By Brian Dunn

Alan Espey was 24 years old when he came to Montreal from Dublin to launch a new company with the intention of only staying for a year. That was back in 1985 and he’s still here.

The company he launched with co-founder James Spicer was Hunt Refrigeration Canada Inc. with CP Ships being its first customer. Mr. Spicer passed away in 2003 and Rob Nadeau, who joined the company in 1987, became a partner and part of the management team. Mr. Nadeau retired last year and Mr. Espey is semi-retired, but is overseeing the transition to the new management team of son Yanik Espey, wife Hélène Newberry and Eric Bédard.

The company got its name from John Hunt who owned Hunt Refrigeration in the U.K. at the time and offered his expertise for the new venture in Canada, but dropped out after two years. In 2002, Hunt opened a second terminal in the Montreal suburb of Ville St. Laurent in CN Rail’s compound to service CN’s reefer business. Three years later, it opened a facility in Toronto which, in addition to the service and repair of reefers, handles the storage of dry containers for shipping lines. A Calgary facility was opened in 2015, followed by Prince Rupert in 2017.

Today, the company has three brands – Hunt Refrigeration, Frigo-Cube mobile cold rooms and Weighit, a Verified Gross Weight (VGW) scale located at the port of Montreal’s common gate. Hunt’s primary business is the service and repair of reefer containers for the major shipping companies, including MSC, Maersk, Hapag Lloyd, CMA CGM and OOCL in addition to CN and CP Rail, marine terminal operators and major trucking companies. It also conducts pre-trip inspections, maintenance checks, reefer storage, genset (generator set) services and is a dealer and distributor for the main refrigeration companies such as Carrier, Thermo-King, Daikin and Starcool.

The genset service ranges from clip-on generators for road transport and under mount gensets  that connect to truck chassis up to multi-plug power packs that Hunt maintains, repairs, sells or leases from its inventory of 150 generators. There are at least two or three other companies that offer similar services, but Mr. Espey figures he is the largest. The company conducts between 80 and 100 reefer pre-trip inspections a day in Montreal alone. The Montreal facility accounts for an estimated 60 per cent of Hunt’s total volume, followed by Toronto at 20 per cent. Total employment at the four facilities is between 130 and 150 people.

Although technology has changed with microprocessors being able to pinpoint a problem with a reefer, microprocessors can break down which is why you still need “boots on the ground. You still need visual inspections to detect if there is an odd sound emanating from a container or if there’s a loose screw. Even as we’re in the process of automating our pre-trip inspections, we will still need visual inspections” said Mr. Espey.

Hunt has enjoyed steady growth of between 3-5 per cent a year over the last several years, partly due to the decline of bulk shipments in favour of containers. And while the business is not recession proof, it is one of the last to fall into recession and first out of it, said Mr. Espey.

With temperature-controlled reefers ranging between +30C and -30C, the variety of what can be moved in containers is extensive. Beef and pork are major export products, but wine, beer and pharmaceuticals which once moved by air, are now being shipped in refrigerated containers. Even expensive and delicate machinery parts are being shipped in reefers to eliminate the humidity found in traditional containers, noted Mr. Espey. Other products include frozen Christmas trees from Quebec and ferns and earth worms for fishing from B.C. At 2.2 degrees C, the worms go into hibernation, but 2 degrees above that they come out of hibernation and could potentially die.

With shipping agents a thing of the past, Hunt mostly deals with head offices overseas who set the cost of repairs which are quoted in U.S. dollars but are paid in local currency for labour, negating the advantage of a lower loonie. ”We have about $2 million in inventory which we need to have, because if something like a sensor breaks down on a reefer containing $1 million worth of pharmaceuticals, we can’t afford to wait for the part to be shipped to us. That’s a big advantage over our competitors.”

While technology has reduced revenue from pre-trip inspections, volume has picked up. Twenty years ago, a big week for Hunt was 20 reefers a week moving through its facilities. Today, it’s closer to 500, and the amount of time servicing them is actually less.

Over the past few years, Hunt has used its expertise to branch out into other areas, some not even marine related. For example, its container sales and modification division is building a service bar for the PY1 pyramid, a multimedia show at the Old Port of Montreal produced by Guy Laliberté, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil. A juice manufacturer near Montreal extended its refrigeration facility with a reefer designed and built by Hunt.

In 2010, the company launched Frigo-Cube, which manufactures and leases mobile cold rooms for major events including the Montreal International Jazz Festival, Formula 1 Grand Prix, Just for Laughs festival, Osheaga music festival and Tennis Canada’s  Rogers Cup. “The units are more user friendly than traditional reefers,” noted Mr. Espey.

Hunt also manufactured a Verified Gross Weight (VGW) scale called Weighit (which Yanik Espey designed) located at the port’s common gate that trucks drive onto and the container is lifted off the vehicle a few inches to determine the exact weight of the container, an industry requirement before being loaded onto a ship.

While the weight of most containers is verified at the various terminals, some arrive at the port without the proper paperwork, noted Mr. Espey. “Someone can claim they’re carrying 24 tonnes of scrap metal for example, when they’re actually carrying 30 tonnes. Most consolidated cargo would need our service and we would send the VGW to the transportation or shipping company directly.”

A new service Hunt is expected to open is a loaded reefer storage facility to accommodate loaded shipments at the port of Montreal.

Last year, the company spent $3 million on infrastructure improvements, primarily to pave its 370,000 sq. ft. facility at the port. This year, it has earmarked another $500,000 to increase the number of reefer plugs from 70 to 120, an indication that business is continuing to grow.