21 Questions: An exclusive interview with Mario Rouillier

January 14, 2022
Mario Rouillier, President at Groupe Rouillier
Mario Rouillier
President at Groupe Rouillier

Mario Rouillier studied in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, earning a degree in Business Administration. His drilling career began more than 39 years ago when as a teenager, he started working in his father’s company Rouillier Drilling. Mario moved up the ranks as driller’s helper, driller, foreman, general manager and finally as owner and president. In 1994, Mario began considering buying the company from his father, Marcel. Armed with business administration skills and the support of his uncle Raymond, Mario purchased Rouillier Drilling and thus achieved his dream of taking over the family business and making it one of the biggest drilling contractors of Eastern Canada. 

Over the next years, Mario’s decision to acquire both Boréal Drilling and Azimut Drilling, Pro Drilling Guyane, Foramex, Nordique Drilling as well as drilling equipment manufacturer VersaDrill Canada and MBI Global substantially contributed to Groupe Rouillier becoming the largest private mining group in Canada. This family of companies offers a complete range of services and products. 

Mario is a Board Member of several organizations including MISA, an organization working to stimulate innovation in the Québec mining sector, and the Canadian Diamond Drilling Association (CDDA). He is a shareholder of the Research in Diamond Drilling (RIDD) organization and also of Youdin Rouillier Drilling, a Cree company, as well as Avataa Rouillier Drilling, an Inuit company. Since 2007, Mario has been a Chairman of the Board of Directors of Refuge Pageau, shelter and rehabilitation center for wild animals. 

Grigor Topev: Tell us the story about your start in the drilling industry? 

Mario Rouillier: Our family business was drilling and I wanted to be a part of it. I started working summers as a driller’s helper when I was 15. At that time, drilling machinery wasn’t what it is today. The work was difficult, and techniques and work safety were far from being as developed as they are nowadays. 

GT: During your climb to success, you worked in almost every position at your father’s company – Rouillier Drilling. Which position left the strongest impression on you and taught you the most valuable lessons? 

MR: Management is without a doubt the most challenging, but also the most rewarding part of the work. Learning by working with my father was invaluable. He taught me the ropes and was there through every step and coached me on how to take care of our people. Having himself been a driller, he knew exactly what the work entailed and the effort it required. One day, as we were grocery shopping for our teams in the field, I remember him telling me that I need to get the best for them. Those big steaks were what they deserved after a long day of work. I never forgot that. 

Our philosophy and slogan are ‘We Care Deeply’ and this has been the spirit of our business since the start when my father founded Rouillier Drilling. 

GT: What has been the most impressive drilling project that you have ever participated in? 

MR: There was one project in Peru which was at a high altitude that comes to mind. However, the one that left the strongest impression is by far the Lapa Mine, at the beginning of this decade. This was an Agnico Eagle mine that was newly discovered along the Cadillac Fault, between Val-d’Or and Rouyn, in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue area of Québec, Canada. This project required that we refine and perfect our operations. And so, it brought forth a lot of development in our techniques enabling us to make great strides in our methods. It presented so many challenges, among which, wedges, deep holes and deviation, along with work on additives. At that time, re-using waters was not as present a concern as it is today, this awareness was only beginning, and that was a turning point for us, as we integrated this practice to our operations. 

I must also add that our contract in the Polar Circle has also brought its fair share of challenges. 

GT: Name the project that took the longest to complete and the one that required the highest number of drill rigs in the last 25 years. 

MR: Several of our projects required a lot of time and a larger number of drill rigs. Firstly, the previously mentioned Lapa Mine. Also, the Bracemac-McLeod project in Matagami, Canada that is owned by Glencore, along with Raglan Mines’ Nunavik, Amex Explorations, and several other projects. 

The project that has lasted the longest with the greatest number of drill rigs on-site for us is Osisko Mining’s Windfall project that has been ongoing since 2015. It is located up north in the James Bay region and is three hours from Lebel-sur-Quévillon, Canada in different zones (Main, Lynx and Underdog) and covers a length of 2300 m (7546 ft) and spans to a depth of about 1500 m (4921 ft) from the surface down. 

Visiting the Nunavik contract
Visiting the Nunavik contract

GT: What is one improvement or innovation that has revolutionized drilling since the beginning of your career? How has the industry changed since its implementation? 

MR: The aspect where I have seen the most improvement and innovation is in terms of deviation when drilling. We have managed to closely monitor, follow and bring more precision to our drilling operations. 

GT: After long years at Rouillier Drilling, you bought the company. How did you decide to make this step? 

MR: In 1995, my father was talking about selling the company to prepare for his retirement. When I found out, I decided I needed to make an offer to buy the business. I worked hard for a whole year to get the financing required. I acquired the company because I wanted our family business to remain in the family. 

As a young man in my twenties, I was confident I could make it work because I was very well-surrounded. I had the core team, many of which are still in the company today, to help me navigate through this new position and responsibility. I also had my father’s brother-in-law, Uncle Raymond, with me to lead us on to the coming challenges. It wasn’t easy but it was greatly facilitated by what I call my team of superheroes at my side. 

