The boy who grew up with the big Cat

Q&A with Wally and Carrie Yanishewski, owners of Walter’s Cat Works Ltd

The boy who grew up with the big Cat
Wally Yanishewski and his wife, Carrie, at their shop location in Fourth Creek

By Beverly Lomosad

For Wally Yanishewski, work is a way of life, not a switch to flip on, nor a box to check. His tutelage for the value of hard work came at an early age at home from the strongest influences in his life: his parents. His strong work ethic was moulded in the course of doing errands for and helping in his dad’s business, the Walter’s Cat Works Ltd. He was 13 when he began moving equipment around the yard of the business. “I can’t emphasize enough how hard-working the Yanishewskis are,” said his wife of 35 years, Carrie, adding that Wally and his dad, Walter, both derived a sense of happiness from putting in hard work.
Wally is now at the helm of the business; in fact, he has been for many years before his dad’s passing in 2012.

Talk a little bit about the early years of the business.
Wally: My dad and I worked together until his passing in 2012. I started running equipment at a very young age, helping him. At 13, I started running Cat and driving truck. I was 13 when we bought our first big truck. At 15, I loaded my first Cat onto a lowboy and hauled it down the road all by myself. I would take the truck and lowboy to school. And, in my free periods, I would jump in and move Cats then come back to school. When I got home from school, I worked. I took over the business – officially on paper – in 2012; but, I have been running the business probably 20-25 years prior to that.

In the 1950s, my dad provided land-clearing services for farmers as well as built roads for Alberta Transportation. There wasn’t a whole bunch of oilpatch work back then. That changed with the oil boom in the 1970s. There was a lot of road construction that had to be done, and we gained a lot more work: we were building roads as well as locations for rigs to drill on.

Carrie: Wally’s dad grew up in Blueberry Creek with all the other Yanishewski brothers, and a lot of them got into Cat work. He worked at Alaska Highway as well as for Alberta Transportation with his own machine. Wally was 19 when he bought his own Cat and scraper. That effectively doubled the capacity of the business. From that point on, they just kept building the business.

What were some of the challenges you encountered while growing the business?
The oil industry is a terrible mistress. One moment, you get the highs; the next, you get the lows. You just have to ride out the lows, which could sometimes take a year, and sometimes longer. Then, all of a sudden, it comes back with a vengeance, and you go from a yard full of equipment to nothing sitting there – and you’re struggling to find workers as was the case in 2005-2006. As high as the industry goes up, so hard it also comes crashing down. That’s always the cycle in the oilpatch.

In the 1980s, we decided that, when we can afford it, we will acquire equipment with little to no financing. A once-bitten, twice-shy attitude kicked in after we had payments – not crazy payments – and the interest rate went as high as 21.75%. So, we decided we will not carry a heavy debtload.

Carrie: And that means business growth is slower. You take little but constant steps. The 1980s were tough, marked by some oil companies going bankrupt. But Wally and his dad decided they will stick together. Wally sacrificed a lot to make sure the business didn’t go under – he just worked and didn’t take a wage. Wally stuck with his dad through thick and thin. Now, if we don’t work for two years, no problem: the equipment is not going to rot, and it’s paid for. Wally is also an expert at finding an opportunity to get a better piece of equipment and update it.

How do you describe the business now?
Wally: Right around 2000, the business really started to take off. By then, we had built our gravel pit, which provided another revenue stream for us. We got really busy: aside from our construction business with heavy equipment, and the supply and delivery of gravel, we also farm 5,000 acres.

Carrie: In 2010, I decided to retire from teaching at Savanna School after 28 years to take on the office work of the business. Wally’s mom, Olga, who had been doing bookkeeping and other office work for the business, had turned 74 and decided to slow down.

Talk a little bit about the gravel pit.
Wally: We have an 80-acre gravel pit about 22 kilometres east of our shop location. So much work and investment had gone into the construction of the gravel pit: from taking all the vegetation off to taking 3-6 feet of overburden – that’s all the useless clay on top – off; it was quite a major undertaking and a long process before you see gravel being trucked out and get your revenue back. A custom crusher that comes into our pit costs us $300,000 per visit. Unless customers prefer to haul the gravel themselves with their own truck, we deliver gravel to our customers, which consist mainly of oil companies and farmers. The supply of gravel is another stage of work in the oilpatch. Oil companies build lease roads and plant sites, and they gravel their roads. As I already mentioned, the cyclical nature of the oil industry can sometimes be challenging; it’s something we have had to deal with. At one point, the gravel pit got us through two years of an oil down cycle.

Carrie: I can’t emphasize enough how hard-working the Yanishewskis are. Wally is out the door usually by six in the morning. He comes home for lunch, has a quick 20-minute nap, then goes out again until supper time. After supper, he goes out yet again until it’s dark. That’s been his MO (modus operandi) for the 35 years we’ve been married. That’s the work ethic he and his dad had.

How fierce is the level of competition in the road-construction industry?
Wally: I would say the competition is not as tough as it used to be. There had been a few contractors that sold out, so the field is not as crowded.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic have any impact on your business?
Wally: We appreciate that Tourmaline Corp. has kept us working during the pandemic years. We also appreciate that Saddle Hills County makes an effort to engage local contractors for available work.

Carrie: But we’re not the only one that bids for County work. Any contractor can submit its rates.
Your names and that of your business are associated with some of the important work in the community.

Talk a little bit about some of your community work, including philanthropy.
We have donated to the Savanna Agricultural Society Rec-Plex. And for the naming rights to one of the dressing rooms at the rec-plex, we wanted to make sure it was named after my dad, Walter Yanishewski, and not Walter’s Cat Works Ltd or Wally, which is the name I go by.

Carrie: We always try to get involved in our community. At the construction of the new Fourth Creek Hall, we got involved with the site prep work. At Savanna School, we got involved with some work needed to set up a new playground. Our sponsorships include buying warm-up outfits for the Savanna Minor Hockey, to the Race the 8 event in Rycroft, to the annual ball hockey tournament organized by Aztec Engineering in Grande Prairie in support of the Grande Prairie Hospital Foundation, to community members soliciting support for their own endeavours.

Is there a business expansion plan in the horizon?
Wally: I think the business we currently have is enough for us to manage and handle. We would need a manager otherwise if we plan to grow any bigger.