When John Small started his expediting business, he was operating part-time from his home.
His sole vehicle was an eight-year-old, two-wheel drive Yukon Government surplus half-ton he used for deliveries to the Minto mine site.
That was back in 2004, when the Yukon’s mining industry was in “dire straits.”
Fast forward seven years.
Small’s Expediting Services now has its offices right beside the control tower at the Erik Nielsen International Airport. Its fleet is up to 20 vehicles, including a number of one- and three-ton trucks, and two refrigerated units for grocery runs.
During the “fast and furious” months of the exploration season, the payroll can include as many as 25 full-time and as-needed employees.
In industries such as mining and mineral exploration, where time is money, the expediter’s role is to provide “a high-end level of service in transportation and logistics,” Small explains.
“And expediting means you’re doing it in a quick, efficient manner.”
Sometimes that means tracking a shipment the client has ordered and ensuring it gets delivered. Often it involves having to locate and order parts, arrange shipping and brokerage, then “hot shot” them from Whitehorse to the client’s site.
“For producing mines, machinery is very critical. If a mill part goes down, then basically the production is at a standstill until that part is replaced,” Small says.
“It could be heavy equipment parts, it could be mill parts, whatever. And if it goes down, the whole mill goes down. Anybody can imagine what the cost of that is.”
Similarly in the exploration end of things, where the season for a drilling program is limited.
“If you have a drill go down and you lose ten days of that drill program, there’s consequences for that company. It’s accountable to its shareholders for results; it’s all result-driven.”
The hard reality of having eight or ten people on standby waiting for a part to arrive readily justifies the cost of using an expediter’s services.
“If we can come through on those critical times, then the client, the exploration company, sees value in what we do.”
What Small’s company does goes far beyond moving parts and equipment. In effect, it can become almost an arm of a mine or exploration company’s operation.
Take the area of shopping, for instance.
A fly-in camp can’t send someone out to do the weekly grocery shopping, or pick up plumbing parts to fix a broken camp shower.
That’s where Tina Dixon comes in. She’s what Small calls the company’s “super power shopper”.
“She’ll go down and go work at the local grocery stores and shop, and she’ll go down to Canadian Tire and shop. And she’ll attack the downtown core,” Small says.
“She’s very good at what she does. She knows where everything is, and the quantities, and the value and the pricing, all that good stuff.”
Besides dealing with the business itself, the expediter can also be called upon to operate in a more personal capacity for the employees.
“We provide a personal commissary for people. They live in these camps, and they can’t access what you and I take for granted. So they have to go through us for their personal needs, their Shoppers Drug Mart stuff, all that kind of stuff,” Small explains.
“We provide their medications. Diabetics, we’ll pick up their insulin for them. One camp decided to have condoms, so we provided boxes of condoms to them. Whatever it takes.”
One item in frequent demand is tobacco.
“It’s a bit of a regression, but there are a lot of people who smoke in these camps,” he says.
“So we go around and we power shop cigarettes. People have seen us around town with a cartload of $5,000 worth of cigarettes for 10 clients, you know.”
Sometimes the support is even more direct. Take the case of a driller who was injured during the night shift and flown to Whitehorse for treatment.
“There he is, at seven in the morning, released from the hospital with his work clothes on, winter time, wandering around with not a dime in his pocket.”
The expediter picked him, provided cash for meals and a hotel room and made sure he got on his plane back to camp.
“What would our client do if they were here? That’s what they would do. Well, we’re looking after their employees.”
Small admits he derives a lot of satisfaction from providing an array of services to his clients in mining, tourism and other businesses.
“It’s a relationship, and you build it slowly. And even though we’re a contractor, and it’s a client-vendor thing, there’s still a certain amount of trust and looking after your client.”
Small says he is “optimistically cautious” that the Yukon’s economy has turned a corner, and that the expediting business has a good future.
“I’m always optimistic. You’ve got to be, in the private sector. But you have to be cautious, because it’s your money in your pocket,” he says.
“If you guess wrong and gamble wrong, and expand at the wrong time, then you’re going to pay the price for it. I’ve been there a few times, and I don’t want to go back.”