One of the most difficult psychological and emotional challenges faced by workers whose jobs take them to assignments to far away remote regions is the prospect of having to deal with being away from their families, often for extended periods of time. While the old saying ‘there’s no place like home’ is spot on, a relatively new company based out of Calgary is doing all it can to provide the amenities and hominess that helps make people feel as if they have the next best thing.
Troy Ferguson launched Redrock Camps in 2006. Originally from Collingwood, Ontario, Ferguson began his career as a tree planter in northern Ontario and Quebec when he was still a university student and learned a lot about remote logistics, including sleeping in the middle of nowhere in a tent.
“It was quite awful,” he recalls with a hearty laugh. “I never thought that some day I would be in the camp business but everything you do in life is important .”
As Ferguson puts it, he learned remote logistics 101 and was in the landscaping business of tree planting for about 17 years from his university days to his mid 30s.
“We had a tree planting business out here in Alberta and B.C.,” he says. “When you are here in Alberta you get caught up in the oil and gas scene. I soon realized I had the ability and the acumen to do things in the middle of nowhere.”
After working out the initial details, Ferguson then connected that business idea with people in the energy world and the next thing you know, he was set up doing a small drill camp; a modular, mobile type complex. He quickly realized that this business model was far more rewarding than tree planting and so he immediately redirected his entire business focus and abilities in that direction. Thinking back to those early startup days in 2006, Ferguson says the entire concept has improved exponentially and come a long way in since launching his entrepreneurial idea.
“The camps that I first started to rent were so sterile, like hospital rooms,” he says. “I thought it was ridiculous. If I was away from my family for a long period of time, it’s tough enough being away, but then you have to be in a sterile environment with no soul. That’s what got me thinking about doing it a different way. Keep in mind in 2006, if you could put steam on a mirror you were in business. Things were booming.”
The arrival of Ferguson and Redrock Camps was indeed a welcome and completely unexpected sight for those energy companies who had simply come to accept the stale offering of a typical catering company. However, it was an acceptance – not an endorsement. Much to their delight, Ferguson informed them that many more of their basic wants and needs could be handled and that far better options were available to them.
Redrock Camps has its head office in Calgary with operational facilities in Grand Prairie and Edmonton. Corporate sales and finance issues are handled at head office where all the main decision makers are located.
“In Edmonton we just opened up a 37,000-sq-ft brand new facility,” Ferguson reveals. “We call it the ROC – Redrock Operations Centre. We have all of our hospitality, construction, safety and human resources based there along with our food and equipment storage. It’s our operational group. Grand Prairie is like an outpost for us where we have a cross-dock warehouse facility.”
Redrock Camps has a staff of about 35 at the head office in Calgary, another 50 at the ROC in Edmonton and five employees in Grand Prairie along with the field staff, which depending on the number of camps, can vary somewhat. In December there are about 30 camps in operation and about 300 staff out in the field working. Redrock Camps provides turnkey solutions for companies doing remote business. As previously noted, the energy sector accounts for a big portion of business but there are a number of others as well.
“Mining would be a close second for us,” Ferguson confirms. “We have operations in northern Manitoba directly tied to mining. Hydro electric, so run of the river projects that you can only get to by the ocean – we have put camps in for those guys. Energy transmission, or electrical transmission work. After these facilities are built that create energy they need to get it along the line so to speak and so we do work for electric companies as well.”
It’s a small handful of industries that have such requirements to build these types of camps out in the remote parts of Canada, but they are typically very large, lucrative companies who can afford to spend the extra money on their employees. Redrock has also done work for Parks Canada and Arctic Research Canada and the Inuit government out on the east coast in northern Labrador where Ferguson’s company brought to life Canada’s first solar powered camp completely off the grid. It’s located north of Maine on the border of Torngat Mountains National Park and is completely self sustaining.
“It took us two summers to actually get it up there by ocean and drag it up on the land and get it all set up,” Ferguson reveals. “We were delayed by icebergs in July in the first year. We took western technology of the mobile drill camp engineering and applied it to the east coast and made it fit for them. It’s polar bear resistant.”
