By Mark Cardwell
Diesel mechanic Yves Grondin says most of his friends, family members and work colleagues thought he was crazy in 1996 when he quit his well-paying job as a fuel injection and turbocharger expert with the now- defunct diesel Division of United Auto Parts in his hometown of Quebec City, to invest everything he had to start up a small business devoted exclusively to the sale, maintenance and repair of turbochargers.
“I took out on a mortgage on my house (and) sunk about $100,000 into the venture,” recalled Grondin, owner of Turbo Expert Québec. “I was convinced there was a big future in turbos. But there were a lot of doubters.”
But who’s laughing now? After 21 years of hard work, including an initial seven-year stint without a single vacation, Grondin’s company – the aptly-named Turbo Expert Québec – is now an internationally-renowned industry leader in the fast-growing turbocharger market.
From an initial focus on the sale and service of industrial and automotive turbochargers, the company has emerged as a dominant player in the niche Canadian marine sector in recent years.
A long-time contractor for the Canadian Coast Guard and Société des traversiers du Québec, which operates the province’s thirteen car ferry routes, Grondin said the marine sector used to account for about 15 per cent of his business. But since 2013, when he created a marine division that provides services to commercial shipowners like Fednav, CSL, Transport Desgagnés and Ocean Group, that percentage has increased threefold. “We’ve done very well,” said Grondin, who leads his company’s mobile marine repair unit.
Because marine turbochargers are so big and are connected to marine diesel engines, where they act as a bellows to dramatically improve power, Grondin and one of his shop’s five technicians – all of whom he has trained, including a stepson, Simon Bissonnette – usually go onboard ships and disassemble turbochargers on the spot. They then take parts requiring service back to the company’s 6,000-square-foot facility in a Quebec City industrial park. Half of the shop is reserved exclusively for the repair of marine turbochargers.
Among Grondin’s state-of-the-art equipment is a massive balancer (one of seven) that can handle rotors up to 1.7 meters in length and 1,000 kg in weight. A sandblasting cabinet that uses glass beads – the largest model available on the world market – also enables Grondin to clean massive turbocharger parts like rotors that measure nearly four feet in diameter.
The company is an authorized dealer for makers of high-efficiency industrial turbochargers for marine propulsion like Garrett, Holset, BorgWarner/Schwitzer, Mitsubishi, IHI products – and most recently the United Kingdom’s Napier, which in July made Turbo Expert Québec its only certified service centre in Eastern North American and one of only two approved shops in Canada (the other is in Vancouver). Grondin says he has essentially cornered the niche market for marine turbocharger maintenance services across Eastern Canada, from Ontario to the Maritimes. Those services range from scheduled maintenance, cleaning and rebalancing of turbochargers (mostly during the winter months when ships are laid up) to emergency calls during the navigation season.
“We get emergency calls regularly throughout the year,” said Grondin, who also works with his second wife, Dominique Tremblay, who is in charge of the company’s business development. “There’s no Christmas or New Year’s vacation for us. We have to be ready to respond.”
Grondin said supervisors and chief engineers of vessel operators across Eastern Canada have his cellphone number. “They all know how to reach me,” he said, laughing. “That’s a big part of the benefit they get from dealing with our company. When they call, they talk to the boss and the technician who is going to go and repair their problem.”
In addition to the convenience of that direct contact, Grondin said calling him is both less expensive and results in more efficient service for shipowners whose vessels are equipped with turbochargers with expired warranties. “It can cost a fortune to call the manufacturer because they usually send high-priced technicians from far away,” said Grondin. “I’m here and they know me and trust me.”
Now 56, Grondin said he has no plans to retire anytime soon, especially since the business from his company’s marine sector is continuing to expand. “My health is good and we’ve got a lot of energy in the shop,” he said. “I still really enjoy what I do, and I have to admit that I get a lot of satisfaction from the way things have turned out. Nobody believed me then, but I saw it all like this twenty years ago.”