GT: You have established Groupe Rouillier. Please tell us the specialty of each of the companies that form it. 

MR: Groupe Rouillier encompasses Rouillier Drilling specializing in surface, underground, and heli-portable diamond drilling; Youdin Rouillier Drilling and Avataa Rouillier Drilling in diamond drilling services, respectively in partnership with the Cree Nation and the Inuit Nation. 

In manufacturing, and under the helm of MBI Global, itself offering custom solutions in superior core drilling products for superior results, are VersaDrill Canada providing high-performance diamond drills, and GtechDrill, specializing in exceptional geotechnical drills. In addition, VersaRent leases geotechnical drills. 

Furthermore, our expert research unit, RIDD, is engaged in the research and development of additive manufactured coatings using directed energy deposition (DED) technology. 

GT: It will be interesting to know where does Rouillier Drilling stand on the Canadian market? 

MR: Rouillier Drilling is among Eastern Canada’s largest private companies in our area of activities and has over 350 employees at this time. 

GT: Can you share interesting and little-known facts about VersaDrill Canada and its acquisition by Groupe Rouillier? 

MR: In 2013, we acquired VersaDrill Canada, a manufacturer of underground and surface drill rigs, that is now under the banner of MBI Global. We invested a great deal in the design of a series of geotechnical drills and in the research and development of an autonomous drill rig, which is presently in use for a trial period at Agnico Eagle’s Goldex Mine. 

Now under the MBI Global banner, VersaDrill Canada’s development has taken place by working to strengthen and widen its distribution center. We currently have four offices and 16 distributors worldwide, we sell in 30 countries, and are working to further expand sales. 

Ongoing projects to further develop the autonomous drill rig are underway. We are also developing and testing a drill rod handling device for underground drilling. Other very promising projects are in the works in relation to diamond along with geotechnical drilling. We are making great strides and will soon be able to bring more details about these. 

GT: Rouillier Drilling offers a work-study program that provides paid training in diamond drilling. Please elaborate on that. 

MR: We have three types of programs. One of them is offered through a partnership with the CFP Val-d’Or, which dispenses Diploma of Vocational Studies (DVS) programs, among which, a paid 600-hour program. Students complete this four-month program and can immediately start working as drillers’ helpers, with the benefit of an assured job with us. 

We have also worked jointly with Avataa Rouillier Drilling to set up the Avataa Rouillier Drilling school to offer comprehensive training to local workers who are interested in working in our industry. This has been made possible thanks to the invaluable participation of Kativik Ilisarniliriniq, Raglan Mine, CSMO Mines, as well as Charlie Watt and Christine Nakoolak of Avataa Rouillier Drilling. 

And lastly, our in-house program for drillers’ helpers, who perform very well, and for the drillers coaching them. This way a driller’s helper can become a driller sooner. 

These employees are very proud of their accomplishments and are rewarded for their efforts, thus far it has been a very successful initiative. One of our drillers has even written a book detailing the procedures to guide drillers’ helpers and aiding them in becoming self-reliant faster. It is very inspiring for us to see our experienced drillers passing on their knowledge and teaching up-and-coming drillers. 

GT: What do you think about the labor shortage issue in Canada? What caused it? What are the possible solutions to the situation? 

MR: There is indeed a labor shortage, in all sectors of the Canadian economy, as the population is aging and a whole generation of experienced workers is retiring. For the decade to come, there will be a gap in skilled labor, and all industries will be searching for employees. 

Also, when our sector was experiencing a lag, companies weren’t investing as much in recruiting and training. One solution is to work together as companies and consult with each other. That is already happening with the help of the Québec Mineral Exploration Association and MISA, as we work together on finding solutions. 

Another solution is to continue to work as we are with MBI Global on developing and perfecting an autonomous drill rig, as well as drill rod handling equipment, to attract a greater number of people to occupy these jobs. A person with less experience will be able to operate the autonomous drill rig much more easily, in fact, we have a driller’s helper who started using this drill rig and within a few weeks, he was able to operate it on his own. As the equipment becomes easier and simpler to operate, it will no longer take years and years to become a driller. The autonomous drill now collects data to help us adjust and manage our drilling operations in real-time. That is certainly a vital key to managing the shortage. 

GT: In 2021, there have been many high-profile mergers and acquisitions. What are the requirements for a successful merger/acquisition? Do you think that the diamond drilling industry is heading towards a market consolidation particularly in Canada? 

MR: Between 2012 and 2018, we saw a good deal of mergers and acquisitions in our sector because those were harder times. I expect that there will be many more in the years to come. There is a growing trend, across all business sectors, towards consolidating. 

This will happen either in an effort to see expansion, bring a more diversified offer and reach a larger market share, or because smaller companies will team up with larger corporations in their efforts to protect their supplier chain and also to overcome the challenges of the labor shortage. There is definitely strength in numbers. 

