Smook Bros. (Thompson) Ltd.: Well-run local business proved attractive to Alberta buyer with similar roots

The news last week, announced in a PRNewswire-FirstCall news release that Mullen Group Ltd. of Okotoks, Alta. has entered into a letter of intent to acquire privately-owned Smook Bros. (Thompson) Ltd. was something of a business bombshell locally. The deal is set to close April 30.

But when one steps back and takes a second look at it the deal should not be all that surprising other than for the fact the vendor and buyer were able to keep it under close wraps until the April 7 announcement. That is something of a surprise in Thompson where the walls of confidentiality are pretty porous most of the time.

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The two companies are a natural complementary fit, both well respected in their spheres of business. And they coincidentally both started out in 1949.

Smook is a heavy civil construction company that provides services such as infrastructure construction, mine site work and tailings ponds construction to the energy, natural resources and government sectors.

Mullen Group owns a network of independently operated businesses, including Winnipeg-based Kleysen Group L.P., its largest subsidiary, which will be working closely with Smook. Mullen is the largest provider of specialized transportation and related services to the oil and natural gas industry in western Canada and as one of the leading suppliers of trucking and logistics services in Canada.

"I have known Ted and Chris Smook for many years and know they operate a first-class company," said Jeff Kleysen, president of Kleysen, when the sale was announced in the news release. "Northern Manitoba is a growing market and Thompson is the 'Hub of the North.'"

Murray Mullen, chairman and chief executive officer of the Mullen Group, said, "This acquisition is consistent with our strategy of investing in profitable and well managed businesses. Smook represents a new growth platform for our organization and expands upon our service offerings to the energy and natural resource sectors. We have an excellent team at Kleysen that understands the landscape and markets in Northern Manitoba and we will rely upon their management team to provide support to Smook and capitalize on new opportunities. This combination of sound market fundamentals and strong leadership make this an attractive investment for Mullen Group."

The only constant in business is that there is no constant. Change is the dynamism of capitalism. That's why Thompson business names like Cardell Texaco, Pic-a-Pop, Fourway Foodliner, Holiday Groceteria, The Dairy Dog, York Tire, Amorim Trucking, Joe Reis Trucking, Tony Vieira Trucking, United Tire, Midwest Diamond Drilling, Malcolm Construction, Fred Tressor Construction, and many more are no more. Yet, nostalgia aside, we are still able to buy takeout from fast-food eateries, enjoy supermarket shopping and local nightlife, while we can also still find trucking and construction firms near at hand.

According to Smook Bros. (Thompson) Ltd. Mullen Group's corporate websites, while Smook Bros. (Thompson) Ltd. is so closely associated with Thompson it even has the city's name as part of its corporate identity, we sometimes forget the Smook brothers construction company has a long history that predates Thompson.

Five brothers, Peter, Jerry, Bill, Steve and Nick, incorporated the company May 29, 1949 in Vita, a small community in southeastern Manitoba, about 50 kilometres from Steinbach, settled by Ukrainian immigrants in the late 1890s. In addition to running a sawmill, the brothers built municipal roads around Vita in the summer.

By 1956, the year of Thompson's founding, the Smook brothers were spending winters in the North working on projects for the Department of Highways and Manitoba Hydro. In the summers they would return to Vita. It wasn't until 1967 the Smook brothers obtained three years worth of year-round work in and around Thompson from Inco, the Department of Highways and the Town of Thompson and decided to move here.

In 1979 Nick's four sons, Ted, Bob, Nick Jr. and Christopher bought out their uncles and became active partners with their father Nick Sr.

More recently the company has been owned and operated by Chris and Ted, who prior to entering the family business majored in commerce at the University of Manitoba, working summers at his father's business to finance his education before eventually becoming a deputy minister in the provincial government. Ted has handled the business affairs while Chris oversees heavy equipment repair and maintenance.

The history of the Smook brothers construction company in some ways is not so different than Mullen, their new owners. Roland Mullen started that company also in 1949 with one truck, a 1949 Chev Maple Leaf.

Mullen hauled gravel for $3.50 per hour in 1950 and by the mid-1950s was operating three trucks.

In the early 1960s, amid an economic downturn, he drove for Nodwell Bros. in Alaska. When the economy improved, he again went independent, buying his first Kenworth in 1965 for $26,000 and a second Kenworth three years later.

The rest, as they say, is history.

© Copyright Thompson Citizen

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