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Athabasca Catering

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A Hidden Gem in Saskatchewan’s Food Industry

By Rajitha Sivakumaran

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When mining companies go into the remote Athabasca Basin to conduct mineral exploration and mining operations, they rely on more than just high-tech equipment to facilitate their stay. Working in the background are companies like Saskatchewan-based Athabasca Catering Limited Partnership (ACLP), which strives to turn secluded locations in Canada’s northern
areas into a home away from home.

Specializing in food preparation, housekeeping, janitorial, and camp set-up and management services, ACLP is a key supplier for Saskatchewan’s resource, construction and forestry industries and boasts revenues that makes it truly the largest First Nations remote site camp and catering provider in Canada with a workforce of 500 to 750 employees depending on business demands. But for Alan Cole, the company’s newly-hired managing director, that is not enough. His vision for the company is a grand one, one that entails crossing borders and diversifying beyond comfort zones.

A veteran in the hospitality industry, Cole began his career as a chef and progressed through the years working for many large, international hotel chains and remote site service companies with a decade-long service in the Royal Air Force strewn in there along the way. Despite having been with ACLP for only a couple of months, Cole has big plans.

“I’m bringing my corporate knowledge and my international experience to this amazing, First Nations company with a vision of driving steady, sustainable growth into the future,” Cole said.

In real estate, location sells, but this is something that has been contributing to ACLP’s success for over 20 years. Being First Nations-owned, the company is located on traditional treaty lands. Incoming companies entering these areas for business need a locally situated enterprise to service their workforce. The result is two perfectly fitted puzzle pieces; both parties benefit using what Cole called an industry-recognised business model, whereby work is permitted on traditional lands if the arriving company agrees to use local resources and contribute to improving the lives of residents living in affected communities. So location has created a specialized service niche for the company. But rather than settling comfortably in this niche, Cole actually plans to drive the company out and beyond and compete on a level playing field with the rest of the companies out there.

“Taking the company outward and expanding it outside of Saskatchewan is my biggest strategy in the long term,” Cole said. An aggressive expansion into Manitoba, Ontario and west into Alberta and the Northwest Territories in the upcoming years is on his to-do list. The second thing will be to incorporate a more retail-focused offering while continuing to embrace the very latest technology platforms. The move is a smart one, especially when considering the downturn the resource industry is presently facing.

Cole has spent the vast majority of his career working for very large corporations. “The way the smaller companies do business here in Canada is not at that level, but this particular company will be at that level very soon, where we can stand toe to toe and remove those differentiators between us and the larger companies,” Cole said.

The challenge is that ACLP is not well advertised. Before he came to work for the company, Cole had not even heard of it. “They’re not great at advertising, but I think that’s the personality of First Nations people; they don’t boast and brag… but that’s why I’m here. I will happily do that,” Cole said. “Modesty is great, but it’ll only get you so far. Sometimes you have to stand on the rooftop and shout.”

Aboriginal to the core

“There are very few companies that are truly 100 percent First Nations owned,” Cole said. Many are joint venture partnerships with larger international companies, but that is not the case with ACLP, and its First Nations roots extend from the workforce to the management staff.

The company began in March 1993 as a joint venture between Fond Du Lac First Nations and Saskatoon Catering Company. In 2003, Kitsaki Management bought over the latter, making ACLP a 100 percent First Nations-owned company. In fact, it is owned by five First Nation partners: Fond du Lac, Black Lake, English River, Hatchet Lake and Lac La Ronge Indian Band, and this ownership is immensely helping Aboriginal people. About 76 percent of the company’s workforce consists of First Nations people; the rest come mostly from the larger community of Saskatchewan, and millions of dollars are spent every year on wages. Most potential employees live in the remote areas where the mines are located. “The people are basically going to work in their home communities and I think that’s where the benefit is,” Cole said.

The seven-day-in, seven-day-out or two-weeks-in, two-weeks-out work schedule is commonplace when working in a remote environment. “This kind of rotational schedule is standard in Canada, and what it does for us is provide a good work-life balance for people in the community,” Cole said.

ACLP works hard to ensure all its staff know what is expected of them from the job, their manager and the clients. The company uses a wide range of training strategies to meet the different levels of work literacy. From buddy systems to daily safety meetings and workshops, ACLP adjusts its training to fit the staff at the worksites.

However, not everything can be taught on the job. Some skills required for work are reading and writing, but even here in Canada, achieving competency in literacy is not as universal as it should be. For those without a high school diploma, additional help in reading is required to help candidates pass written tests. “There’s a lot of strategy you have to put in place to help someone who has no access or very limited access to education,” Cole said.

Cole’s extensive business experience will ensure that ACLP continues to provide high quality service while focusing on expanding into the future.

www.athabascacatering.com