GT: How did you tackle the COVID-19 pandemic? Has the importance of safety increased since? 

MR: Safety has always been a concern in our field and our employees’ awareness is absolutely essential to a safe work environment. I think the effect the pandemic may have had on employees is making them all the more aware of the importance of their safety. 

The health and safety of our employees have always been an integral part of our values, and so, a top priority. We acted very quickly when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We added to our already rigorous safety practices immediately by implementing preventive measures to make our teams feel safe. We kept our staff well-informed, created hygiene stations with all the necessary items for a safe work environment, added signage as reminders, and adapted all our work vehicles with protective panels to ensure proper distancing and safety. 

GT: What would make a contractor a preferred employer in the drilling industry? 

MR: To have a good relationship with your employees, you must remain close to them and their reality. Listening to them, being open-minded, knowing what their needs are and working on ways to make their work easier and help them perform their duties, are a given. 

We have always had as one of our core values, caring for our employees. For several years now, we have had an employee assistance program (EAP) which ensures our teams have quick and easy access to health professionals, we even have an in-house doctor at their disposal! 

It is a natural thing for us to see to their safety and contentment in their job. After all, our slogan is ‘We Care Deeply’, and that is reflected in all we do. 

Mario with his Daughter Frédérique
Mario and his daughter Frédérique Rouillier, HR, visiting a drill site to put their slogan
‘We care deeply’ into action

GT: From your point of view, what is the most important quality that makes a drilling contractor stand out among the others and become a preferred choice for the mining companies? 

MR: A way to stand out and be noticed is to not only be aware of the environmental issues and stakes but also to be proactive about them, and implement clear and effective measures. As well, having superior health and safety policies and practices makes a company more attractive. 

It is crucial to take care of the environment and the people in it. Obtaining the UL ECOLOGO® certification for mineral exploration is a concrete way to ensure the company’s practices are in line with today’s environmental and social concerns. We were in fact honored at the Québec Mineral Exploration Association’s 2021 convention, Xplor, and received the ‘Excellence in Sustainable Development’ Recognition award. 

It is the way of the present and the future. 

GT: Over the past few years, Rouillier Drilling experienced an increase in the number of deep and directional drilling projects. How did you manage to achieve that? 

MR: We have indeed improved and perfected our drilling methods by drilling deeper and honing our skills and specializing in reaching our clients’ geological targets. 

What will vastly contribute to these operations will be collecting data with our autonomous drill rigs. This will allow us to drill more precisely and require less drilling meterage for our clients while reaching more targets, thus increasing the potential for success. In other words, drilled meters will be quality meters, bringing more results. Drilling less but drilling better. 

GT: What is your prognosis for the diamond drilling industry in 2022 (compared to 2021)? Do you think that the price per drilled meter will go higher? 

MR: I believe numbers will remain stable. In 2022 the number of meters drilled will be close to those drilled in 2021. The labor shortage will be the factor that will limit our activities and we won’t be able to take on more works. There may be a demand but we will not have all the skilled labor required. 

GT: You’ve mentioned autonomous drill rigs several times, what is your opinion on their future and potential? 

MR: The autonomous drill rig is certainly the means to reaching more targets. It collects data and allows drilling assistance making for smarter, more efficient drilling. Having a single operator is an excellent solution to the labor shortage. We will now be speaking in terms of operators as opposed to experienced drillers, widening the possibilities for finding workers. Our operators will be better equipped for better performance, and this will further raise their salaries, as this will enable them to drill more meters. 

GT: What other game-changing technologies do you think will be developed and implemented in exploration drilling in the next five years? 

MR: The upcoming technology that will help drillers in their work will be to further advance drill rod and inner tube assistance through the development of handling tools and equipment. 

GT: You have held many leadership roles over the years. What are the qualities that you think helped you thrive? What would be your advice to young entrepreneurs that want to start on their own in the drilling industry? 

MR: The key is to unequivocally surround yourself with the best. I also believe it is very important to map out a clear and concise plan and to share it with your team. Having a strong guiding principle and making sure it is understood by your entire team is essential. 

If I had to give one piece of advice, I would say to new drilling contractors to do it with a passion, not just for the money. Surround yourself well and bring out the best in your people for a well-rounded, efficient team. Give a good idea to a mediocre team and they’ll find a way to screw it up; give a mediocre idea to a good team and they’ll find a way to make it a success. 

It goes without saying that your team must be provided with the best tools and support, and as a leader, you must be ready to make the difficult decisions and navigate this arduous process with your team. Make your team’s skills and talents your best assets. 

Finally, the UL 2724 ECOLOGO® Certification Program for Suppliers of Mineral Exploration Industry is a powerful tool to make your company an active player for the future. We must follow the rules and think of our activities as a long-term endeavor contributing to the health of the planet and its inhabitants. 

For more information visit: www.foragesrouillier.com/en/ 

Read Issue 18 here: 

Issue 18 / 2022