How a culture of entrepreneurship has helped the ‘Tesla of underground mining’ thrive

Countless articles by business columnists and other pundits have called for Canadian manufacturers to transition their business models, to innovate and to find new ways to compete on the global stage.

We’re not sure what all the fuss is about because at MacLean Engineering, we’ve been doing exactly that since 1973, when Don MacLean founded our company in Thornbury, Ontario and in the ensuing early years relocated down the road to Collingwood, Ont., where it remains headquartered to this day. That was long before concerns over globalization and the collapse of Canada’s manufacturing sector caused sleepless nights for economists.

MacLean Engineering has earned the nickname ‘the Tesla of underground mining equipment’ for our embrace of sustainable technology. In fact, we’re now the largest mining equipment manufacturer in Canada. Our machines can be found in precious and base metal mines around the world. While our Collingwood and South Georgian Bay operations employ about 700, our global branches in key mining regions such as Mexico, Peru, South Africa, and Australia employ an additional 200 staff.

Many are surprised to learn that we’re not only thriving in a small town, but we’ve also staked out a leadership position in our industry, taking on multibillion-dollar, multinational mining equipment giants such as Caterpillar, Sandvik and Epiroc. Our production output has increased dramatically over the past five years, while our employee base has grown by some 30 per cent over the past year alone. How?

We’re a very niche player, a reality that has never afforded us the luxury of resting on our entrepreneurial laurels. Instead, we’ve relied on company-wide innovation to survive and succeed as we’ve analyzed market trends to blaze new trails in emerging product categories and adapt to rapidly shifting customer demand. That’s meant consistently delivering customized products that meet their exact operational needs—crucial in an industry where every underground environment is different—and keeping a close connection to what’s going on underground, then closely tying direct feedback from the field to important boardroom decisions.

With our entire industry looking to make the switch to electric and increasingly autonomous operations, we’ve led the way with the development of full-fleet electrification of our product line, from rock bolters to explosives chargers to boom trucks and scissor lifts. This EV switch will enable mining companies to mine deeper, harder to access ore bodies in an economic fashion, spending less on mine infrastructure, improve the work environment for miners and dramatically reduce their carbon footprints.

But there are other factors driving our success that can serve as a guidepost to other SMEs across the country.

The first is our location. Collingwood has once again been named Ontario’s most entrepreneurial community by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, and sixth in Canada. While other manufacturers in this town and others across the South Georgian Bay region have departed for southern production hotspots over the past two decades, we made a conscious decision to stay put. One reason is that we have access to a wide pool of highly-skilled talent less than two hours away in one of North America’s largest cities. As a four-season resort town, this is also a wonderful place to build a business and raise a family.  

Not to be overlooked, the community is making concerted efforts to supports its fast-growing business ecosystem, as evidenced in the current Live More Now campaign, an effort to attract more technology and knowledge-economy businesses and professionals to a town eager to fill career positions with top talent.

We’ve proven that it’s not only possible to build an internationally competitive business outside a major urban center, it may even be an HR value proposition, especially at a time when business owners and the professionals they employ are craving greater work-life balance, enhanced lifestyle opportunities and are increasingly conscious of issues such as affordable housing.

As we’ve grown over the years, we’ve focused on hiring the right people with the right skills. Lately, that’s seen a significant influx of Millennial-aged engineers with interests in areas such as robotics, vehicle telemetry, and vehicle electrification. Their passions have synergized nicely with our industry’s push into areas such as virtual reality vehicle monitoring, automation, and big data analysis.

Because entrepreneurship is the foundation of our company, we’ve allowed our people and culture to point us in the right strategic direction. Our nimble, decentralized decision-making process empowers our employees to innovate and make smart decisions with minimal delay. That, coupled with our focus on vehicle customization and the ability to service products in mining centers around the world, has allowed us to compete with our much larger industry rivals.

Our younger employees want to make a difference in the world. They want their work—be it software programming or advanced robotic engineering—to reflect their environmentally-conscious, socially-responsible values. In that sense, our leadership in mining vehicle electrification is in perfect alignment with their ethical aspirations. They come to work engaged every day because they know they’ll have the opportunity to work on challenging projects that are making a positive impact in the world around them.

Now, we have an increasingly diverse, knowledge-worker employee base. Perhaps it’s no surprise that we have colleagues who reverse-commute to Collingwood from the Greater Toronto Area every day for the chance to work on some of our exciting projects.

The bottom line is that advanced manufacturing is alive and well in Canada. But companies that are thriving, such as MacLean Engineering, are doing it by leveraging the right mix of strategy and innovation and an optimized workforce of entrepreneurial employees to achieve success.

Striking that balance isn’t easy, but when it works, you can create something with local roots that has global resonance.

Stuart Lister

Stuart Lister is the Director of Marketing and Communications at MacLean Engineering. For more on the Live More Now campaign, visit

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