By Pat Rediger
The middle of a pandemic is probably a less than ideal time to be starting a new business venture, but the timing was right for Kevin Aebig. He had been doing a little consulting work in the IT sector in addition to his regular job, and it wasn’t long before he captured the attention of Athabasca Basin Development (ABD), an Indigenous-owned investment company.
Aebig enjoyed helping companies with their IT issues, but he didn’t have a team or enough hours available to take his consulting practice to the next level. But ABD was on the lookout for business opportunities and IT services was an area that offered possibilities. The field was a new one for ABD, which has investments in a range of different sectors, part of a continuing trend of Indigenous companies and investors finding new niches and opportunities across the province.
After developing a business case together, ABD brought in Peter Ballantyne Group of Companies, and the two organizations decided to invest in Optek Solutions with Aebig as CEO.
“We put together a case that included our methodology of moving our clients to cloud solutions, which was a little different than what the industry would consider normal,” recalled Aebig. “There’s a lot of similarities, but we’re a little disruptive on how we approach things.”
Traditionally, IT firms establish a large headquarter with consultants who are on-call to deal with different clients’ needs, often visiting them on-site to solve problems. With the pandemic and the growth of remote working, Aebig realized there was an opportunity to create a different approach. He set about finding the best IT support staff in the province and make them available to clients as required from their remote locations.
“We learned and used some of the tools that came out of the pandemic, so our model is primarily remote based. We have people from across Saskatchewan and we can provide better coverage to our clients. They don’t need to be in a specific office building to provide support and being this flexible provides us with the opportunity to operate in diverse environments from drilling sites in the far north to large office complexes in the south,” explained Aebig.
This approach focuses on finding the best people available no matter where they are located. He’s looking for people who are engaged and passionate about the industry. These are the people who have the perseverance to work through the toughest problems to find the right solutions.
Today Optek handles a wide variety of IT needs including strategic direction, risk management, process improvement and continuity planning to day-to-day helpdesk support requirements. The company is also focussed on making technology less intimidating to clients and helping them leverage tools they already use more efficiently.
The company has seen significant growth since forming in 2021 with most of it occurring through word-of-mouth advertising. The company meets with their clients to discuss requirements and then switches to remote service offerings after the initial review and deployment is completed. It’s rare for Optek’s consultants to work on-site since most of their clients now use cloud-based computing solutions.
One of the projects that Aebig is particularly proud is a mentorship program that was initiated in Athabasca communities in conjunction with Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC). Local communities promoted the mentorship program and encouraged those interested in IT to meet with Aebig to discuss potential job opportunities.
“We would go to the economic development office, sit down, and have a chat with people to see if this program was a fit. We didn’t ask for resumes, we just wanted to sit down and have a conversation. It was good to see the communities and it was good to meet people face-to-face. We eventually settled on an initial cohort of five,” explained Aebig.
Those selected were given coursework they could work on at home and they had access to an experienced member of the Optek team to ask questions and discuss ideas. The company was able to offer full-time employment to a resident of Black Lake, who spends much of his time working for clients in the south.
After about a year in operation, Aebig said the board notified him of another opportunity for the company to consider. The owners of Prince Albert Photocopier (PAP), a printing company that also offered managed services, wanted to retire, and was seeking a potential buy-out. It was an established company with a long history of serving Prince Albert.
The purchase is part of a growing trend among Indigenous investors, moving into new markets by acquiring established companies whose owners are retiring. The low risk profile, proven financials and established markets allow them to expand and diversify, while also giving businesses and employees a way to stay in business and continue serving their market.
Aebig said they identified potential synergies between the two companies right away. Although the company specialized in printing and hardware services (it’s 1 of 3 authorized Ricoh Canada dealers in the province), it also provided some services for companies in the north. This was a chance to expand the company’s business offerings and get a better foothold to serve businesses in the north. Within the acquisition, Kitsaki Management Limited Partnership, the economic development arm of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, joined the partnership.
The acquisition brought total staffing for the company to 19. Aebig said it’s not easy to combine two companies that operate in different industries, but it’s coming along. Aside from the nuts and bolts of consolidating systems such as accounting and phones, there is a need to find ways to share and collaborate. For now, Optek manages all IT services, and PAP continues to operate under its own identity to provide print services.
Although the company has been a bit of a whirlwind since its inception roughly a year-and-a-half ago, Aebig said Optek still has plans to grow. With an increasing client base in the south, he is looking to add more consultants in that area. More growth, means more opportunity and jobs for the people of Saskatchewan.
“When we started, we didn’t advertise. Nobody knew about us outside of word of mouth. I continue to receive messages from people I’ve never met, saying “I’ve heard about you and can you help me”. Then they proceed to tell me about their issues, and I explain to them what I think we should do and how Optek can implement that plan. By being very transparent and explaining each aspect of our solution, we typically begin working with them immediately to solve their worst pain points and follow-up with a comprehensive plan to optimize the rest of their deployment.”
Technology is the backbone of modern business and companies like Optek are a vital part of Saskatchewan’s economic landscape. Their growth and success is an example of growth that works for everyone and ensures the province’s economy can continue thriving.