Sometimes opportunity is right around the corner, but sometimes you have to drive 22 hours and build a new railway depot to get it. That’s what Joliette, Que.-based petroleum products supplier Harnois Groupe did in 2014 when Esso announced it would stop supplying fuel to mining companies operating in Labrador City.
“We saw a great opportunity to expand geographically,” explains president and CEO Serge Harnois. “Labrador City is remote, so Esso had trouble finding a supplier to take over, but we knew what we had to do.” To secure the contract, Harnois Groupe built a rail depot in Labrador City with a two-million-litre fuel capacity.
Figuring out how to move into remote markets is one way the family-run Harnois Groupe, founded by Claude Harnois in 1958, has multiplied its revenues 50-fold in the past 30 years. “Being a truly pan-Quebec company has given us more financial solidity than our competitors in the south,” says Serge Harnois, 50, whose siblings, brother Luc and sister Claudine, are the company’s other shareholders.
Harnois Groupe has grown dramatically over the past 15 years by quickly seizing opportunities when they arise. “My father left the company in very good shape financially,” says Harnois, who started working for his father as a dispatcher after he completed a business degree at Montreal’s HEC business school.
Groupe Harnois is now the biggest independent distributor in Quebec, supplying two billion litres of petrol per year for a total of 11% retail-market share in a market dominated by giant firms like Couche-Tard.
Half the business is in retail: Groupe Harnois operates, owns or supplies some 400 service stations in Quebec. The rest of the fuel is supplied to the commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors. “One reason we have been so successful diversifying geographically is that we have spent decades building the trust of customers and suppliers. People know we will deliver what we promise,” says Harnois. Harnois Groupe used a similar approach to break into the northern region of Abitibi, Que. “When a local distributor in Rouyn-Noranda announced its bankruptcy on Monday, we were ready to serve clients by Tuesday.”
In recent years, Harnois Groupe has also expanded its product selection, moving beyond gas to lubricants and new fuels. Over the next two years, the company will be installing 30 propane pumps at its stations. “We are a one-stop shop. People come to get gas or diesel, but they need lubricants, windshield washer fluid, you name it. We offer the whole range of goods,” says Harnois. The company is even installing electrical charging stations in their service stations. “They are not our core business, but electrical chargers show we’re open-minded and looking toward the future.”
Opportunities for organic growth are running out, says Harnois, so the company is looking at making acquisitions, which will be possible thanks to a $45-million investment by Quebec’s Caisse de dépôt et placement and Fonds de solidarité in 2016. “We have the means to match our goals.”