The chemical brothers

Two Albertans capitalize on a crucial niche — flame retardant for hay at the Calgary Stampede.

Cool niches

Like many business owners in Calgary, brothers David and Dan Val Hal have a Help Wanted sign in front of their business, Chemfax Products Ltd. The 26,000-square-foot building, in an industrial area in the city's southeast, is where the brothers manufacture more than 200 environmentally friendly chemicals–everything from oil-rig degreasers to ice melters and hand soaps.

David and Dan have 18 other employees and run just one 10-hour shift a day. “We're thinking of adding another shift,” says David, “but like everyone else, manpower is a problem.” Yet as the Calgary Stampede, which runs July 7 to 16, approaches, the brothers may have to get creative with their labour issue: they're supplying party organizers with copious quantities of their flame retardant, Pyroguard.

Why does the Stampede need flame retardant? During the event, straw and hay bales are used as décor. The brothers designed the product years ago, after David noticed the danger at a Stampede barbecue, where people were smoking near bales. Pyroguard treats the shell of the bale to protect against fire.

While the demand for Pyroguard leaps during Stampede season, Chemfax's bestselling products are their automobile soaps. The product consists of a dispensing unit that hangs on the wall. Air and water mix with a chemical inside the unit, emerging “like shaving cream on your vehicle,” says David. The chemical sits on the surface; when rinsed off, it pulls dirt with it.

Since David and Dan bought their father out of the business in 1994, they've tripled their product offerings. “We can go to any industry now,” says Dan, “not like the old days where we focused on oil and gas.” They're also growing as a company, with a new warehouse and three salespeople in Edmonton. About 90% of their sales are made in Alberta, but they're shipping products as far away as St. John's, Nfld., and they're looking to expand out east. Still, they're taking no risks. Says Dan: “We didn't want to become that classic second generation that takes over and screws it up.”