More than 40 years ago, a couple of young guys from St. Jean Baptiste started a couple of businesses in St. Boniface.
When he was 30 years old, George Rajotte took out a $12,000 second mortgage on his Southdale home (that he’d bought for $17,000) and started Western Sandblasting.
Located about one kilometre down Dawson Road, Ken Neumann and three partners started Able Crane Services.
Neumann, who passed away five years ago, eventually became sole owner.
Last week, Rajotte acquired Able Crane from Neumann’s son Alan, in a transaction that Alan Neumann agreed was comfortable and neighbourly.
Several years ago, Rajotte changed the name of the sandblasting company to Western Industrial Services Ltd. to reflect the fact it had become a pan-industrial coating company. In the 1980s, he started Western Construction Services, a concrete repair and restoration business and Western Waste Management (now owned by George’s son Marc Rajotte), which is probably the largest asbestos abatement operations in the province.
A few years ago when Rajotte said he was feeling a little bored and restless, he dabbled in a little real estate development and business brokerage and equipment leasing through Rajotte Capital and Nova Capital.
The latter is still around and does some equipment leasing — "but we don’t really chase any business" Rajotte said — but mostly it is a holding company for Rajotte’s industrial operations.
Before he sold the abatement business to his son, his companies had about 150 employees. With the addition of Able and another smaller business, he said he is about to buy, his businesses will soon get back up to the 150-employee level.
Despite the challenges of social distancing during the pandemic, Rajotte said business has been great. This year, his coatings company has worked lined up in just about every province across the country.
Able’s business is almost entirely in Manitoba. Neumann said, "Our equipment is big and slow" and is not economical to move it too far afield.
Neumann said that after his father passed away, his passion for the business had waned but he is glad to sell to his neighbour and that the business will still be around for its 20 employees.
"It’s hard to see it go," Neumann said. "But nothing will make me happier than to see George hit it out of the park."
Details of the acquisition were not disclosed, but Neumann confirmed that the company includes equipment worth millions of dollars.
After the bankruptcy of the larger Litz and Sons crane company last year, Able picked up some of that business. Able equipment can be found on some of the largest construction sites in the province including at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Although the pandemic caused some business to be delayed, Neumann said 2021 is shaping up to be one of Able’s best years.
Meanwhile, at 76 years old, Rajotte said he is having the time of his life.
"I spoke to a friend who is the same age as me, and he asked me among the people we knew who were the same age — some of whom were working and some retired — which group would I prefer to be part of," Rajotte said. "I wanted to be part of the group that was still working."
Rajotte has presidents of all his companies in charge of operations and when the time comes when he can’t keep working — he jokingly says to people that he is in "reasonably" sound mind — he has an advisory committee in place that will ensure the seamless continuation of the businesses.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.