Christine Haas is president of Renix Inc., a London, Ontario company specializing in the use of ion exchange technology for separation and purification.

Four mining suppliers participating in a panel discussion on sales strategy, exporting, the digitization of the industry and how their human resource needs are changing bared their souls at the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation’s annual general meeting September 27th.

The panelists – Christine Haas, president of Renix Inc., Chris Novak, president of Centric Mining Systems, Walter Siggelkow, president of Hard-Line Solutions and Michael Gribbons, vice-president of Maestro Digital Mine – fielded questions from Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Services Association executive director Dick DeStefano. Following is an edited and abridged selection of their comments.

How did you get started in business and what motivates you?

Chris Novak: I was kicked out or flunked out of some of the finest post-secondary institutions in Ontario and, being from Kirkland Lake, flunking out meant that I had to go to work, so I went to work in the mining industry. What really shocked me was how lacking we were in the ability to make good decisions quickly. So much of our decision-making is based on intuition and guesswork. I decided I would do something about it. I worked at a fly-in operation and I had two choices. I could drink or learn…so I taught myself how to program. Over time, I took the idea that decisions in the mining industry should be driven by knowledge – not intuition – and turned it into a business that spans the globe.

Tell us about your business, Christine.

Christine Haas: We just recently began working with CEMI. We have a technology that has been developed for liquid separation and purification. We’ve been working in the agriculture industry, in food ingredients, biofuels and biochemistry. Our technology is based on the concept of ion exchange. It’s normally done in a batch process. Ours is a steady state ion exchange process, which changes the way ion exchange works, making it a lot less expensive. It can also do things it couldn’t do before. We’ve always known there are a lot of important ion exchange applications in minerals and metals.

Chris Novak is president of Centric Mining Systems, a Sudbury-based developer of enterprise solution software providing data capture and warehousing for business intelligence and reporting.

What is your critical path to selling?

Chris Novak: You have to have a need that you can fill, and have a clear value proposition. You have to know the problem you’re solving better than your customer. Don’t put yourself in front of your customer without knowing the problem, having the solution and being prepared to defend it.

Michael Gribbons: The product or solution needs to be vetted. We are so fortunate here in Sudbury. We have two major mining companies that co-operate with us. They will validate your solution or they will cut you down. Our philosophy is bringing these people in early, showing them our idea, getting their feedback and then going back to the drawing board. It’s a stagegate process that allows you to not waste a whole bunch of capital up front for no reason.

What is your export strategy?

Michael Gribbons: For us, it starts with international trade shows and trade missions. You meet people in the industry and they will share with you their frustrations. Right now, about 50 per cent of our business is attributable to exports. How we do business in North America is very straightforward. We can do business with Americans, Canadians, Australians and South Africans because we think alike. We can give them a proposition that makes sense and, if we can prove it, they’ll go ahead with it. But in Latin America, it’s about the feeling and that’s totally different, so you have to hire people to represent you in the market.

Michael Gribbons is vice-president of Maestro Digital Mine, a Sudbury-based developer of the Vigilante Air Quality Station and the Plexus PowerNet, a mine-wide networking solution.

Walter Siggelkow: We were lucky. We did some good work for a Canadian mining company, solving a problem for them on Baffin Island. Then, we got a call to tell us they had the same problem in Honduras and Chile, so we started exporting. Now, we have an office in Lima and an office in Santiago. The first question they ask is ‘Where is your office?’ If you tell them Sudbury and you’re trying to sell them in Chile, you’ll have a hard go. They want to know you have your feet on the ground. They want service and parts in their country. It’s a big investment, but you need to do it. At the end of the day, you have to be in the market you’re hoping to sell in. You have to get on a plane and spend time there.

Chris Novak: About 80 per cent of our business is exporting. We’re proud to say that we have never done any business in Sudbury even though we started here. The growth of our export business was organic. We had an opportunity through a trade show in Western Australia. Now we have an office in Western Australia.

What are your thoughts on the trend toward the digitization in mining?

Chris Novak: The reality is we’ve been collecting loads of data in the mining industry for 20 years…What the mining industry has to do is recognize that we’re absolutely terrible about using the data to make fundamental changes to our business. Until we’re willing to do that, we can collect all the data we want. It will make no difference.

Christine Haas: Digitization is transforming decision-making. The more information you have, the better decision you can make about optimizing your operation. It helps decision making, but it doesn’t always solve the problem. Take the huge blue-green algae blooms in Lake Erie as an example. No amount of data is going to fix that.

Michael Gribbons: We changed our name recently to Maestro Digital Mine because everything we do is digital. Look at Amazon, Air B&B, Netflix. We are at the early stage of the digitization of the world. Underground mines have a hard time because we blow up the physical environment every day. It’s extremely hard getting data to and from the face, so this is the last frontier. We’re trying to move people away from the face using teleoperation and autonomous equipment, but you need a very robust communication network. This is the last missing link and why we launched the Plexus PowerNet (SMSJ, June 2017 issue).

Walter Siggelkow is president of Hard-Line Solutions, a Sudbury-area company specializing in teleoperation and automation of mining equipment.

How are human resource needs changing in the mining supply and service sector?

Walter Siggelkow: There are a few roles we can’t replace. Plumbers will always be in demand. Tradespeople will always be in demand, but there are many people who are at risk of losing their jobs and I don’t think the educational institutions are ready for this. People are going to have to be flexible… The people I send underground need to be a network guy, an electronics guy, an electrical guy, a mechanic and they need to be miners.

Chris Novak: We used to hire mining technology people, but we don’t anymore. We’re an information management company. We used to filter based on an individual’s understanding of our industry. We abandoned that. Now, we look for the up and coming generation that sees the world from a very different perspective. We can teach people about mining. We can teach them about drilling and blasting. I can’t possibly understand how millennials think, and I have two of them.

Why have you never sold anything in Sudbury? Are Canadian companies reluctant to take up new ideas? (question directed to Chris Novak from the audience)

Chris Novak: Our concepts that we bring to the table are extremely disruptive. We basically tell people they run a poor business, and when you do that, the larger well-established companies are not your target market. They’re not going to make fundamental shifts in the way they conduct their business, so to target those markets is a mistake. You cannot change the culture of such a large organization, so we decided not to. Instead, we decided to go after small, mid-sized companies of which there are very few locally, so we targeted globally and decided to wait for the big guys to come to us. Now, we are in business with some of the largest iron ore companies in Australia. They came to us. To be disruptive, we need to find organizations that are willing to be disrupted.

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