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Steven Priestley ditched his winter coat Feb. 1 and flew away from St. John’s and the polar vortex that promises to chill Newfoundland and Labrador to the bone this weekend.
Today he’s enjoying shirt-sleeve weather in temperatures of 27 degrees Celsius.
But he’s not sipping Mai Tais on a beach.
Priestley is in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and he’s there for most of February to do business.
A lot of business, he hopes.
Priestley is the co-founder, and Chief Operations Officer for AltoMaxx Technologies, a company so new—founded in 2018—that they’re still adding to their equipment and building staff.
Priestley and co-founder and CEO Christopher Haley have packed a lot into the four years since the “aha” moment when they realized the growing need for commercial drone services in Canada.
The two were running an environmental company in Western Canada, specializing in water and wastewater regulatory work across the country.
They started using drones to gather data for the environmental studies.
Then they realized there was a bit of gap, and a need for a top-notch company to provide commercial, high-end drone services.
They did some research, asked some oil and gas people around Priestley’s hometown of St. John’s whether drones could be helpful to that industry, and talked to colleges like the Marine Institute, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the College of the North Atlantic to figure out where they might eventually get the people they might need to hire.
From company incorporation with just one drone and, as Priestley recalls, “fighting for every little contract we could get” they now have a workforce of 25, and significant contracts under their belt for everything from mineral hunting, bathymetric mapping and ground penetrating radar missions.
The company now has a fleet of drones worth millions.
Last year they became the first company in the world to offer certification for drone operators.
They did that because they needed it themselves, Priestley explained. When the COVID-19 pandemic landed in 2020 they figured it would be a good time to go through the process of ISO certification, only to discover “there was no certification body, nobody to actually certify us.”
Another “aha” moment and another opportunity to fill a gap.
“We spent about two years going through compliance audits and building certification status,” said Priestley. “Just this year we became the first certification body worldwide.”
Now any company that wants to achieve ISO certification for unmanned flight needs AltoMaxx.
Television and more
Then on to more adventures.
Priestley and the company’s chief drone pilot also spent two weeks in Alaska last year, on another contract for another Discovery Channel program that will air later this year.
They’ve also been approached by the History Channel.
Those birds’ eye views add visual interest for television viewers and it’s AltoMaxx Technology is tapping into that entertainment market.
Big industry, however, is where the bigger contracts lie.
Last week AltoMaxx staff was on the Dutch-owned island of Curaçao, in the Caribbean Sea, doing some drone work for the oil and gas industry.
This week, Abu Dhabi, building an office and business connections.
With their reputation rising, Priestley said the company started getting a lot of inquiries from the Middle East, as well as Africa.
“We took a step back and started to really look at the business opportunity over there and realized there wasn’t really anybody there excelling in those niches that we specialize in,” said Priestley. “So that’s when we kind of raised an eyebrow and said maybe this is a good opportunity.”
Back to more research.
After all, you just don’t buy a plane ticket, land in a foreign country and go looking for space to rent.
They went to Canada’s Trade Commission, seeking the knowledge and advice to get them more business connections, and crunched some numbers to figure out the most cost-effective way to do business in the UAE, the epicentre of the oil industry in that zone, Priestley explained.
Currently they have had a number of meetings and proposals out to prospective clients in that region.
They determined, though, it would be challenging to service that part of the world from the St. John’s office.
Time zone differences and cost of flights, not to mention the 24-hours plus travel time to get there from here, made them realize if they were going to do business in the Middle East and Africa, they needed to have an office on the ground there.
Abu Dhabi was strategic for another reason, as well.
This year the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 28) — the world’s largest conference on green energy and sustainability — is being held in that city in November.
“We’re hoping to get profile there,” said Priestley, “to, hopefully, allow us to do some demos for a number of different countries all in one spot.”
The plan is to put their own people on the ground, people from Newfoundland and Labrador precisely who have the skills sets to do the work.
That will likely mean more hiring, said Priestley, something they’ve had to often since starting the business in 2018.
“We’ve virtually been able to double our workforce year after year after year and we’re continuing to; we’re continuing to hire as we speak,” he said.
Looking back on the company’s brief, but successful, history, and contemplating the future, Priestley says “it’s been a fantastic ride.”
He admits there have been some stressful moments as they’ve been growing the business, but a certain amount of worry comes with any entrepreneurial adventure.
It’s taken a lot of hard work to build this, he says, and some sleepless nights—like those 2:30 a.m. conference calls to connect with potential clients in a Middle Eastern time zone.
There’s a lot of that, since they’re doing work all over the world—from the Arctic to South America and all across Canada.
Although the travel alone, makes it interesting, said Priestley.
In the end, though, he said, building this business, “has been fun.”
No doubt getting away from an Eastern Canadian weekend wind chill just adds to the pleasure.