What Alberta’s Coal Mining History Can Teach Us About Business Today

Published on August 26, 2013
Atlas Coal Mine

Atlas Coal Mine, Drumheller, Alberta

Part of our summer vacation this August was spent in the history-rich Badlands in Southern Alberta near Drumheller.  Today, the area is most well-known as "Dinosaur Capital of the World", but in decades past, the area was known for a different resource buried in the hoodoos: coal.

The Atlas Coal Mine, a national historic site, was among one of our day-trips and a highlight of our vacation.  We spent a day touring the site - which includes an up-close and personal tour of the single remaining wooden tipple in all of Canada.

During our tours, I learned a great deal about the history of the area, about coal mining, and surprisingly, I took away some business lessons as well.

What I learned from the coal miners

Don't fall for empty promises and "too good to be true" deals 

Many of the workers at the coal mines in the area were immigrants, brought in by the mine owners from all over the world.  They left their homes, families and everything they owned for the big promises made by the coal miners. They were promised steady work, housing and a better life.

What they got:

  • back-breaking, highly dangerous work in the mine (workers were easy to find, if you got injured you were forgotten and replaced), sometimes working for 8 hours straight hunched over with a pick, on their knees, or even on their bellies (depending on the height of the coal seam)
  • canvas tents for shelter - Did I mention the area experiences -40C periods of cold in the winter?
  • pennies per day - they only got paid for one size of coal, even though the mine sold all sizes that were mined. And deductions were made for housing, food - sometimes the miner owed the mine after he received his two-week pay check minus deductions.  Ouch.

How does that apply to business now?  If someone is offering you an opportunity that sounds too good to be true.... Stop. Think. Do your research.

Check up on the performance or results from previous buyers: Did they achieve what is promised?  What are the complaints, if any?  Is there a refund policy, if so, what are the terms and does history show that the policy is honored?  You need to ask around, or you could end up in the cold.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

The guide on our Tipple Tour told us a story about one of the men at the mine who worked for 30 years at the top of the tipple (I'll call him Bob).  His job was to monitor the various bins of coal (separated by size) and notify the guys at the bottom when it was full and needed to be dumped into an awaiting rail car.

When a bin was full, Bob ran all the way down the tipple (I know from experience, it's a long run), yelled out the door to the men to move the cart, then he ran all the way back to the top and checked on the bins.  Then he ran down and yelled to empty the next bin etc etc .. all day long.  Every 7 minutes he ran up and down the tipple so that the bins did not overflow. Exhausting, but it got the job done for the boss.

When Bob retired, his replacement (Joe) came in the next day and within 2 hours, realized that running up and down the tipple, all day long was more energy than he wanted to spend.  So he made a change to the system: he made signs with the bins numbers on them.  When bin 1 was full, he held the sign with "Bin 1" out the window - the guys at the bottom looked up and saw the sign and knew then it was time to empty bin #1.  Then Bin 2, etc etc.

How does that apply to business now? Joe got the same job done as Bob did, but saved himself a pile of work by implementing the right tool to the system.

What are the inefficiencies in your business?  It is important to review your systems periodically to ensure that they are running smoothly and to watch for improvements - can you achieve the same  or better results with less effort by implementing a small change to your system or process?

Your Online Business Manager should have a plan in place to periodically review and maintain the systems in your business.

Beware of Shiny Packages Covering Up Tired, Old Ideas

The Atlas Coal Mine was known for a very special kind of coal that was found nowhere else in the entire valley: it was called "Wildfire".

One year at a trade fair, the owner of the mine  realized he needed a competitive edge, so he decided to spice up his booth by adding paint to the coal that was on display - to make it look more "festive" for the Christmas season.  The effect: the coal looked like it was burning!  So he ran with that and told everyone "Our coal is the hottest burning, longest lasting coal you can buy - and it's only available at our mine!" He sold out of everything he had, and the orders started piling in at the mine.

So, a new a step was added to the coal harvesting process - as the coal was coming down the conveyor belt from the mine, the operator's job was to dip a paintbrush in a can of yellow paint, and then flick it across the coal as it made its way to sorting.

Ta Da! Wildfire coal.

Customers were willing to spend $1/ton more for the Wildfire coal, than for any other coal in the valley.  The mine owner made a killing.

How does that apply to business now? Shady tactics aside, we need to pay attention!
As customers - beware of shiny object syndrome! Is Product 2.0 enough better than 1.0 that you need to upgrade? Don't make change for the sake of making change!

And as content creators - are you serving your clients/customers in pushing out that product or are you only serving yourself?  Your audience is more savvy than those that the coal miner was serving: they are going to see through an old idea repackaged with a new tagline.  You have worked hard to build your reputation!

Sometimes to export coal, you need to import coal

The Atlas Coal mine had to import coal from Louisiana... for a very good reason: the coal mined from Atlas was a "younger" coal that burned well in homes, but it did not provide enough heat for industrial applications.  The tools (picks, axes, shovels) that were forged on-site needed a fire fueled by the hotter burning coal from Louisiana.

So, to make the tools needed to mine the coal to sell from Atlas, the owners needed to import coal from somewhere else.

How does that apply to business now? As the expert in your business, you need to be prepared for, and be willing to bring in outside help when you need it.  You are great at what you do, but you aren't an expert at everything, and sometimes, even some of the things you do well are not the best use of your time and focus, like business and operations management.

Make sure to assess the roles and support needs in your business and then decide - who is the best person to fill that role?  What are the gaps or inefficiencies?  You'll need to look at this periodically; your support needs will change as your business grows and changes over time.

1 Comment

  1. Layne Clark

    Well said!

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