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Evolving and Thriving

Northern Ontario is awash in both natural beauty and resources. Little surprise that an array of industries have emerged in the region over the decades. From forestry and mining all the way to local infrastructure and utility service projects, it is an area of constant growth and change as cycles of industry rise and fall. Located just above the US border on the St. Mary’s River, the city of Sault Ste. Marie finds itself at the nexus of those turbulent enterprises.

By their very nature, strategies and long-term plans are subject to constant monitoring but what is required in order to achieve success when a company is subject to the whims of boom-and-bust industrial cycles? It certainly pays to be nimble, maintaining an ability to pivot wherever needed. More importantly, however, is the desire to increasingly expand institutional spheres of knowledge and expertise in order to maximize the support available to clients, whatever their needs may be.

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The S&T Group has called Sault Ste. Marie home for 37 years now, though it has also branched out to include the Upper Peninsula across the border in Michigan. Starting out as a small electrical outfit, it consolidated its early growth by venturing into the technology sector; working with established giants such as IBM and Royal Bank of Canada. Never happy to rest on its laurels, S&T continued to increase its offerings across the skilled-trade spectrum. As a result, over the years they’ve evolved into a full-service construction business, echoing the growth of the province’s myriad commercial concerns. S&T’s Vice President of Business Development Jim Tait, said “I think S&T has grown organically over the years. We are now agile enough and we have enough in-house skill to transfer from one market to the next. By that, I mean that we can support our local steel company when they’re busy and we are also able to supply everything from construction services to resources from a manpower perspective. We’re a multi-trade construction services business. Currently, we have everything from plumbers, to sheet metal skilled trades, to HVAC technicians and of course, we do everything in between.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck early last year, it was only this breadth of service expertise that allowed S&T Group to steer as necessary and navigate a devastating year for business across every industry. As vast swathes of the economy were effectively shut down, S&T Group, like so many others, found itself wondering what the next steps were to ensure the company’s survival, and thus the jobs of its thirty permanent office staff and seventy-plus skilled tradespeople. As the realities of regional lockdown became apparent, opportunities to help support local infrastructure projects proved to be a win-win for both S&T and the community. As Jim notes, “I think our agility, and our flexibility, as well as our scalability is what allowed us to keep moving. There are infrastructure projects that were started before the pandemic that became a reality. Based on their importance, from a reliability perspective to the general public, these projects needed to keep moving. So, we did work on some water utility and some electrical utility and we will continue with those projects going forward.”

“I think our agility, and our flexibility, as well as our scalability is what allowed us to keep moving.”

As 2021 hopefully pushes everyone closer towards business as usual, the indications are that the construction industry will experience a resurgence, with much work to be done. Algoma Steel Inc, Sault Ste. Marie’s largest employer, is in the process of implementing a new liquid metal furnace that S&T has been working on extensively. According to Jim, “Because of our high level of quality and delivery there, they’ve been asking us to continue to do other projects outside of that infrastructure base.” This is what Jim sees as the next stage of S&T’s evolution, a continued adaptation to becoming an all-in-one, holistic construction services operation. With the multi-disciplinary organic growth of the company over the years it seemed both a natural and progressive step forward. Communicating this approach to customers and business partners has been one of the challenges of the past few years. “Our goal is to try to get customers to work with us from the inception or the concept of a project and allow us to help them determine scope, budget, and work with us independently. Through that process, a transparent open-book philosophy is what we’ve been trying to promote.”

Gold mining is on an upward trajectory in Northern Ontario and, similar to their work with the local steel plant, S&T Group is offering its full suite of support services to the burgeoning industry. Their ambitions, however, aren’t limited to the region’s traditional heavy industries. Demonstrating a commitment to a progressive pursuit of expertise, you can also find their fingerprints across many other emerging fields. S&T Group’s diverse range of skills and experience has allowed it to work with the energy company Convergent in the cutting-edge field of battery-storage technology. These new relationships are ensuring that the company’s high quality work can be seen throughout the province.

S&T’s idea of progressive growth isn’t limited to their service offerings, either. Since 2018, they’ve been in partnership with the Missanabie Cree Business Corporation. Working with the Missanabie Cree First Nation has been another step towards cementing its relationships with the community and respecting the stakeholders they share the territory with. They’ve had particular success thus far in their joint ventures in the mining sector. Jim says, “We work together, we talk on a regular basis and approach jobs together. With their help, we have formed a pretty great partnership. These efforts go towards supporting impacted First Nation communities by providing opportunities which ultimately lead to long-term capacity building. I think it’s a pretty satisfying and progressive type of relationship.” In contrast to the population dense southern half of the province, industry in Northern Ontario tends to follow the fickle fluctuation of natural resource markets, making it difficult to pin any one particular flag to the mast. Gold mining is on the rise, but will that be the case in a decade? The steel and forestry industries have both experienced disorienting peaks and valleys over the last fifty years. While Jim accepts that this is part of life in the region, he believes that this is something that the company needs to be wary of. “You know, when you live in the larger communities, you’re able to kind of focus in on a core of what you want to do and you can become an expert at that. There is typically enough work to enable you to stick with a core skill set and be sustainable for the long term. In Northern Ontario, it’s not necessarily like that. Industries come and go and they really boom at one point of time, and then they go away and other industries boom at another time.”  On top of these industry-specific vagaries there are the usual cyclical economic recessions to cope with. While destabilizing black swan events do occur, as the current global pandemic has cruelly demonstrated, time and again, the willingness to transcend its previous incarnation has provided the platform for S&T Group’s success. Jim said, “I believe everyone in Sault Ste. Marie would know who S&T is and what we do. We are obviously province wide as well. We have gotten to that level because of our ability to grow and scale and be flexible when needed.” In a land where the full splendor of nature’s diversity is everywhere you look, it obviously pays to heed her example. Adapt. Evolve. Thrive.

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