Redrock Camps is an enterprise that primarily serves the oil and gas industry along with businesses involved in mining and electricity. But Ferguson is quick to point out they often take on one-off projects because they are the old tree planters who always manage a way to effectively figure out logistical problems as innovative entrepreneurs and problem solvers.
No project is too big or too small. The goal is to serve people. With that philosophy in mind, camps come in all different shapes and sizes, depending on the requirement of the particular client but typically from the time a client approaches Redrock about building them a camp it is about a four to six month process to have everything up and running. It then takes anywhere from a day to set up a little drilling camp, with about 20 people in it up to a couple of months to put in a 500-person camp. It also depends where the camp is to be located. Once it’s operational, it’s turnkey and built to last for years.
There is a lot of coordination between Redrock Camps, the builder of the units and coordination for setting up electrical and running water requirements.
“We rely on manufacturers for their acumen to build these units,” Ferguson mentions. “There are also the trucking guys. We don’t do any of our own trucking because it’s a very specialized industry. We’ve used the same company since Day One to truck our equipment because we trust them and they treat us well.”
Ferguson and the Redrock team will do the installation themselves, which brings it to life. Once set up on site they also handle some of the internal electrical work but also will subcontract it out, depending on the circumstances. Sewage and water solutions are an integral part of the setup process, which Redrock leaves to the engineering experts because it is so technical in nature. The approval process goes through the municipal government where the necessary permits are obtained.
“At Redrock we’re all about relationships and doing business with the right business, and that’s been part of our success story,” Ferguson notes. “Suppliers often go out of their way to help us because we’re there for them.”
Inside, the buildings look like homey cabins. It makes the workers feel great. There’s a science here. It’s about the visuals and how things smell and the human component including the catering and hospitality.
Most Redrock environments typically have no alcohol, and there aren’t many women around in the majority of the camps. When you take those two out of everyday life, coupled with the remoteness, and it’s easy to see how people can get rather stressed. If they are stressed, they don’t sleep well and that in turn can lead to safety concerns and accidents on the job. In the boardroom, Ferguson and his team have tried to leverage all those things.
“We’re not just about a good steak on a Saturday night and a clean bed,” he remarks. “We’re about an environment where people have less stress in their lives. If we can achieve that on behalf of the energy companies who hire us we think it will help them secure their labour supply, which is what this is all about.”
Modern Amenities & Meals
Internet communication is huge,” Ferguson concurs. It was the first problem that needed to be solved when the camps were first built.
“Dare I say five years ago there were some camps out there that didn’t have any connectivity and those had the greatest challenges with human resources. Now all camps are hooked up to the Internet through mobile and satellite technology.”
At meal time, all the workers gather together in a central location to eat and recreate. Ferguson calls these large rooms kitchen diners. Depending on the size of the complex, you walk out of your bedroom door, down the hall and all of a sudden your at the dining room where there is cafeteria-style service. If it’s a 500-man camp there could be 200 eating at any one given time.
“It’s challenging, but even there you’ll have three entrees. It’s a smorgasbord of awesomeness,” Ferguson proudly states. “Guys are ruled by their stomachs so food is something to look forward to after a day of work.”
There are also gym facilities as well as video games and PlayStations. In some of the bigger camps there are music studios where the guys can just hang out and jam for a while.
“There are a lot of great little perks,” Ferguson says. “We cater our menu to what our clients want. They will even do one-off meals for people who may be vegans or vegetarians.”
To work with Redrock Camps is a prestigious opportunity. The corporate executive chef at Redrock Camps was formerly in charge of running all restaurants for The Keg in western Canada, but Ferguson and his team were able to lure him away from that position to be part of this team.
“When I started Redrock it was all about hiring people from the industry who know what they are doing because we didn’t have the time or money to train them,” he recalls. “Since we’ve grown we now hire for character and we train to do the work. We have people who are totally into it. People are our greatest asset.”
