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The Drift: New identity, leader guide mine supply group into next chapter

MineConnect is taking a pan-northern approach to promoting mining in the North
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Marla Tremblay is leading MineConnect into its next chapter representing the mining supply and service companies of Northern Ontario.

Marla Tremblay is a doer.

As far back as her economic development days in North Bay in the mid- to late 2000s, she's had a knack for making things happen and deftly juggling multiple projects at once.

Between writing funding proposals and crafting strategic plans, she'll happily coordinate the office potluck, drawing up a detailed list of what everyone's bringing to the party.

“I'm that person,” Tremblay chuckled. “I'm the mother hen. I'm the one who's organizing the details.”

A long record of success doing what she does best made her the ideal candidate to become the next executive director of MineConnect.

The industry association, representing mining service and supply companies across Northern Ontario, put out the call in 2019 for a new leader to guide the organization into its next chapter.

Paul Bradette was nearing the end of his three-year stint while on secondment from the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines.

Twenty-five people applied for the job. Tremblay caught the board's eye as a well-respected influencer with practical experience in both the private and public sectors, and within a broad range of industries.

“Finding a candidate for this specific position is simply not an easy task,” Ricky Lemieux, MineConnect's board chair, said in March, announcing Tremblay’s appointment.

“She is a professional, accomplished woman that has extensive knowledge of the businesses in our sector with an already established relationship with many of our members."

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In many ways, taking on her current role was a natural progression from Tremblay's previous work.

Overseeing the mining portfolio was part of her job as an economic development officer for the City of North Bay. She was tasked with reaching out to area mining suppliers to determine what they needed to succeed and how the city could help.

Tremblay recalled her response to learning the results of a 2010 study into the impact of the Northern Ontario mining supply and service sector, performed by consulting firm Doyletech Corp. 

Commissioned by Ontario's North Economic Development Corp. (ONEDC), the study found the sector employed 23,000 people with an annual economic impact of $5.6 billion.

“It was a big eye-opener in terms of understanding how many employees and how much potential there was,” Tremblay said.

“A lot of these companies weren't exporting, or they only had one customer, so it was really interesting learning that and being part of trying to influence that.”

As her connection to the industry deepened, she became a frequent attendee at the annual convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC). She took point on mining-related projects coordinated through ONEDC, including leading a consortium to Western Canada to help suppliers access that region's potash mines.

By the time she left her EDO position with the city in 2012 for private practice, she was well-versed in the industry. Her connections led to additional work with new and longstanding clients.

That's how she first landed a contract working with the City of Temiskaming Shores and FedNor to organize the Northern Ontario Mining Showcase at PDAC in 2014.

Starting with just a handful of companies, the Temiskaming group set up a tradeshow booth, seeking to raise the international profile of the region's mining service and supply sector.

It was a hit. Year by year, the pavilion has grown to become the largest at the show, providing display space for 110 companies from around the North, helping them secure new customers, expanded their markets, and even made sales on the convention hall floor.

Through her firm, Markey Consulting, Tremblay handles project management and strategic planning for a range of clients, from tourism operators to Indigenous communities. But mining remains a strong area of interest.

She joined the MineConnect board in 2019, playing a direct role in developing the marketing and governance protocols for the group.

“I like solutions, and that's one thing about the mining industry especially, I find, in Northern Ontario,” said Tremblay, who's based out of Sturgeon Falls, east of Sudbury.

“They're very solution-focused, which is really cool to me.”

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Now that accumulated wisdom neatly funnels into her position as executive director, where she'll guide the almost 200-member group in rolling out its newly developed strategic plan.

Boosting membership is on her to-do list, along with a heightened marketing and communications presence through surveys, emails and social media.

Tremblay's also seeking collaborations with other like-minded organizations across the North to see how they can avoid working in silos.

“I want to know what people are doing, and I want them to know what we're doing, and I want to figure out how to do it better, and how we can do it together."

“All of that will eventually a) be beneficial to the members, and b) create more awareness of the North in general, which then leads to more leads.”

MineConnect is already seeing the benefit of its widely anticipated rebranding effort undertaken last year.

In 2003 when it was formed, banking on Sudbury's global reputation as a nickel-mining hotspot, the group had adopted a name that would provide instant recognition – the Sudbury Area Mining Service and Supply Association (SAMSSA) – and it has served Sudbury-area companies well.

But in the 18 years since its inception, mining in Northern Ontario has exploded beyond the confines of the Nickel City.

"Sudbury is known around the world,” Tremblay said. “But because there's been so much (mine) development in other areas in Northern Ontario...it's now recognized that it's not just the Sudbury Basin anymore.”

Tremblay points to Timmins’ rich and historic gold camp, a flurry of new activity in northwestern Ontario's Rainy River District, along with the massive, undeveloped Ring of Fire chromite deposit in the James Bay Lowlands, as examples of the scope of Northern Ontario's mining potential.

To be more inclusive and to accurately reflect the sector's growth, SAMSSA became MineConnect, and the group expanded its mandate to include suppliers from right across the North.

"Everybody has a role to play,” Tremblay said. “There's a ton of opportunity.”

Generally, the response to the change has been positive, she said.

For those who remain skeptical, Tremblay is determined to get them on board, too.

With a “door-is-always-open” attitude, she wants to hear from members, and potential members, and anyone who has an interest in helping promote mining service and supply in the North.

“I'm a person who's always been a connector, so it is a good fit,” she said.

“I've always been the one at the boardroom table, or the committee table, or the meeting, going, 'You should talk to so-and-so.' It's the role I've always played.

“So it's kind of fun to be part of an organization that's actually called MineConnect.”

The Drift features profiles on the people, companies and institutions making important contributions to Greater Sudbury’s mining sector. From exploration, operation and remediation to research and innovation, this series covers the breadth of mining-related expertise that was born out of one of the world’s richest mining camps and is now exported around the world.