Edmonton-based Fluid Life started some 35 years ago as a modest lab that tested used oil to diagnose the health of large industrial equipment. “Anyone who uses a bunch of oil and has invested a lot of money in their equipment is a potential customer,” explains president Heather Hunt, a 22-year veteran of the company who has done everything from answering the phones to managing the books to running daily operations. For clients in such high-overhead, high-stakes fields as mining and power generation, the testing is a valuable service. Which is why, over time, a lot of other businesses started offering it too.
So nearly eight years ago, the company decided to change its strategy. “We said, ‘We have to figure something out—otherwise it will just be a race to the bottom and we’ll be competing on price. Everyone loses when that happens,’” says Hunt, who replaced her father, Fluid Life co-founder Larry Dick, as president around that time. Instead of offering a service that had become commoditized, the company started providing consulting on everything from manpower problems to data interpretation. “That’s when we became much more of what I call a ‘reliability services company,’ as opposed to just a lab,” Hunt says. “That’s been our growth strategy.”
The transformation involved a significant amount of money: Fluid Life invested in an entirely new engineering department. It also had to educate its clients, many of whom considered it an oil analysis lab and nothing more. “We had to find a customer to be our guinea pig,” Hunt says. But everything changed once her team convinced a client to try its nascent consulting arm. That customer loved the expanded suite of services, provided a glowing testimonial and remains a client to this day. “That was a major turning point,” recalls Hunt. “Our customers get so much more value now; we provide them with a real [return on investment].”
The move gave Fluid Life a distinct advantage—but a difficult one to maintain. Several rivals quickly expanded their service offerings too, crowding the competitive landscape. Alberta’s lingering economic downturn and the devastating 2016 wildfires in Fort McMurray added additional pressure.
Hunt’s strategy is to charge ahead, responsibly but relentlessly. She believes a business can get ahead by making prudent investments during tough times, when others aren’t spending. That’s why Fluid Life has moved into state-of-the-art headquarters in Edmonton and expanded a facility in Brantford, Ont. Most important to Hunt, the firm avoided laying off any of its 100 employees. All this was made possible by controlling spending during boom times, Hunt says: “You have to keep improving—otherwise you’re going to get caught. Instead of looking in the rear-view mirror, we keep our eyes forward.”