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Company of the Year (51+ Employees): Central Welding and Iron Works

"If something is emerging that will make you more efficient, and you don't embrace it, you will drown in this industry."

When Gail and Stefan Thomsen decided to switch from teaching to becoming entrepreneurs in 1980, Central Welding and Iron Works in North Bay was a good fit.

As a high school shop teacher, Stefan was familiar with the work the small fabricator was undertaking at its 1,000 square-foot shop. However, the couple had plans to expand the business and over the course of more than three decades, the business grew into a 100,000-squarefoot facility.

Currently, it is the largest, privately- owned fabricator of steel bridges in Canada.

"It was always my father's plan to grow the business. He started by investigating the market and looked at other things he could do in North Bay," said Stefanie Bailey, the couple's daughter. She is responsible for Central Welding's engineering and finance departments and her brother Erik oversees production and sales.

The company had its sights set on larger structural projects like bridges, dam gates and locks. By developing the skill sets required for those projects and working on the quality systems, Central Welding started bidding on projects for the Ministry of Transportation and other companies.

"My father managed it well and it just took off," she said. "He comes from Denmark and came to Canada when he was 18. He used to build steel ships, and always had an interest in fabrication."

One of the largest projects the company has undertaken is a 2,000-tonne bridge in Arnprior that spans the Madawaska River.

"We do all sizes in highway, road and pedestrian bridges. Not a lot of people can do them," Bailey said.

But the company has not forgotten its roots as a small fabricator.

"We do small jobs too. If people bring a small item that needs to be welded, we do it."

The company's workforce ranges between 70 and 85 employees with a few being long-term employees of more than 20 years. It's also important to keep up with technology to make the company more efficient.

"If something is emerging that will make you more efficient, and you don't embrace it, you will drown in this industry," Bailey said.

Central Welding has also embraced apprenticeships through Canadore College. In addition to welding apprentices, electricians are also welcomed.

"We are told that we are one of the top supporters of the apprenticeship program," Bailey said. "We have to. We do specialized types of welding, so we are actually teaching them new things. Most of them stay here, but even if they don't, they learn some diverse skills working here. It is something that we enjoy supporting."

While her parents still own the business, Bailey and her brother maintain their focus on operational efficiency and striving to get better at what they do.

"It is a challenge in construction to maintain your workforce. And as you get more efficient, jobs disappear, so any job that has been replaced by a machine has been recovered in another section.

"We have had a lot of good lessons from our parents. We have gained so much experience from their experience; there are a lot of lessons we don't have to learn."