Exclusive interview with Pierre Alexandre

February 16, 2024
Pierre Alexandre; Founder & CEO at Orbit Garant Drilling

Pierre Alexandre began his career as a surface driller for various drilling companies, working from 1974 to 1983 across Canada.

Then, along with his brother, he became the Founder, President and CEO of Orbit Drilling (1986), a company specializing in surface and underground diamond drilling. Over the following decade, the company expanded its fleet and operations to South America and Africa.

In January 2007, Pierre co-founded Orbit Garant Drilling, a merger between Garant and Orbit Drilling. Under his leadership, the company has grown to become one of the most prominent Canadian operators in diamond drilling.

Pierre has more than 36 years of experience in the diamond drilling industry with expertise in operational planning and business relationship development.

Grigor Topev: Pierre, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! Let’s start at the beginning. Please tell us about your early life and how and when you decided to get into drilling.

Pierre Alexandre: I began working in the town of Val-d’Or, in Northern Quebec, Canada. It is well-known as a mining hotspot. Then I followed in my brother’s footsteps since he was already working for a drilling company called Modern Drilling.

GT: So, you stayed at Modern Drilling for seven years. Please tell us more about this period of your life.

PA: Modern Drilling had approximately 20 rigs. The company built unitized skid drill rigs. These drills were driven by hydraulic systems with 10-foot stroke engines and back then, this was very innovative. The drills moved faster than a regular drill.

There is one project I remember particularly well when I was working at Modern Drilling, it was at the Doyon Mine, which was owned by Lac Minerals, Barrick Gold, Cambior and now Iamgold which was one of the biggest mining companies in Canada in those days.

After seven years at Modern Drilling, I decided to work for a smaller contractor, called Forage Benoit. It had 5-7 Boyles Bros 37 and Longyear 38 rigs. The difference between working at Modern Drilling and Forage Benoit, was that for Forage Benoit we worked with conventional rigs, while Modern Drilling used unitized skid drill rigs.

GT: In general, what was drilling like in Canada in the 70s and 80s? Which were the main contractors and manufacturers?

PA: Drilling and mining in the 70s and 80s in Canada were a lot different from today. Companies did not have the same technology that we have nowadays, there has been a tremendous evolution in this regard. The regulations were also a lot different, much looser, and have become more stringent since then.

The main contractors in Canada were Bradley Brothers, Boart Longyear, Morissette Drilling, and Midwest. JKS Boyles, Bradley, Atlas Copco and Boart Longyear were the manufacturers.

GT: You founded Orbit Drilling in 1986 with your brother, right? How did that happen; please tell us the story.

PA: Working with small drilling contractors made me realize that I had to make my own decisions on the terrain every day, so I decided that I would like to become an entrepreneur someday.

I began working at my brother’s company in 1983. He had a surface drilling company at the time, and then we had thoughts of adding underground drilling. So, in 1986, we decided to establish Orbit Drilling, which would specialize in both surface and underground drilling.

GT: The 90s was a decade of international expansion for your company. Which countries did you expand into at first? What were the challenges that you faced in South America and Africa and how did you overcome them?

PA: In 1992, we followed one of our main clients from Canada, who had begun a mining project in Guyana. Then we expanded in Suriname, French Guyana and Peru.

One of the biggest challenges was adapting to the different drilling conditions and training the local people. In those days there was less competition than there is today.

GT: What is the scale of your activities in South America and Africa at the moment?

PA: The scale of our activities currently in South America and Africa is approximately 25% of our sales. We have more than 30 drills deployed in those countries and most of our activities are presently in Chile.

GT: Orbit Garant Drilling was the result of an industry-changing merger in 2007. Tell us how it happened.

PA: From 2002 to 2007 we grew our business through acquisitions. Then, our company went through a major growth and then we consolidated two companies Orbit Drilling, specializing in surface and underground drilling and Garant Drilling – one of the major underground drilling companies in Québec and Ontario. The result of the merger was Orbit Garant Drilling, offering both surface and underground drilling services. The synergy of our two enterprises led to us offering diverse services like underground, surface, and RC drilling and made our new company a dominant operator.

In 2008, we made an IPO on the TSX stock exchange, and the company became public. The IPO allowed for business expansion, access to capital and enhanced credibility. The challenges we were faced with were related to the time-consuming process of an IPO and ensured that the company met the strict regulatory rules and reported to the board of directors.

GT: Since the 90s, you’ve been manufacturing proprietary equipment. What advantages has this brought to your company?

PA: Manufacturing our own proprietary equipment gave us a greater chance of becoming more diversified in terms of the types of drilling we offer:

  • Heli-portable drills gave us the opportunity to drill in the most isolated terrains.
  • Rod Handlers were quite an innovation since they reduce the risk of injury of our drilling crews. Our rod handlers are presently being sold at large to other mining contractors.
  • Computerized underground and surface drilling rigs reduce delays and our costs while increasing our production rate. A computerized rig improves the physical factors of the job performance and therefore makes the driller’s job safer and easier.
  • We won some of our drilling contracts because of our capabilities of manufacturing and modifying some of our equipment to meet our clients’ exact needs.

