What began as a fabrication and machining business as part of its parent company, Northern Strands, Fortis has evolved to become a remarkable turn-key operation serving the mining industry.
Fortis develops procedures to safely perform hazardous/high-risk work, designs and builds customized equipment to perform work safely, solves problems, manages budgets, and provides project management. Fortis is unique because it has access to the specific skill sets needed to complete all aspects of a job under one roof or through its affiliation with its parent company, Northern Strands.
The company’s first milestone project was in 2009, at the PotashCorp Cory mine, where Fortis employees de-roped and re-roped the entire mine shaft. Fortis played a significant role in upgrading hoisting arrangement and capacity from 35 to 50 tonnes.
“It was a big job,” says owner Garry Clarke, adding there was urgency to complete the project because the mine was not operating during the upgrade and losing production time. Fortis tackled the specialized work no one else in the country was interested in doing — from developing the equipment that allowed the job to be completed safely, to creating and implementing the procedures.
Fortis is intrinsically involved in one of Saskatchewan’s most prolific resources: potash. The company has mining contracts at nearly every potash mine in the province. Fortis’ next big project is at PotashCorp’s Scissors Creek, which is the new mine shaft location near Rocanville. Working in a mine shaft 3,600 feet deep, employees will install ropes, conveyances and guides starting in August 2015.
Fortis has six divisions that operate in conjunction with each other. From a uranium mine at McArthur River, to gold mines in Northern British Columbia and Manitoba, the mining division is made up of crews doing various underground or surface work at site, from construction to site rehabilitation. Fortis has worked to repair mine shafts that were caving in, installed structural steel, poured concrete liners, and installed electrical cables through boreholes. The company has also done presinking work, belt conveyors upgrades, and hydro-electric dam refurbishment.
The manufacturing division includes a machine shop and a fabrication shop. One of the machine shop’s major activities is producing mine attachments exclusively for Northern Strands. Fortis installs and changes out these mine attachments located at every rope termination. The fabrication shop builds and produces custom steel products, such as grout buckets, standalone reeling machines, shaft brackets, shaft steel, spreader beams, monorails, and man and material baskets in its CWB-certified welding shop.
The manufacturing division is known for its ability to build quick solutions to address a problem. If you can dream it for your mine site, Fortis can build it. If you have a problem, the fabrication division can create a solution. Solutions created by Fortis are apparent in mines today.
For example, over a decade ago, a mining company was having an issue with a cable snapping when it was tightened because the workers didn’t know how much weight was being applied. Fortis created a safe solution that is now so entrenched in everyday mine work, it is overlooked as modern innovation. The solution allows the cable to be properly tensioned without jamming, and includes a weigh scale to indicate when the rope has reached the desired tension. Clarke recently saw the product on site and innocently asked the unknowing workers what they thought of it. The response? The chorus of employees raved about the product. It was a subtle reminder to Clarke of his company’s innovation and relevance in the industry.
“We find a problem and make the equipment to fix it. Years later, it’s still there,” says Clarke.
Fortis has dozens of examples of unique products. For example, its mobile reel handler — a machine that can be driven underground in a mine shaft, and has the power to lift the reels of wire rope and move them around in the shaft area — is in constant demand.
Mine sites across the province often experience similar problems. It’s not uncommon for Fortis to create a piece of equipment for one site, only for it to have mass appeal with other companies. The concept doesn’t stop at first draft either; Fortis is continually improving its prototypes to accommodate the needs of the industry.
Everything created at Fortis, which sits in the heart of Saskatoon’s industrial area, is stringently tested using massive hydraulic test beds to ensure the equipment meets safety factors and will not fail. As Clarke puts it, workers using rigging such as slings can rest easy knowing every sling used for hoisting equipment is carefully tested to ensure safety standards are met.
Prior to the unique product designs being sent to the manufacturing division, the engineering and drafting department create and refine the plans. The work includes the drafting for equipment used for material and personnel handling and lifting devices. They also provide drafting for plant and shaft layouts as well as developing critical lift plans.
Often, a machinery manufacturer or a mine site does not have the manpower to reassemble a piece of equipment in a mine after it’s taken apart on surface and sent underground. That’s where the mechanical division steps in. Fortis sends highly qualified trades people to the site to disassemble and reassemble equipment for the mining company. In addition, Fortis’ tradespeople will perform overhaul and repair services on surface and underground for customers.
Health and safety is a priority throughout Fortis. The company is continually working to exceed the expectations of the customer and Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) regulations. Fortis has a reputation for writing detailed job procedures for dangerous work, making safety the No. 1 priority. It places a high priority on training its workers and auditing itself to ensure continuous improvement in safety procedures followed both in the warehouse and at a site.
Several years ago, Fortis undertook the initiative to obtain ISO Certifications in Health & Safety (18001), Quality (9001) and Environmental (14001) management. There were no clear rules for planning for safety and quality, and there were no systems in place. ISO enabled Fortis to spell out its procedures to audit whether or not it was meeting the standards it had set. This meant not just meeting, but exceeding, minimum standards for health and safety, quality and environment. It is important to Fortis to manage the company’s environmental impact. Clarke says, “We are always looking to improve the site environment and leave it better than it was before.”
The landscape of trained workers has shifted in the last six months. Skilled labourers from other projects, industries and provinces which have slowed down are here and looking for work. Experienced tradespeople are choosing to stay in Saskatchewan after their contract jobs are finished.
“It was brutal before,” says Clarke, adding it’s a completely different scenario today. “People like it here and want to stay working here.” This wealth of skilled workers in Saskatchewan gives Fortis the opportunity to hire the best.
Fortis employs a plethora of skilled workers, ranging from heavy-duty mechanics, mechanical technicians, millwrights, machinists, welders, structural and mechanical engineers to highly-skilled miners, business administrators and health- and safety-trained personnel. These employees bring plenty of experience from previous jobs. Clarke says, “We have the right people in place onsite and in the office.”
Fortis is steadily adding aboriginal employees to its workforce. Aboriginal employees with strong leadership qualities are playing a significant role in recruitment while Fortis’ revered working environment does its job with worker retention. Fortis works to continually build its relationships with the aboriginal community as well, collaborating with Aboriginal-owned and run companies.
Fortis has a remarkable commitment to the community. Year-long campaigns at the office focus on raising money to make one child’s wish come true through company barbecues, bottle drives and even selling scrap materials from the shop. Fortis is proud to support Children’s Wish alongside its sister company Certified Mining & Construction Sales and Rentals and its parent company Northern Strands.
In 2015, the Northern Strands Group of Companies employees helped grant the first ever Super Bowl wish in Saskatchewan through Children’s Wish by sending Jared and his family to the most anticipated NFL event of the season. Jared was a talented young football player before he was involved in a car crash that claimed the life of his friend and left Jared quadriplegic. As the recipient of a Wish, Jared chose to make the now difficult trip to Phoenix to see the Super Bowl live — in memory of his friend, lost too soon, and honouring his own dream to go. Fortis is privileged to have been involved with Jared and his family’s journey and is working to provide future opportunities to enrich the lives of children with life-threatening medical conditions.
As Fortis continues its commitment to local causes, it is maintaining its reputation on a larger scale. An emerging privately-owned company, Fortis is leaving its footprint in the mining industry through quality workmanship, cutting-edge innovation, and a commitment to health, safety, environment, and community.