufacturing and parts company that was local. Downtime in a mine is very costly. We would sometimes get a call that a part was needed immediately, and I would personally deliver it within hours.”
Resisting the urge to grow
As many Saskatchewan companies know so well, relying on the resource sector carries the inherent risk of fluctuating international markets. Prairie Machine has a strategy to address the inevitable downturns while retaining its exceptional workforce. During periods of heavy demand, the company paid a lot of overtime rather than hiring more people. Conversely, when things got quiet, the company’s attention turned to product development and innovation, involving everyone’s participation and ideas.
Murray agrees that it is wise to resist the urge to grow. “It took us 40 years to get to 150 people,” he points out. “We were never ridiculous in how we grew – always a ‘walk before you run’ philosophy.” That philosophy also applies to expanding Prairie Machine’s markets. Murray is determined that the focus on customer service must never change. “It’s one thing for us to provide support here at home, when we’re only a few hours away. But when your customers are halfway around the world, you have to have the support built in. That takes time.”
Dedication to service, coupled with Prairie Machine’s commitment to innovation, led to long-term relationships throughout Murray’s career, and in particular to one of his most memorable days in business. “By the year 2000, we had done a lot of work for the mines, including coming up with better part replacements. Finally, somebody from the industry figured that if we were good enough to make all these parts, why shouldn’t we build the entire machine?”
You’ve got to always put yourself on the client’s side of the table, to see things from their perspective.
That opportunity arrived when the head of procurement for one of the major potash companies sat Murray down and said, “I’m going to give this machine order to you. For me, it could be a career-ending move, so don’t screw it up.” He wasn’t finished. Looking squarely into Murray’s eyes, he added, “Can you do it?” Murray confidently answered yes. The requested machine was a four-rotor borer weighing over 275 tons.
The first Saskatchewan -made mining machine
In reality, neither Prairie Machine nor anyone else in Saskatchewan had ever built an entire mining machine on that scale before – and everybody, including the potash mines, knew it. Very likely there wasn’t one person on any of the boards of any of the mining companies who had even heard of Prairie Machine. The work order included a long list of specific performance requirements. It was a monstrous task for what was then a small company, however, despite the challenges, the machine was delivered on time. The performance test results were so impressive the mine immediately ordered second and third units.
That year – 2000 – proved to be one of the most significant in Murray Popplewell’s career. Shortly before the big contract, Murray’s partner, Gary Redl, had passed away, leaving Murray with sole command if he wanted it. “The decision to carry on by myself was easy,” says Murray. “Gary was essentially a silent partner who had let me make the decisions. I knew our employees. I knew our products. I knew our customers.” Borrowing heavily to acquire sole ownership, Murray forged ahead. Since that year, Prairie Machine has greatly expanded its line of mining machines, including massive two- and four rotor mining machines, continuous haulage systems, belt storage systems, and bolters. To date, Prairie Machine has manufactured and supplied over 50 mining machines into Saskatchewan potash mines.
The latest product, battery powered electric vehicles (EVs) designed specifically for mining, signals a new direction for the company. All rights to the design and manufacture of the EV, developed by PapaBravo Innovations, are now wholly owned by Prairie Machine. “To me, expanding into electric vehicles was the right decision,” says Murray. The EV offers several benefits to a wide range of mining operations, including hard-rock mines in other parts of Canada and around the world. Compared to diesel vehicles, it completely eliminates harmful fumes, produces much less heat in the confined surroundings of a mine, costs less to maintain and is very quiet.
The EV signals not only a new product, but also a major transition from filling individual orders for machines to assemblyline manufacturing. That challenge will be addressed primarily by the next generation of Prairie Machine leadership. Both of Murray’s sons-in-law – Todd Malcolm and Kipp Sakundiak – are taking over operations along with CFO Mark Davidson. “We’re not there yet,” says Kipp, “but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Kipp, Todd and Mark will be managing in a much different business environment than in Murray’s day, something the departing CEO says is unfortunate. “When I started out, developing close relationships was so important. You could stand around a machine in a mine and talk to the supervisor about what was wrong and what could be fixed, and that relationship would help you get work. Nowadays, it’s all about engineering something to work before it’s ever installed, and getting the work is all about submitting bids and filling out forms. Relationships just don’t seem to count as much as they used to.”
Given this new age of cold formalities, policies, and procedures, is it still possible for an emerging small manufacturer and inventor to succeed? “Yes,” says Murray, but he adds that it is now harder to do so than in his day. “One of the biggest challenges we face in our industry is the high up-front capital costs.” Murray suggests the new entrepreneur might be better off to find an established partner who can help them gain a foothold, rather than trying to go it alone. “We’re always interested in hearing from people with good ideas,” he adds.
As for Prairie Machine, regardless of changing business practices and the challenges of new global markets, the company will undoubtedly adhere to its belief that steady is the way to go. As Murray Popplewell puts it, “We may not be the biggest fish in the sea, but we’re still swimming.”
First published in the March 2019 edition of The Business Advisor.