GT: Let’s go to the present. Please tell our readers the size of Orbit Garant Drilling.

PA: Presently, we have 208 rigs in operation and employ approximately 1300 workers. Our main areas of expertise are surface, underground, RC, directional, and geotechnical drilling services.

In Fiscal year 2023, we drilled more than 1.6 million meters (5.2 mil. ft) and generated CAD 201 million in revenue. Approximately CAD 150 million were from Canadian operations and another CAD 50 million came from our international projects.

We work with important mining companies such as, Alamos Gold, Vale, Agnico Eagle, Eldorado Gold, Wesdome, AngloGold Ashanti, Endeavour, Anglo American, Freeport McMoran and Codelco.

In Fiscal Year 2023, we had drilling operations in:

  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Burkina Faso
  • Guinee
  • Guyana

GT: Which specific project of Orbit Garant Drilling stands out to you?

PA: A couple of years ago, we carried out a very complex drilling campaign in Chile. We had to drill under a glacier in an underground mine. The environmental risks were very high. We had to manufacture four underground rigs with specific features to address these challenges. The drills were modified to be able to support the weight of the rods – more than 21 000 lb (9525 kg) excluding the weight of the water – from falling when drilling those upholes. We were drilling upholes at angles of +60° reaching more than 600 m (1969 ft) of length in H-size.

Ultimately, we succeeded in this drilling campaign, and as of today, we are still working with the satisfied client.

Orbit Garant Drilling's drill site
Orbit Garant Drilling’s drill site

GT: Orbit Garant has been operating in harsh conditions due to the extremes of the Canadian weather and geological environments. What methods and equipment do you apply to overcome the extreme cold and inaccessible terrains?

PA: Orbit Garant has adapted its equipment and experience to meet the harshest winter conditions and the perma-frost and inaccessible terrains.

Teamwork and the safety of our crews were our main concerns during the blizzards and whiteouts. So, we built survival shacks with food heating, and all the necessary items to survive in these extreme weather conditions.

We also adapted our recirculating systems, the methods for drilling in perma-frost, we worked on efficiently moving from one site to the other and adapting our drills so they can be mounted on skids, on tracks and become heli-portable.

GT: What are your day-to-day responsibilities as the CEO of one of the biggest companies in our industry? How is your work different from the old days of drilling?

PA: My day-to-day responsibilities are communicating, managing and executing with the management team. I am responsible for making strategic corporate decisions and being accountable to the board of directors.

This was a significant change from working on the drilling sites, and without the experience I have acquired in the past, I would have not been able to make the same informed decisions that I do today. As they all are crucial to the company’s success.

GT: This might be a hot topic… It seems that there is a bit of a rivalry/competition between English- and French-speaking Canadian drilling companies. It would be interesting for our international readers if you could tell us more about it.

PA: The competition is mostly in Quebec between French Canadians because this is the most competitive market in the country and maybe in the world. The market here is deeply segmented between many drilling contractors, so the competition is very fierce.

GT: There was and still is high inflation in the world. What are its main effects on the diamond drilling industry and how do you address them?

PA: Inflation is one of the biggest challenges in the diamond drilling industry presently. We are addressing the effects by conducting a thorough analysis of our cost structure and we’re actively trying to pinpoint areas where we can reduce the costs without compromising on the quality of the work being done. We are always trying some new drilling products to increase our efficiency and reduce our costs. This is even more efficient because we work closely with our drilling suppliers to increase the quality of our services.

GT: What is your prognosis for the state of drilling in the next couple of years?

PA: Unfortunately, I do not have a crystal ball, so It’s hard to tell. There is a lot of uncertainty concerning the commodity markets in which we operate.

In recent years, we clearly saw a trend toward automation and equipment innovation and increased environmental awareness across the mining industry. My assumption is that this trend will continue and probably it will only accelerate. Orbit Garant is well positioned for the future with its computerized drills, and more recently, with rod handling system.

Also, recent new mining discoveries tend to be in harsher environments with more extreme weather, in remote areas and on isolated terrains. Because of that, we can expect to do more specialized drilling such as directional drilling, deeper holes, work in the middle of nowhere and brave the harsh elements. I expect this trend to continue in the next couple of years.

GT: What are three pieces of advice you would give to small drilling companies that are just launching?

PA: My piece of advice to the new launchers is that this is no different than any other business. You must know your clients, their needs, and you must have a passion for what you do. Perseverance and hard work are the key to success.

GT: Finally, what are your interests outside of the drilling industry?

PA: My family is the core of my existence, a treasure beyond measure and the foundation on which my life is built.

Some of my hobbies are fishing, hunting and traveling to explore new places, cultures and cuisines. This creates lasting memories.

For more information visit: orbitgarant.com