Ken Smith has been our Quality Assurance Manager for the past three years, but his history with Sepro goes much further than that. Starting out with Falcon Concentrators in 1993, Ken was the fourth employee hired by Steve McAlister, the man responsible for developing the Falcon line of gravity concentrators. Ken’s wealth of experience, combined with his passion for maintaining strict levels of product quality, has helped Sepro evolve from a small company into Canada’s largest supplier of mineral processing equipment.
Our team at Sepro sat down for a quick chat to learn about the ups and downs of working with us for the past three decades.
All right, so can you tell us a little bit about yourself? For starters, where are you from?
I was born in Merritt, BC and lived in different spots around the province before settling in the Yukon. When I was 10, my father moved our family to South Dakota. He was a mining engineer.
When I was old enough, I went to work for Homestake Mining Company in South Dakota. Notably, Homestake was one of the first purchases made by Barrick Gold many years ago.
Wow, so you’ve been in the mining industry for a while, and it runs in your family too!
Yes, absolutely⏤even my brother is a mining engineer.
Very cool! And so when did you move back from the US to Canada?
I came here in 1992 to work for a company that was enlarging the tunnels for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway in BC. They wanted to double stack the cargo containers, and the way that the cargo leaned when going around corners inside tunnels meant that every tunnel in Canada needed to be enlarged.
The job only lasted six months, and then I thought, well, I’m here in Canada, and I never did become a US citizen, so maybe I’ll stay! I was 29 and for the first time, I had unemployment insurance and medical coverage and all of these things. And I thought, well, maybe I’ll look for a career instead of just a job. And that’s when I met Steve McAlister.
That was in January 1993.
How many employees did Steve have in 1993?
I was the fourth employee hired by Steve and, at the time, the company was just Falcon Concentrators, not Sepro.
Right! Do you remember what your first job was for Falcon Concentrators?
The first job I was given was to design and construct a test trailer that contained a few pumps, a big 48-inch screen, and what we called the D10, which is like the C10 or a C400. And we were going to try to get into the dewatering of underground backfill. At least, that’s what that machine was designed to do.
When Falcon began, it seems like everyone had to do a lot of different tasks because it was such a small company. Were there any other tasks assigned to you?
I used to take samples down to third-party labs in Burnaby or Vancouver. We also did some mineral test lab work ourselves. I submitted all the test products for assay at these labs. So those were my primary duties: testing with our small lab equipment and designing the test trailer.
As Falcon grew, how did your role change?
Well, I started getting interested in creating equipment manuals. I became much more involved with the actual equipment design to help create better manuals for our customers.
Of course, with such a small team, it was a team effort. All of us were busy all the time.
It sounds like it was a hardworking team. What do you do now with Sepro?
Following those early days, I became a commissioning technician. As we grew, we hired other service technicians who created the service department instead of just one “service guy.” From there, I went from being Service Manager to Quality Assurance Manager, which is my current position.
I’ve been Quality Assurance Manager now for just over three years.
That’s quite the resumé! For those that don’t know, what does a quality assurance manager do?
The role involves a lot of things, including performing mineral processing equipment checks and managing quality control. It’s mostly about creating a system that prevents quality issues in the first place by coming up with standards that we want suppliers to follow.
It’s mostly about creating a system that prevents quality issues in the first place by coming up with strong standards.Ken Smith
When we receive equipment from the suppliers, we do thorough inspections and test out the mineral processing equipment before it goes out the door. The lack of a formal quality assurance program used to be one of my biggest internal complaints when I was a service manager.
I would go out in the field, and I’d be commissioning something, and I’d find an issue and wonder why didn’t we catch this? The reason, of course, is because we were a much smaller company at the time. We tried to do too much, and some things got by us. But I took these little things personally.
So after leaving service and coming into quality assurance, that was my primary focus: to make sure that nothing left here with any issues.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve tackled in recent years?
Maintaining supplier quality. We know that our business model is always going to rely on finding the best vendors at the lowest price and with the highest level of care during delivery. If we made everything in-house, it would be a lot easier to keep a handle on quality, but we’re making things all over the world. So, getting our suppliers to follow our high standards is very difficult to do. Sometimes we get surprised, and we see products that don’t meet the quality levels we’ve defined.
However, we’ve always been able to find solutions for these surprise quality assurance problems. And they’re also happening less and less now that we have a more focused team and can be selective of our vendors.
Do you have any interesting stories you can share with us from the past 27 years?
I have a million stories; it’s hard to come up with just one. With Sepro, I’ve been to 60 countries, some of them up to 20 times like Australia. I’ve even been to South Africa and Russia.
Sixty countries are a lot! Do you have any favourites?
Well, I particularly like Australia, South America, and South Africa. But, when I was travelling, I liked everything. They were all new experiences. I naturally have a pretty adventurous spirit. My father had an airplane, so that was what we did growing up. We’d all jump on the plane and go somewhere. So yes, I had an adventurous spirit before I even started working here. And it was always exciting for me to see something new or to go to a different place.
It seems that anyone who joined Steve McAlister in those early days probably had a bit of an adventurous spirit.
Yes, we had to. We had to believe in not just Steve McAlister, but the product, or we wouldn’t have stuck around. That does take an adventurous spirit because a lot of people want stability, structure, and security. The early days of Falcon were not like that.
What’s it been like seeing Sepro go from three employees to a team of over a hundred today?
It’s a lot harder to keep a handle on everything that’s going on. When we were growing initially, I found it difficult because I didn’t hear as much as I would have liked about certain projects or products. I was used to being in the loop on everything. But I had to accept that one person can’t know it all!
I’ve had to learn to rely on upper management to do what they do and understand that everyone has a role to play. My role doesn’t include having to know everything that’s going on in the company. So that’s been a big change for me.
When there were just three or four of us, we’d get together, and we could discuss everything the company was doing in an afternoon! Of course, we can’t do that now. The good news is that there is more than enough work for me to do in my current position to keep me busy. I don’t have to worry so much about other departments or areas of the company.
Right. So outside of work, what do you like to do?
I have two motorcycles. I don’t ride them as much as I would like, but I enjoy them when I do. I used to play golf a lot. But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed some back issues, so I play a lot less today.
What types of motorcycles do you have?
They’re both Harley-Davidsons. One’s for the street, and I can just pop on it, and ride around locally. The other is a road cruiser for longer distances.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time for this and thanks for everything you’ve done over the past 27 years at Sepro!
Have a question for Ken? Want to learn more about Sepro’s standards and quality assurance? Make sure to follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn and send us a message! We’d be happy to answer any and all the questions you have about our mineral processing equipment.