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Blue Water Group

An industry leader coast to coast

~ By Cheryl Long

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When its current owners purchased Blue Water Group in 1998, they knew that diversification would be the key to the company’s growth. Already successfully operating as a ship chandler in Atlantic Canada, the transition to warehousing, logistics and supply chain management would take the business well beyond its current reach.

Today, the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based company runs several lines of business from ocations across Canada. Not only did they recently celebrate their 40th anniversary, but this year Deloitte announced that Blue Water Group was among Canada’s Best Managed Companies for 2014.

David Babin, Blue Water Group’s Senior Vice President, joined the company in 2001 after a 20-year career as a Sea Logistics Officer with the Royal Canadian Navy. That experience has been invaluable in his role with Atlantic Canada’s largest ship chandler, which supplies goods and services to ships docking in Montreal, the northeastern United States and all of Canada’s eastern ports. They also operate a sufferance warehouse that allows products to be delivered from countries outside of Canada and be held duty- and tax-free until they can be transferred to the ship upon arrival.

The move from chandler to lubricant distributor wasn’t a huge leap for the company since so many of their marine customers were in need of heavy-duty lubricants in their day-to-day operations. Blue Water Group is the largest independent distributor of Mobil Lubricants in Canada, including Atlantic Canada, northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories, mainland British Columbia and throughout the St. Lawrence Seaway. They also operate as an Esso fuels reseller in Newfoundland and British Columbia.

Increased emphasis on safety and environmental issues

Over the years, the company has changed “a lot and very little,” Babin explained. “We have grown in staff, locations and infrastructure. We have adapted technological innovation in our financial and accounting systems. We use GPS on our trucks and CRM in our sales management processes. We have put more emphasis on employee development and health, safety, security and environmental issues.”

The company is ISO 9001 certified at two of their Eastern Canada locations and has adopted an integrated management system that uses a balanced scorecard to measure and improve business, he added. But what hasn’t changed are the three attributes that are interwoven throughout all business units — a sense of urgency, a “can do” attitude and 24/7 customer service mentality.

Warehousing and logistics is another core part of Blue Water Group. The majority of those services are aimed at Canada’s offshore oil and gas industry, notably companies like ExxonMobil, Encana and Shell for their drilling and production projects. This fall, they will be providing warehousing and yard services to ExxonMobil in Newfoundland for the Hibernia and Hebron projects.

 “We have effectively managed to grow our logistics business by offering excess capacity to clientele at a price that reflected synergies in our systems,” Babin said. “For example, our trucks were able to drop off ExxonMobil plant parts in Goldboro and Point Tupper, Nova Scotia on the way to making deliveries to Sydney.  As another example, we were able to utilize excess warehouse capacity to satisfy ExxonMobil materials and then use excess yard and dock space to satisfy Encana and Shell at prices that are beneficial to both parties.”

The final piece to the current business profile fell into place with the purchase of Edge Marine several years ago, Babin said. The acquisition brought Blue Water Group into the marine waste disposal industry, allowing the company to collect and treat ship waste from vessels in Halifax Harbour prior to transport to the local landfill.

Sales have grown to more than $165 million

Not only is the business expanding in terms of services they provide, but their revenues and staff numbers have also risen steadily. Sales that were $7.5 million in 1998 are now over $165 million and the company is providing jobs for more than 150 people across the country. A global network of suppliers, 200,000 square feet of warehouse space and 24/7 international support puts Blue Water Group at the forefront of their field.

Finding the right employees has also been a crucial part of the company’s success and that can mean going through a lengthy hiring process to ensure the fit is right for both Blue Water Group and the prospective hire. But the time and effort pays off. “We have a pretty good retention rate,” Babin said. “We’re trying  to foster a sense of communication and cooperation through the company and make sure that everybody understands the next person’s role and responsibility. Without our employees we’re not going to go anywhere.”

Long-term strategy plays a vital role in Blue Water Group’s ability to maintain a high level of competitiveness.  Process improvements are an ongoing priority and there are plans to grow the warehousing and offshore operations and explore geographic markets that would support the expansion of the company’s ship chandlery business. More seasonal work like marine waste disposal and home heating fuel distribution provide valuable support during slower times.

Discipline key to competitive advantage

“We believe our competitive advantage is our discipline. If something does not fit within the five elements of our long-term strategy, we don’t do it,” Babin explained. “The company focuses on continuous improvement and customer service. We regularly review who we are and what we do.”

That can mean removing business lines that may have initially fit well into the diversification plan but no longer factor into the long-range strategy. “For example, we use to perform port coordination services for the Canadian Navy from 1999 to 2014. The contract no longer fit within our parameters for profitable growth. This was also the case when we left the offshore catering business,” Babin said.

Like any successful organization, Blue Water Group has made investments in technology as another means of staying innovative. In 2005, they adopted a new SAP financial and managerial accounting system and later added inventory planning software to their operations. A new customer portal interface being tested in their Edmonton office allows customers to enter their own orders online, cutting down on mistakes and allowing staff to be moved into other areas of the business. It’s part of the company’s philosophy of continuous procedural improvement that puts an emphasis on customer satisfaction.

“The nature of the marine and offshore industries is such that our company must pay particular attention to the urgency of the needs of the customer,” Babin said. “This sense of urgency is what has allowed Blue Water to excel in all of its lines of business.”

To learn more, visit bluewatergroup.ca.