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Alumni Engagement

Kinetic energy: Red Seal machinist builds company from the ground up

May 7, 2015

Dale Place billboardBefore he was even old enough to drive, Dale Place was running a business doing auto repair out of his parents’ garage.

So it’s no surprise that just a few years later, the ambitious teen became the youngest Red Seal Machinist in Canada, when he graduated from Red River College’s Machinist Apprentice program in 2000 at age 19. He achieved this feat by completing his required apprenticeship hours while still in high school, working at a machine shop he’d started at when he was 12 years old, sweeping the floors after school and in the summer.

While he was still completing his program at RRC, Place decided to take a risk and started a machine shop in his hometown of Selkirk. Starting out as a tiny one-man shop with little initial capital and no financial help, he grew the business into the success it is today: Manitoba’s largest machine shop, with nearly 70 staff and a 30,000-square foot facility.

“I liked working for myself right from the get-go. I wasn’t really interested in working at a burger joint,” says Place, the President and CEO of Kinetic Machine Works, noting he declined a full university scholarship to take Engineering in favour of continuing with the machinist trade.

“I’m a big advocate of the trades. Everyone I know who has gone into a trade, from RRC or another technical school, ends up making the same amount of money or more than those who went to university. There are a lot of situations where working in a trade and actually getting to build something can be more rewarding, but a lot of students just don’t know about these options.”

As a machinist, Place and his staff at Kinetic create a huge variety of products, such as parts for tugboats and barges, generators for turbines for Manitoba Hydro, scrap buckets for steel mills and parts for DC-9 aircraft. They also build smaller scale components, like bulletproof panels to protect drivers in prison transport buses.

Walk into Polo Park Shopping Centre, and you’ll see even more examples of their work: Kinetic had a part in creating the stainless steel wall and ceiling panels in the Apple Store.

The company has also built things that can help save lives. For several years, they built components for dozens of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines and operating tables in hospitals around the world.

“We built the first-ever robot that did brain surgery on a woman from another room. There is also an MRI unit in Health Sciences Centre that drives around the hospital, going from room to room using rails in the ceiling. They can be doing surgery and not have to take the patient out of the room – the MRI can come in, image the person, then leave the room,” he explains.

Despite everything he and his company have made over the years, Place still finds himself having to explain exactly what it is they do.

“Do you know how many people have no idea what machinists are?” he laughs. “Ninety per cent of the population has no idea. Everybody thinks you’re an auto mechanic and you fix cars.”

He likes to explain by telling people, “whatever you use anywhere in your everyday life, a machinist probably made it. You take out a carton of milk, a machinist made that happen, by making the machine that makes the mold for the carton. Pick up a piece of LEGO – a machinist made the mold that made that LEGO brick. Grab a bottle of beer – a machinist built the machine that bottled that beer.”

While Place doesn’t get involved as much in the “making stuff” part of his job anymore, focusing more on tenders and projects, he does like to get out in the shop to drive the forklift or unload trucks.

“I’ve always been a hands-on person. I like to mentor the guys, show them how to do things and pass on as much of my knowledge as possible.”

Now a father of three and married to his high-school sweetheart, Place says the hard work he put in while attending Red River College and during his first few years after starting Kinetic has paid off, but it was undoubtedly a long, difficult road. His young age and lack of capital meant he couldn’t get bank funding, but he made it work by doing things like buying used buildings at auction and moving them across town.

“The first five years, I didn’t make a single dollar. We lived off my wife’s salary, and some of it was even going to a couple of our staff. I was working 16 hours a day, sleeping at my desk,” recalls Place, who still puts in long hours but makes time to relax at his cottage in the Whiteshell or attending Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra performances.

He now owns other companies, including one that owns, constructs and manages apartment buildings, and another that’s developing a product line of custom boat lifts and specialty docks with invisible mechanisms – “James Bond style,” he says.

“When I was starting out, my parents thought it was great but wondered where the reward was. I said, you know what, the reward will come one day, but if it doesn’t, at least I tried.”

Learn more about apprenticeship opportunities at Red River College.