Rhonda Morrison of Nicholson Manufacturing giving the keynote at the Mary Winspear Centre. (Hugo Wong/News Staff)

Nicholson Manufacturing is changing with the times

The Saanich Peninsula is home to many businesses, some well-known, others less so. They all contribute to the local economy, so the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce featured both in their annual Tour of Industry, which happened on Friday, January 26.

This is the last in a series.

At their Galaran Road facility, Nicholson Manufacturing is best known for their massive, green debarkers, which they have made for 60 years. They also make Madill Machines, which began as a Nanaimo blacksmithing business a century ago. Their roots on Vancouver Island are long established, but they are looking to the future, and Rhonda Morrison is among the people getting the company there.

Morrison has worked at Nicholson since 1993 in a variety of positions, most recently as director of enterprise excellence and interim director of operations. She has a biology degree, and she worked in sawmills to pay for school. She also worked on oil rigs as a first aid attendant. Over lunch at the Mary Winspear Centre, she told the business community how Nicholson was adopting lean manufacturing techniques, which examines every part of the production process to find efficiencies and reduce costs. During a Q&A, she spoke about the advantages and challenges of working on the Peninsula.

A key part of the lean manufacturing process (sometimes called “just-in-time manufacturing”) eschews making parts in batches, where they sit in anticipation of future customer demand.

Instead, workers now use “single-piece flow,” making parts only as customers ask for them. It was first used by Toyota and has been adopted by different companies around the world. It means companies don’t have to store surplus product and customers don’t have to wait for the next production cycle if they have a big order and clear out a company’s inventory.

Nicholson had been a family-run business for 69 years, but last July it was acquired by Kadant Inc., a publicly traded company based in Massachusetts that owns several other industrial equipment manufacturers. Morrison said there was some concern the new owners would radically change the company, but that has not happened. The company has about 180 employees, with 160 in Sidney and the rest in Pell City, Alabama.

Nicholson said the company is “open to anybody who shows up,” but they had a hard time attracting labour. Low unemployment and high home prices make it challenging for workers to live on the Peninsula. She said apprentices and employees commute from as far as Ladysmith or Duncan every day because they cannot afford housing on the Peninsula.

Since workers only have 30 minutes for lunch, they don’t have time to cross the highway into Sidney. Morrison said further development on the west side of the Pat Bay, including a daycare and more restaurants, would be welcomed by the company.

Nicholson’s fortunes are somewhat tied to the health of the forestry industry, which goes in cycles. She said the companies tries not to hire too many when the times are good, so quality stays high.

“We try to hire someone for life,” said Morrison, though she understood that sometimes “life happens.”

One tour participant asked Morrison how the construction and manufacturing industry could make itself more attractive to students who might otherwise be swayed towards the academic stream. As an example, he wanted the industry to lose its “Neanderthal” culture, where journeymen abuse apprentices and coarse language is common. Another participant chimed in, saying that was the reason he quit the industry.

Morrison said given her work history, she understood the concerns and said there were procedures in place to keep the workplace professional and safe for employees.

Nicholson has been affiliated with Camosun College for some time, providing opportunities for engineers and tradespersons. They are always looking for engineers, welders, millwrights and machinists.

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