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the challenge revisited

Marlene Luck is president and CEO of Northern Canadian Supplies Ltd., based in Fort McMurray, Alta.

A year ago, Northern Canadian Supplies Ltd. was doing steady business selling environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and equipment, in addition to safety gear such as fire-resistant clothing, to health centres, schools and senior residences across the western provinces.

But Marlene Luck, its president and chief executive officer, was keen to expand her company's sphere.

The First Nation member entered the Small Business Challenge contest, sponsored by The Globe and Mail and Telus Corp. Though NCSL, which is based in Fort McMurray, Alta., missed out on the $100,000 grand prize, it was one of four semifinalists, and today business is booming.

The company's formula for success was coming up with its own products to suit clients' needs.

"For mining, what they were looking for is an environmental cleaner that would be strong enough for harsh conditions like sand, rock, gravel and oil products. We ended up making this line of environmental products that actually removed bitumen and oil products," she says.

"Syncrude [Canada Ltd.] actually tested it in their facility in Edmonton against three other products and ended up coming back with results that said the NCSL product was better than the other ones," she said.

As a result, the $616,000 in annual revenue that NCSL reported as a Challenge contestant will probably more than triple this year, Ms. Luck said, and she is hiring eight additional employees to keep up with demand.

Part of that rise in revenue came because her company has begun offering janitorial services. That transition resulted in a bit of trial and error, however. "Sometimes it's hard to find reliable employees that will make it to sites," she says.

The company has also overhauled its product catalogue, which has grown to consist of four product lines, the largest of which is 1,700 pages.

Most recently, NCSL was contacted by Seaspan International Ltd. in Vancouver, which received an $8-billion contract from the federal government in 2011 to build ships. The company wanted quotes on the cleaning and upkeep of its shipyard.

"I've been up there already," Ms. Luck says. "These are things that are happening now."

The company gives back two per cent of its gross sales to non-profit organizations of the clients' choosing. "Every time I sign a new contract, especially with another First Nations reserve, they'll get a certain percentage back into the community," she says.

But while NCSL seems to be carving out a niche in the market, Ms. Luck knows that continuing to grow is the key to long-term success.

"The next step right now is to expand within B.C. and Saskatchewan," she says. "I'm doing Alberta right now so probably by August this year I'll have locations in Vancouver and Saskatchewan as well."

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