December 21, 2009
by Nordahl Flakstad
Oil and water aren’t supposed to mix, but ZCL Composites Inc. has found a happy combination of the two by making fibreglass-reinforced plastic and steel storage tanks used in the petroleum industry, and increasingly for water storage.
Not unlike some other business scripts, it was a rejection that spurred ZCL president and CEO Ven Côté to found his Edmonton-based company in 1987. Trained as an aeronautics technologist, the native of Cabano, Que. had risen through the ranks at CAE Industries Ltd., a company best known for its aerospace expertise and now part of L-3 Communications SPAR Aerospace Ltd. CAE also had a composite-tanks division and Côté headed the Edmonton operations. With two daughters then in the Edmonton school system Côté, despite his Quebecois roots, turned down a CAE offer to transfer to Quebec. Instead, he unsuccessfully bid to buy CAE’s tank division.
Today, Côté sees that rejection as a blessing in disguise.
He became aware of a system developed by Xerxes Corp., a Minnesota company, for making reinforced fibreglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) tanks. The Xerxes process literally turned tank-making “outside in.” Composite tanks had been around since the 1960s, and they normally were produced by applying a glass fibre and resin to the outside of a mandrel or male mould. In contrast, Xerxes uses a female mould and applies the material from the inside.
Côté secured Canadian rights to the Xerxes process and set up ZCL. In the aftermath of the National Energy Program (NEP), the late 1980s and early 1990s didn’t appear to be a propitious time to enter business in Alberta. While he avoids calling his firm recession proof, Côté figures lessons learned while launching his business in an earlier economic downdraft have helped the firm ride through recent economic turbulence.
But if the NEP represented a kick in the pants, another piece of legislation offered ZCL a kick-start. It came through the Canadian Environmental Protection Act’s (CEPA) then-new aboveground and underground storage-tank regulations. So-called LUST (leaking underground storage tanks) rules prompted ambitious initiatives at gasoline service stations across Canada to replace aging and leaking steel tanks with corrosion-resistant composite tanks.