Job Shops – Alberta – Coasting to success

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by Kip Hanson

Shop sets itself apart with gas, consumables distribution

Coatline Welding and Fabrication Co.
location: Okotoks, AB
size: 11,000 sq ft / 1,022 sq m
years in business: 4
key manufacturing processes: Fabricating (plasma, waterjet), welding


If you’re tired of driving all the way into downtown Calgary for some welding rod or a refill on your acetylene tanks, give David Culbert a call. He’s the president of Coastline Welding and Fabrication Co. in Okotoks, AB, a welding supply store and full-service fabrication shop half an hour south of the city. “There are a whole bunch of small shops and mobile welders in this area,” Culbert says. “Until we began distributing gas and consumables, those guys had to drive into town. Now they can get their stuff locally. It’s been good for everyone.”

As a CWB 47.1 certified welding shop, Coastline is likely its own biggest customer. When they’re not selling supplies, Culbert and his team service Alberta’s booming oil and gas industry, manufacturing a variety of products including well-service equipment, buncher and skidder components, and oilfield centrifuge stands and related equipment used to separate the mud used in drilling operations.

Coastline also does work on commercial buildings, structural steel, aluminum fabrication and heavy plate processing. One of the company’s recent jobs was the Canexus railcar expansion in Bruderheim, a project that Culbert says used over 150 tons of steel and most of last summer to complete.

This isn’t Culbert’s first time at the helm. Beginning in 2002, he owned and operated 3D Industries, a welding shop in neighbouring High River. But when the economy tipped downwards in 2010, he and now partner Dennis Brown joined forces, merging their two businesses together. Culbert says the decision made good sense. “Dennis was doing the same kind of work, so partnering up eased the load on both of us.”

Culbert supplied most of the new shop’s welding equipment, but he and Brown immediately beefed up their fabricating capability by purchasing a 200-tonne CNC brake press and a 10 ft CNC shear, both from Allsteel. And early in 2013 they ditched their old plasma table in favour of a 2100 mm x 4900 mm (7 x 16 ft) Maxiem 2040 waterjet table from OMAX.

“We find the waterjet cuts much faster than plasma.,” says Culbert. “Aluminum, steel and even heavy plate is no problem. Not only is it much cleaner to operate, there’s none of the cleanup work at the end to remove slag and spatter. You just take your finished product off the table and it’s ready to weld. The machine is a perfect time saver.”

Aside from adding equipment, the company has also recently increased the size of the shop to 11,000 sq ft, more than double the size of the original facility. And since the building sits on 3 acres of real estate, there’s plenty of room for additional expansion, something Culbert looks forward to. “Business is still kind of touch and go in southern Alberta, but if you look north of Calgary things are rocking and rolling. It’s hard to believe.”

All that activity, however, is a good news, bad news situation for Coastline. While the additional work is always welcome, finding workers is another story, says Culbert. “That’s always the biggest challenge. We’re fighting with the oilfields for the same workers. And even when you do find someone, they’re likely to leave for more money—just last Friday one of our guys went up north for $35 an hour. He goes onsite for 2 weeks, comes home for a couple nights and then back in. It’s as many hours as you want to work up there. It’s pretty hard to compete with that.”

Culbert says the government is finally realizing the magnitude of the skilled labour problem. “The temporary foreign worker program has created some backlash for them. The people in charge didn’t police things very well, and the result is that some great foreign workers were not taken care of as they should.”

One positive outcome of this are programs designed to promote the skilled trades in high schools. Culbert explains that registered apprentices can often log enough hours during high school that, upon graduation, they can attend a two-year technical program and make journeyman by their early twenties. “It speeds up the process quite a bit.”

Aside from a shortage of skilled workers, Culbert faces another challenge: estimating. “We use contract estimators for a lot of our stuff. It’s cheaper than keeping someone on your staff, especially when you’re not bidding jobs all the time. But then the problem is that they get busy when you need them. It’s always a balancing act when you have a small shop.”

Small shop or no, Coastline Welding enjoys a three to four month backlog of work, something many job shops would love to have. Still, Culbert aims for those bigger projects that will keep them booked up for a year or more. “That’s where we’d like to be at, but on that same note I know of businesses in southern Alberta who have no work whatsoever. And then there are those shops that grew too fast, and are no longer in business. It’s unfortunate.”

Despite a relatively stable workload, Culbert points out that overseas competition is still a real concern. Where a domestically built project might cost a gas producer $250/hour, those built in Korea come in at $75/hour. “It’s a huge saving when you’re talking about billions of dollars in projects. Even when you factor in the cost of rebuilding the highways across the provinces to get these huge weldments transported up from the coast, they’re still saving money. You can’t really blame the big companies for doing that.”

Success in today’s market means keeping your head down and the wolves at bay, Culbert says. “It sounds like a cliché, but it really is about working smarter, not harder. You just have to try and do the right things. One example of this was purchasing our property here this year instead of renting. That’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

With four years under their belts, David Culbert and his partner Dennis Brown are saying so far, so good to Coastline Welding. They just got their quality system in line with ISO 9001:2008 certification, and have their COR, or certificate of recognition for their safety program. They’ve also partnered with contractor-management company ISNetworld. “The writing is on the wall, and the outlook for the next couple of years at least looks very positive,” Culbert explains. “Everyone who does work for the oil fields is only going to get busier. Overall, I think we’ll continue to do all right.” SMT

Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]

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