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Company of the Year (1-15 Employees): Near North Laboratories

“We feel very passionate about the North, and we’re proud to be here,” says McLay.

Next time you drink a cold glass of water, get a tattoo, or have dental work done, you might want to say a quiet thank you to Near North Laboratories Inc.

Out of its North Bay facility, the business handles a broad range of environmental and analytical testing, and its exhaustive client list built up over 20 years touches upon countless aspects of business and day-to-day life.

More than 500 regulated waterworks throughout Northern Ontario make use of Near North’s core services for microbiological and chemical analyses, as do 40 public and private sewage systems.

Its reputation for excellence and precision has earned it no end of additional work, whether it’s field sampling at landfills, testing lead levels in the water for the City of North Bay, or conducting a sterilizer monitoring program for estheticians and dental hygenists.

“You have to be doing a good job, because if you aren’t, people will go elsewhere, and it’s as simple as that,” says Brenda McLay, director and owner of Near North.

“It’s not always about the dollar, and although money is a factor, there’s a certain level of performance and confidence our clients look for. It has to be a good service and a precise service.”

Having graduated from Canadore College in the late 1980s, McLay resisted the call to move south for employment as an environmental technician, and with three other graduates, incorporated Near North in 1989.

In the fall of 1990, the quartet moved into a 2,400-square-foot facility, making it the only water quality testing business in the region.

The other partners have since moved on, leaving McLay as the sole remaining owner. However, one of the original partners and “technical MacGyver,” Elizabeth Caskenette, has returned to the 14-member staff as laboratory manager.

Those early days were as much about perseverance and 90-hour workweeks as they were about learning to let go of the scientific mindset when it comes to business, so as to avoid managing everything to the micrometer.

“All of us that started here, we lean towards being analytical -- that’s why we do what we do,” says McLay.

“But you can over-analyse or you can go into too much detail or dig too deep and lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish, so it’s about finding that balance between doing a really good job and not being so inefficient that you fail to reach the goal.”

Still, Near North has never lost sight of the power of precision, a guiding hallmark that has carried it through several major milestones.

When a contaminated water supply killed seven people and caused 2,300 to fall ill in Walkerton in 2000, the provincial government mandated the testing of public facilities’ drinking water.

As the only Northern Ontario laboratory accredited for microbiological analyses, Near North’s business shot through the roof.

As government and public interest in water quality continues to rise, so too did interest in Near North, whose client base is expected to continue growing as additional legislation is enacted.

An increase in highway construction throughout the northeast is also driving up business, as residents test their water before and after any blasting activity takes place.

This rampant interest in the company’s services allowed the
facility to expand an additional 1,200-square feet in 2007. The lab now processes approximately 25,000 samples, or up to 70,000 analyses, in a given year.

The philosophy and dedication to the highest possible quality of testing has been applied to all aspects of Near North.

This ranges from the courses and training opportunities it offers to waterworks operators, to the rigorous validation process new hires must undergo before even being allowed to handle a single sample.

However, located at the heart of a community that also includes Canadore College and Nipissing University, Near North has had little difficulty in attracting skilled staff.

Indeed, half of the employees are graduates of environmental and biology programs from either institution, providing local talent the opportunity to stay local.

It’s this passion for intellectual rigor and professional pride that’s helped to bring Near North to the forefront of the industry, and as a beacon in the region’s business community.

“We feel very passionate about the North, and we’re proud to be here,” says McLay.