Lloydminster – When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
That’s how it is for heavy duty transport mechanic Nathan Miller who owns NGM Mechanical Ltd. located northwest of Lloydminster on Range Road 20 off Highway 16.
Miller is buying a service truck to conduct repairs in the field as the downturn in oil prices causes to him to diversify his shop-based business.
“We’ve definitely taken an impact from it. I’ve probably lost 60 per cent of my customers because of it,” said Miller.
The downturn is also leading a lot of his oil hauling customers to modify their trucks for grain hauling to make a living.
“I’m taking a lot of pumps off as a lot of them are going to haul grain now or gravel,” said Miller.
“They’re branching out and they’re getting farther away from home now. I’ve been listening to what the customers want and that’s why we’re looking at getting into a service truck.”
His new business plans began to take shape in December when the impact of the downturn hit home.
“Usually I would be putting out about 120 invoices a month, and it’s down to maybe 40 invoices now,” he said in early March.
With a service truck he could even downsize from his current two rental bays to one as he adjusts to market conditions.
“I’m slowly getting into the service side of it – service rigs and I have pumpjack motors and stuff – diversifying a little bit,” he said.
“I’ve been a mechanic for 13 years so it’s good to get into something different.”
Miller has four kids to feed while his wife Trish Langville handles the bookkeeping.
“The biggest thing right now we are looking at what kind of money we can spend into a service truck and do a little bit more advertising,” said Miller.
“The nice thing is I don’t have very much overhead. I’m just a one man show so I can keep my hourly rate down.
“I’m $100 an hour whereas a lot of shops are $120. That $20 makes a big difference.
“Because I don’t have as much of an overhead (like) a lot of customers that I have been working with –I can adjust my hourly rate with them.”
Before oil prices began to tank, Miller was fixing or certifying about four or five semis or trailers a day. Now, “It’s one here and one there.”
The service truck is priority one to go to where his customers are if need be.
“This way I’m not limited to what I can do. When you have a shop, you’ve got to try to pull the customers into your shop and have reason for them to come to you,” he said.
“With a service truck, some people like that when you come to their shop. A tow bill costs a lot too,” he said as further justification for a service truck that he used to operate.
“I ran a service truck for two and half years for a company out of Lloyd mostly working on service rigs,” he said.
The service truck he’s looking at has a welder on it which has him thinking of going back to school to complete his welding ticket.
“In school, I took a basic welding class, but it would be nice to get that extra certificate then a guy could branch out and do a little bit more things,” he said.
Miller graduated from SIAST, now known as Saskatchewan Polytechnic, when he was 19.
“How their program works is, you chose whatever you want to do,” he said.
“If you want to go on the transport side of it, you do that or the heavy equipment. Over the years I’ve done a little bit of both – so the heavy equipment I can work into.
“There aren’t too many things I can’t do from the mechanic side of it.”
Miller came to work in Lloydminster as a heavy duty mechanic when his parents moved to the city after selling their cattle ranch in Mankota Saskatchewan.
“I just worked for the various shops in town for Frontier Peterbilt for a few years until that last recession hit in ’09 so they let a few guys go,” he said.
Miller headed north to work for Cameco in MacArthur River helping to rebuild their fleet of trucks.
He launched NMG in July 2012 with a partner before going it alone.
He eventually moved into his current location in one of three 10-bay rental shops where he has all the tools needed for the job.
“I’ve got pretty much all the diagnostic and the basic service equipment pretty much everything for a guy to work on a semi,” he said.
Speaking from what he jokingly calls his “big boss” chair (a folding lawn chair) Miller hinted he may try focus on truck and equipment air conditioning repairs this summer.
“Maybe I’ll set up some packages for redoing air conditioning in semis and grain trucks and maybe automotive – do a little bit of that and door to door service,” he said.
“You gotta do what you gotta do. A man’s got to eat and you got bills to pay.”
Meanwhile, he said his biggest goal is taking care of the customers he’s got right now and keeping their trucks keep on the road so they don’t lose any downtime.
“If they lose a day, that’s four loads they don’t have,” he said.
“After you work on a guy’s truck for a year, you figure them out pretty good. You know things that should be done, things that he can let go for a couple of months.
“Whereas, when you get a new guy in, it takes a while to learn his truck.”
Miller said what sets him apart from the competition is that his work speaks for itself.
“You do quality work, the word spreads. A lot of my advertising is by word of mouth. I’m just about pushing 40 -plus customers. For a single man that’s a lot of trucks,” he said.
“Some of them have got three to four trucks.
Fixing and repairing equipment comes from Miller’s farm DNA.
“My dad always had to hide the grain auger motor just because I wanted to rebuild them all,” he said with a laugh.
“When I was 12 I did all the summer fallow for dad. We worked hard on the farm.”
He said farming would be a good fallback right now if he could do it again.
“It would be nice. Cattle prices are quite high. We had 600 head of cattle,” he said adding the ranch covered nearly five sections of land.
He said it was a tough decision for his dad to sell it but he said farming is stressful.
His dad is a welder at Waste Management in Lloydminster, a trade that kind of runs in the family.
“Like dad said, back in the day my great-grandpa was a blacksmith and so was my grandpa,” said Miller.
He noted there is always a need for welding as a mechanic.
“There’s always stuff to fix on these trucks. There’s some welding I could do myself but when it gets into structural or suspension work I’ll get a welder in here to weld it.
“This way he can sign off on it.”