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Lonny Thiessen: A Whale of a good idea for the oil patch

Western Manufacturing owner Lonny Thiessen, on the shop floor of his Grande Prairie, Alta., facility, says creating The Whale was a matter of company survival. ‘Obviously if we just stuck to the old processes and somebody else develops something new, we’d just get left in the dust.’

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Wheeling down the highway, The Whale rolls along like a very expensive toy, the kind that would make a four-year-old's eyes pop – a massive, rectangle-shaped, 230-cubic-metre tanker trailer painted black with bright green trim.

Yet for Alberta businessman Lonny Thiessen, it's serious, save for the name.

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The Whale is designed to double the hauling and heating efficiency of mobile tanks used in the energy sector, mainly for fracking.

The tanker trailer made by Mr. Thiessen's Grande Prairie company, Western Manufacturing, is towed by truck to fracking sites, where pressurized fluid is used to extract oil and natural gas. There the tank is used to store water or other liquids, then eventually emptied and towed away.

With the traditional method, one truck would commonly bring two vertical tanks, together storing a total of 128 cubic metres. The Whale is nearly double that. So one truck can haul a tank with nearly double the capacity. Plus the heating system for the fluids stored in the tank at the site is more than twice as efficient.

"So there's a significant reduction in truckloads and the associated carbon emissions with the hauling ... a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions throughout that process," Mr. Thiessen said. At 28, he heads the company, having cut his teeth working in his father's earlier tank business.

The Whale is pretty much as big a tank as can be hauled by road, he indicated. "We're pushing the [Department of Transportation] regulations on all sides," he said. "Obviously if we just stuck to the old processes and somebody else develops something new, we'd just get left in the dust. So it's a project that I've taken a personal interest in. I just thought there was a better way."

Also, a better way to build the product.

To dramatically cut down on overhead and make the business more nimble as demand fluctuates in the oil patch, Mr. Thiessen relies on a network of subcontractors, rather than a centralized manufacturing operation.

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None of the manufacturing shops used to make the parts are big enough to build an entire tank. "But we can utilize these smaller facilities to build different parts and pieces. We then assemble these parts and pieces at our main facilities and do the painting and completions."

The advantage for the subcontractors, who often are farmers or have other operations on the go, is that they don't have to worry about development costs, engineering or sales. Western Manufacturing does that.

"Western has built the model that acts as a go-between and provides those necessary components, including capital," Mr. Thiessen said. It helps create a ready buyer for what the shops produce. "We have unlocked that shop floor and made it available to the greater industry."

He added: "Most of these people are farmers, or they've got other occupations. So whatever [business] they get from us is a bit of a bonus. And then if there isn't work for three weeks, for a month, for a year, they can deal with that. And we don't have a large [manufacturing] asset sitting there languishing with no work."

Probably the company's greatest risk, ironically, would be for these shops to do too well and grow. They could become potential competitors of Western. Yet Western's selling point is that it provides so many services and ready income for the shops. So why leave Western's orbit? That's what Mr. Thiessen hopes.

Plus, there's the competition among shops. Western is expanding its number of suppliers to include manufacturers in British Columbia's Interior, Ontario and Mexico. "We have a list of shops waiting to work for us that's longer than what we can utilize at any given time."

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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