You can tell a lot about a company by how well it retains employees. Using that metric, Vancouver Gear Works has an outstanding record, with employees whose tenure spans more than four decades, and five sons who are following in their father’s footsteps as apprentices with the company.
There are many reasons for this, according to General Manager Jim Mantei, who began as an apprentice, himself, and has now been with VANGEAR—as it is widely known—for 23 years. “This is a family owned company, and the Smiths have always been very supportive of its employees’ needs,” he says, “which includes everything from their individual educational development to their own family’s well being.”
VANGEAR was launched by a young man named Bob Smith in 1952, initially serving the local maritime industry—a natural for a company that was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is now located in nearby Richmond—before moving into additional markets including forestry, oil and gas, and mining. Its territory has grown far beyond the city’s limits, as well, with the majority of its customers located in the United States and others found as far away as Australia. This coverage area will definitely expand as the company grows increasingly involved in wind energy applications. This success has been achieved, in part, by an inside sales force bolstered by a 56-year reputation for the highest-quality gearing available, and in any form its customers require. This includes internal and external spur, helical, double helical, continuous tooth herring bone, straight tooth bevel, spiral bevel, worms, worm gears, and internal and external splines. The company also offers a line of saw edger arbors, saw guides, and roller chain, conveyor chain, silent chain, and gear belt sprockets, including custom designs.
“We began as a manual machine shop,” Mantei says, “but we’ve made the transition to CNC over the years, with more than $6 million in capital investments made in the past five years alone. These improvements have been made with the blessing of the Smith family and under the guidance of former CEO Larry Vallance, a close family friend who passed away recently. Carrying on in his place is our new president, Dylan Smith, who is the founder’s grandson and is seeing these improvements through to their completion. The result is that we’ve experienced tremendous growth in recent years, with one record year after another.”
With some 60,000 square feet of total space on three and a half acres of land, and approximately 60 employees, VANGEAR’s capabilities range from gears with a half-inch OD to others that are 16 feet in diameter. These dimensions are enabled by the company’s cutting-edge equipment, including a 1.5-meter Hofler rapid gear grinder and a 2.6-meter form grinder that’s soon to be delivered. In addition, it has recently purchased a 1.6-meter Hofler CNC hobber that’s the first in the world to feature onboard gear inspection.
This particular feature complements the company’s commitment to quality, which begins with its JobBOSS enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. “We will have upwards of 300 jobs ongoing at any one time,” Mantei explains, “and every order is assigned a bar code at the very beginning so that we can track its progress through the different processes it will undergo, all the way through shipping. In addition, our quality control system—which is ISO 9001:2000, 29001:2003, and API Q1, Spec 7, and Spec 7.1 certified—safeguards the consistency of the products we produce.”
These technologies are supported by that crucial—and sometimes most elusive—quality, which is experience. That’s really where employee retention makes its value known, especially since VANGEAR is heavily involved in reverse engineering gears when the OEM can’t provide them, or no longer exists. These seasoned veterans are also available to act as mentors to the company’s younger employees and apprentices. And although attracting employees to manufacturing is an ongoing challenge throughout North America and elsewhere, VANGEAR is one company that’s been quite proactive in addressing the situation.
“In Canada we have what’s known as the Interprovincial Standards Red Seal Program, which was established more than 45 years ago to provide skilled workers both here and throughout the world,” Mantei says. “The way it works here is that we ask a person who expresses interest in an apprenticeship to first take a pre-apprenticeship course at the British Columbia Institute of Technology or a local community college. That establishes their degree of mechanical aptitude, also providing them with all the basic skills they’ll need. And if they’re still interested in working with us, and they qualify, they’ll be eligible to begin an apprenticeship, which generally lasts four years.”
VANGEAR is a member of the program advisory board of several area colleges and conducts plant tours for interested students, also providing footage of various manufacturing processes filmed at its facility for in-class viewing. Mantei has long given presentations at these educational institutions, in fact, sharing the many benefits of choosing industry as a career.
“We want to have qualified employees to rely on in the future, of course,” he says, “but I also want these young people to understand that we’re trying to make a difference in the world. We want to conduct business in a fair and ethical manner, take care of our employees, and support emerging alternative energies, such as wind power. Working here at VANGEAR isn’t just a job, after all, it’s a career, and one that you can be quite proud of.”