BY BRIAN DUNN
For most people, Groupe Somavrac, a major player in the Canadian maritime industry, has been flying under the radar for almost 60 years. But it’s been around since 1963 and specializes in stevedoring, warehousing, handling and transformation, transportation and chemical distribution for various industries, including mining, cement plants, energy, pulp and paper, steel/aluminum, chemical/petrochemical, agriculture, agri-food and industrial.
Headquartered in Trois-Rivières, Somavrac (an acronym for société de manutation de vrac, or bulk handing company) has 11 subsidiaries and operates throughout Quebec and Southern Ontario. The family run business was started by Pierre Paquin who acquired Dominion Coal Infrastructure and renamed it Somavrac. Before the purchase, Mr. Paquin had worked for his father who operated Three-Rivers Shipping, a general cargo and grain handling operation. When Pierre died in 2005, his son Marc became President and his other son Robert, became Executive Vice-President.
There are several milestones throughout the company’s storied history, but a few are worth mentioning, according to Sylvain Desbiens, Vice-President Strategic Accounts, Groupe Somavrac. The first would naturally be the purchase of Dominion Coal which launched Somavrac 58 years ago. Another would be the construction in Trois-Rivières of the company’s first product warehousing and bagging plant for the pulp and paper industry two years later, which launched the company’s diversification strategy. Somavrac diversified again in 1976 with the construction of a caustic soda tank for liquid products which established its Servitank division. Another subsidiary, Fonbrai, founded in 1991, is a processing plant dedicated to the distribution of coal tar pitch that is unique in North America. A component in the manufacture of aluminum, coal pitch is received, processed and distributed by Fonbrai. using the just-in-time method to aluminum smelters in the North-East.
In 1994, the company diversified again with the establishment of another division, Somavrac C.C., specializing in the distribution of calcium-chloride-based products, used primarily as dust suppressants and de-icing agents.
Somavrac first broke into the Ontario market in 2001, with the acquisition of UBA with operations in Mississauga and Oakville that specializes in chemical distribution and other services that complement those of Groupe Somavrac such as partial bulk deliver. The company’s latest acquisition is Javel Bois-Francs which specializes in recreational and sanitary products.
To say Somavrac is an important player at the Port of Trois-Rivières would be no exaggeration. Its solid and liquid bulk terminal covers 90,000 square metres, including four berths, nine solid bulk sheds (by the end of 2021) totalling 31,500 square metres and tanks that can accommodate 250,000 cubic metres of liquid bulk, in addition to two mobile cranes, pipeline network and rail access.
The company recently purchased a Rotainer type equipment that can be installed on its port crane, ship crane or reach-stacker that allows material to be taken from a storage area and transferred directly to a ship, without the cargo ever touching the ground. This new generation equipment will be used mainly for handling mining concentrate or for other cargo ships during loading. The equipment will be commissioned in October for pilot testing and operation optimization.
Somavrac also operates a hopper with a dust collection system, designed and assembled in Trois-Rivières to support a variety of cargos. The dust controlling mechanism is completely automated. Last year, the company began construction of a cleaning facility for the heavy equipment used to handle bulk products. The commissioning of the facility, scheduled for this year, will minimize the dispersion of products in the port area and is designed to recover wash residues in order to recycle them.
And four years ago, Somavrac signed a long-term agreement to operate Terminal 13 at the port, covering 23,000 square metres. The terminal is served by a network of pipelines connected to reservoirs north of the port as well as by rail and road, making it a highly versatile storage platform.
“Somavrac and the Port have had a strong partnership since 1963 and have grown together,” said Jacques Paquin (no relation to Somavrac founder Pierre Paquin), the Port’s Executive Vice-President, in explaining the importance of the company to the port’s operations and growth. “Following the implementation of the strategic plan On Course for 2020, we’ve strengthened the position of the Port of Trois-Rivières. The next plan, On Course for 2030, will reinforce that position still further by adding capacity and improving road and rail connections.” Part of the 2030 initiative is the construction of Terminal 21 which will increase the port’s capacity by 1.5 million tonnes, an almost 50 per cent expansion, which should allow it to satisfy its growth for the foreseeable future. Current infrastructures will be extended by 716 metres of dock frontage, covering nearly 100,000 square metres. The new terminal, which will be used for the transhipment of dry bulk and general cargo, includes the construction of wharves, retaining structures, road and rail access roads and storage space as well as various handling equipment at an estimated cost of $130 million.
There are several advantages of operating out of the port, according to Mr. Desbiens. “Three of our subsidiaries operate at the port of Trois-Rivières (Somavrac in solid bulk, Servitank in liquid bulk and Fonbrai serving the aluminum manufacturing industry). The quality and modern infrastructures of the port certainly allow us to offer our customers high quality and safe services.
“Numerous bulk warehouses, outdoor storage spaces, combined with our tanks for the storage of liquid products, allow us to offer our customers handling that respects the characteristics of each product and respects health, safety as well. the environment. “The geographical position of the port and the various modes of transport, both rail and road, also allow us to reach our customers and offer them a solid and efficient logistics chain. We are in the economic heart of Quebec. It is also necessary to underline the quality of the workforce making it possible to serve a variety of customers and products having specific characteristics to each. We need this contribution of manpower to ensure the completeness of the products that we handle.”
Asked where he sees Somavrac five to 10 years from now, Mr. Desbiens predicted a continuation of the last 10 years, including working closely together with the Port. “We’ve reached a saturation point. We need more storage and dock space. We also plan to move into more niche products like mining concentrates.”