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Sea-faring bearings

Thordon Bearings builds its global business making rudder and shaftline products that use seawater for lubrication.


November 4, 2011
by Erika Beauchesne

Thordon Bearings builds its global business making rudder and shaftline products that use seawater for lubrication.

George Thomson always wanted to be a filmmaker, but like many children born into a family business, he ended up taking over the company instead. Thomson is the fourth-generation owner of Thordon Bearings Inc., a Burlington, Ont. manufacturer of rudder and shaftline products for the marine industry that reduce a ship’s environmental impact on the water.

Since inheriting the business from his father in 1964, Thomson has overseen the company’s growth in 100 countries. Today, Thordon bearings are used by more than 2,000 ships from Disney Cruiselines to the Canadian Navy and were recently shortlisted for an Ocean Environmental Award at the 2011 Sustainable Shipping Awards.

The bearing system consists of a proprietary mix of elastomeric material rather than metal, and oil or grease aren’t needed because seawater provides the lubrication.

With millions of litres of stern tube oil lost to oceans each year, seawater-lubricated propeller shaft bearings have been recommended by environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth International.

The growth potential in the commercial ship market (container ships, bulk carriers, ferries and tankers) is tremendous, says Anna Galoni, Thordon’s vice-chairman, who notes the company currently has just 1% of the potential market share for propeller shaft bearings.

“The marine industry is our largest market and is typically very conservative by nature. Some commercial ship owners are reluctant to try new ideas and products. However, with new pollution regulations and improved oil detection methods, many are specifying our pollution-free bearing systems and having excellent results.”

Craig Carter, director of marketing and customer service, says much of their success has had to do with stricter environmental regulations.

“In the US, Canada and Western Europe, laws have been changing, in a large part driven by the EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency].”

Vessels now require a discharge permit and have to account for the oil aboard the ship before the voyage and any discrepancy in that amount at the trip’s end.
The US has always been a solid market for the company, but in recent years its biggest chunk of business has come from China.

“India and Brazil also offer big growth potential for us,” he says, and the company operates a joint venture in Russia with the country’s largest hydro-turbine manufacturer for the supply of bearings to domestic and foreign markets. Thordon is also building a facility in Poland.

“We recognized the need to have a manufacturing presence in Europe to better supply our customers there while taking advantage of the financial, logistical and geographic benefits would bring,” says Galoni.

Poland was chosen, she explains, because of its success in developing a modern economic and business climate, the availability of first-class skilled trades and financial incentives.

“This facility will give us flexibility, help mitigate the risk associated with having only one facility and provide a competitive advantage for us in Europe.”

Carter says succeeding in global markets requires a strong network of distributors.  “They need to understand the culture, the product lines and speak the language.” But it takes a few years to set them up and get the product established.

Worldwide marine markets
Thordon now has more than 70 distributors worldwide and maintains all its manufacturing in Canada. Its 80,000-square-foot plant keeps 100 employees busy making a range of shaft line products, including coatings and water quality systems that use cyclonic separators to remove abrasives from water.

Thordon also makes bearings for offshore oil rigs, hydro-electric plants, pumps and other industrial applications.

Specializing in highly engineered polymer products has helped the company surmount several economic downturns.

“We’re lucky because we have not been hurt by the Canadian dollar or other impacts that plastic companies here are feeling,” he says.

The company was founded in 1911 by George’s grandfather, who handed it over to his father in the 1940s.

Thomson says maintaining that long line of family ownership has helped them gain the trust of potential customers, particularly in regions such as Europe where it’s not uncommon to find family businesses spanning 15 generations.

“There’s a customer expectation that family businesses are going to be stable, consistent and have strong values,” Thomson says. “That means a lot, especially when you’re dealing overseas and there’s a distance separating you.”

But running a family business has its challenges.
“It’s a mistake to think you need to be fair and bring every family member into the business. It inevitably results in conflict,” he says.

Having a succession plan is also vital.

“It needs to be planned long before the incumbent becomes incapacitated in any way,” he says.

Now 72, Thomson is transferring ownership over to Galoni, his stepdaughter.

“I’ve diverted all my common shares to her and now it’s just a matter of me dying before she gets the rest of it,” he jokes.

As for the future, the company intends to be aggressive.
“We are expecting to grow 15% to 20% annually over the next few years,” says Galoni.

She forecasts success, especially during these tough economic times, will come from maintaining a focus on global marketing to capitalize on the reduced efforts of Thordon’s competitors, and moving ahead as quickly as possible with new product development initiatives that would enhance existing products. To that end, the company invests 5% of its sales in research and development activities.

Meanwhile, Thomson is retiring gradually and using his spare time to pursue one piece of unfinished business – his love of filmmaking.

He used to run a company called Cinema 16 and has recently restarted it.

“Filmmaking is mostly what I do now. It’s great. It gives me somewhere to go, something to do and it gets me out of my daughter’s way,” he laughs.

Erika Beauchesne was recently an online writer and section editor with Canadian Manufacturing.com, and is currently seeking adventure in Alberta.