Redrock Camps has an extremely comprehensive safety program. In order to deal with energy companies you need to be operating at a very high level. We have safety advisors in our camps, and strategic geographical regions along with the folks in Edmonton who direct all safety operations.
If someone nicks their finger on a door Ferguson wants to hear about it as the president and CEO. It’s taken years of culture building to get to the point now where he does get those emails at 11pm at night, to keep him aware about what is going on at all times. Thanks to such a dedicated program, the company’s WCB costs have dropped exponentially because of the excellent safety mandate.
First Nations and Métis
Redrock Camps has a firm commitment to respecting and partnering with First Nations and Métis. It’s a relationship that continues to grow.
“Up until about a year ago Redrock didn’t have any partnerships with First Nations or Métis communities,” Ferguson begins. “I quickly realized that in order to grow my business I needed to create these relationships to understand the opportunities out there. We are a boots on the ground business. I want to bring employment to some of these remote locations. We now have seven formal joint venture partnerships spanning from western Saskatchewan all the way through to northwestern British Columbia.”
As president and CEO, Ferguson interacts with chiefs and elders and council members. He says that all the First Nations that he conducts business with are all very eager to support Canadian efforts on the energy frontier. They are ready to do business; but more importantly they are ready to learn from what Ferguson and Redrock Camps have to offer.
“When I sit down with the chiefs they don’t talk about themselves – they talk about their grandchildren,” Ferguson says. For them this is a long-term strategy. They see us as a little bit of an opportunity and hope. My legacy if I was to look in the rear-view mirror 20 years from now, if I can get one kid out there to learn something and make something and maybe one day manage or own a business, I think it would be fantastic. I’m very pumped up about it.”
In the past, without any formal working relationship, Redrock already had about 15% of its workforce coming from First Nations communities, so it’s clear the company is true to its word.
Now that a more formal relationship has been established, it provides extended opportunities for training this largely untapped labour market. A lot of training and social awareness is required and it’s something both sides are keen on enhancing. It’s not just job skills – it’s cultural skills.
The lifespan of the camps themselves could literally go on for decades in terms of how well constructed they are, but of course how long a client uses a camp is directly intertwined with the industry and when the job on site is completed.
In general, Ferguson finds camps that are tied to exploration are typically short-term in nature – anywhere from a winter project because Mother Nature freezes up to get in, up to a year. Once the exploration part is done and the company is tying the energy into a central location or building a gas plant or any type of infrastructure post exploration phase, those camps are typically used for at least a couple of years.
When a job is completed on a site, the camps are all modular in design so it’s a straightforward process in taking them apart.
“Think of it like blocks of Lego,” Ferguson says. “They are all 12-feet wide and 65-feet long and can be pulled behind a truck on a trailer. All the Lego pieces come together and are assembled. So when the job is done, the great part of this business is you dismantle all the pieces, put them on the trucks and move to the next job. The cost of these structures is quite high because they are engineered to be mobile.”
Right now the vast majority of Redrock’s clients are based in Alberta, roughly 60%. About 30% is in British Columbia with the other 10% scattered between other provinces. If LNG reaches its potential that would clearly be another major industry for Redrock Camps to be able to tap into.
“For us as a company our business could double overnight,” he says.
“We’re all about taking care of people,” Ferguson says. “It just happens to be in remote environments and right now it’s mainly for energy companies. If I was to hit the fast forward button, five years from now I would love to own a company that not only does that and provides a boutique level of service in that world that is all about retaining labour supply for our clients, but if I could also take what we know how to do, which is solve problems, react quickly and still take care of people, if I could apply that to low-income housing or industries not tied to energy, but industries where people are just in their offices and they want to eat better or have a better work environment. I’d love to go in that direction and add that as part of a vertical integration.”
When people come and work at Redrock it most often means staying within the company fold for a long period of time because there is a conscious effort to make everyone who works there feel that they are important and part of something special. As Ferguson often mentions it’s about people – both the clients and the people who work for him.
“I’d like to continue on the path of being a service provider where people say ‘yeah, those guys are good’ and they don’t question our abilities on the ground. It’s hard to please everybody but we really do try.”