By Mark Cardwell
When he graduated from Vancouver’s Northwest School of Deep Sea Diving in 1972 at age 21, Gordon Bain was eager to work with the skills he learned during the intensive six-month training. Trouble was, he couldn’t find work. “I applied at some places, but didn’t get a job,” recalls Bain. “So I decided to bid on jobs myself.” Bain started a company, which he dubbed Aqua-Marine, and landed his first contract, with Hydro-Québec.
Forty-five years, many acquisitions and one name change later, Bain’s company – now called Groupe Océan – is today a major provider of integrated marine services in Canada and an industry leader. Though it no longer offers diving services, Océan boasts one of the country’s largest fleets of marine equipment, with 36 tug boats in operation today, and as many as 500 barges and other pieces of equipment that are used to do dredging, salvaging, transportation and ship and industrial repairs anywhere in Eastern Canada and beyond.
The company also owns and operates a shipyard on Isle-aux-Coudres, 100 kms downriver from its head office at the port of Quebec City. The yard has notably built a self-propelled trailing suction hopper dredge, the first of its kind in Eastern Canada. In all, Océan employs more than 850 people at 16 locations on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, and in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.
Bain credits hard work, timely acquisitions and competent, dedicated employees for Océan’s steady and stable growth over the years. “We’re hard to compete against because we’re very balanced and we have tremendous know-how in all areas of our business,” says Bain. Océan, he adds, is poised for even more growth in the not-too distant future. “We’d like to expand everywhere,” Bain says. “There are many opportunities. The big challenge is finding enough qualified people to take advantage of them. We’re always hiring, but we’re still short 50 people.”
That’s a big change from Bain’s early days as a commercial diver. A keen high school swimmer who trained for many years, mornings and evenings, Bain initially followed his English-speaking father into one of the many pulp and paper mills that existed then in Trois-Rivières, as a student. Fortunately for Bain, he quickly soured on the well-paying paper mill jobs, more than 10,000 of which disappeared later during the industry’s meltdown in the 1980s and 90s. “I hated the sounds and the smells,” recalls Bain, whose paternal grandfather emigrated to Canada from Scotland. “There was no future for me there.”
As demand for Aqua Marine’s services grew in the seventies and early eighties, Bain hired more divers and bought cutting-edge equipment that allowed him to do increasingly complex jobs. Aqua-Marine was one of the first companies in the province to have decompression chambers, and one of few in Eastern Canada to be so equipped. Among Bain’s most memorable jobs are laying 9 feet-wide cement pipes under the St. Lawrence to handle rainwater and other overflows from Quebec City, and laying Sklar pipes that weighed 3 tonnes on land – but felt like 20 pounds in the water – in the St. Lawrence near Matane.
Bain was also on contract to inspect dams for Hydro-Québec for more than a decade, and spent eight to ten months a year for six consecutive years diving to depths of 20 meters (65 feet) in the cold waters of Lac St. Jean to inject cement and redo slides at Alcan’s massive aluminum complex in Alma.
Though diving is by its very nature a dangerous profession, Bain prides himself on the fact that neither he nor any of his company’s divers suffered any serious injuries. “If there’s no air, there’s no life,” says Bain. “We had a couple of close calls. But we were always very insistent on safety and gear. For example, when a guy was in the water, we always had a spare diver ready to go, and somebody on the radio.” One of Bain’s divers of that era confirms his boss’ stickling for safety, as well as his ability to get the best out of his the people who worked for him.
“Gordon has a good eye for hiring the right people, and he has confidence in them and gives them a lot of liberty to do what they have to do to get the job done,” says Alain St-Pierre, who started working for Bain 35 years ago as a diver, and is now superintendent for the company’s waterfront operations across Quebec. St-Pierre says Bain is a “very frank, no-nonsense guy who listens to people before making decisions. And he can change his mind during a job if the people he trusts so advise him. That’s really uplifting, and appreciated by employees.”
In 1987, a series of things came together that crystalized Bain’s hopes and vision for the future for him and his company. Driving that reflection was Bain’s growing weariness of doing commercial diving, which is both physically demanding and highly competitive. “You can’t spend all your life on the water,” says Bain, whose last job as a diver was laying underwater cable at Isle-aux-Coudres in 1990. “And the problem with diving companies is that for 50 grand anybody can get some tanks and go after contracts. “I was ready for a new challenge.”
That led Bain in 1987 to buy Les Remorqueurs de Québec, a company that operated four tugboats in Quebec City. “I used to hire them often for jobs and I wanted to grow and I thought it was a good opportunity,” says Bain. “It was a good fit because I had a vision of offering multiple marine services.” “Tugs, he adds, are primarily used to dock and undock ships, which lose their manoeuvrability at low speed.” Bain says 90 per cent of ship accidents occur when docking. “Responsible shipowners insist on tugs,” says Bain. “Ports should too, because ships that don’t use tugs bang and damage their docks.”
Along with buying the tug company, Bain hired a civil engineer named Jacques Tanguay. (Not to be confused with the Quebec City businessman and Port of Quebec Board of Directors member of the same name). Tanguay was initially hired to deal with the divers, while Bain focused on taking his new tug business to another level, which he rolled into Aqua-Marine to form Groupe Océan. The two men hit it off and developed an aggressive expansion plan and partnership that would lead Océan to ultimately securing the lion’s share of contracts in the many markets where the company is active.
The expansion began with acquisitions of tug companies in Montreal (McAllister), Sorel and Trois-Rivières, which firmly established Groupe Océan in the industry. In 1994, the year Tanguay became a shareholder in the business, Groupe Océan made two key acquisitions: the shipyard on Isle-aux-Coudres, and dredging company Dragage St-Maurice. Over the years, Groupe Océan became one of the largest integrated marine services companies in Canada.
Ten years later, the company launched a $90-million fleet renewal project, the highlight of which consisted of building eight high-tech tugs for use on the St. Lawrence. In 2005, Ocean created Ocean Ontario Towing, which offers habour tug services in the Ports of Hamilton, Oshawa and Toronto, and five years later, Ocean began operating in the port of Sept-Îles and opened new workshops in the port of Québec.
In 2011, Groupe Océan Group’s dredging division landed the contract for the Northern Traverse section of the St. Lawrence River, a contract that led to the building of the self-propelled trailing suction hopper dredge at its own shipyard at Isle-aux-Coudres in record time.
In 2012, Groupe Océan’s 40th anniversary year, the company built Ocean Tundra, the most powerful harbour tugboat ever built in Eastern Canada. The company also began planning a second tug of the same kind – Ocean Taiga, which was commissioned in 2016 – and started working in Bull Arm Bay in Newfoundland/Labrador in support of the Hebron Oil Platform Project.
In 2013, Océan Dredging obtained its first international dredging contract at the port of Dos Bocas in Mexico. In 2015, Océan joined with the government of New Brunswick in the revitalization of shipbuilding at the Naval Center in Bas-Caraquet through the construction of a floating drydock. That program made news recently when Océan was awarded a contract to build a ferry at the yard.
In June of 2017, Océan also acquired three tugs from Svitzer Canada, to expand the size of Océan’s harbour towing fleet to 36 ships.
“You’ll be hearing more about Ocean Group between now and our 50th anniversary,” quips Bain. “We’re not lacking in energy, ambition or vision.”