If one wanted to gain an understanding of 20th century British Columbia history one could follow the fortunes of Sidney’s Ramsay Machine Works.
Founded in Victoria 109 years ago, the company has survived war, depression, the rise and fall of industries, and the turbulence of globalization. From these tribulations it has emerged stronger than ever – and has managed to stay in the family.
“It’s kind of in your blood,” said Brock Ramsay, 27, the fifth generation to enter the family business. “Being one of the oldest businesses in B.C., we certainly take some pride in knowing how long we’ve been around.”
His great-great-grandfather George Dyer Ramsay arrived in Victoria at the turn of the last century. After briefly working as a foreman he saw the opportunity to supply the rapidly developing inner harbour’s needs and opened his own machine shop at the foot of Store Street in 1903.
Many reminders of Ramsay’s early legacy can still be seen today, such as fire hydrants in the downtown core marked “RAMSAY 1903.”
The company nearly folded during the Great Depression, said Gregory Ramsay, Brock’s father. “It was tough, amazing that we even survived.”
The company kept its doors open only through the friendship of a Scotiabank loan manager, who unswervingly helped the Ramsays make payroll. “After that we always had a great loyalty to the bank. My grandfather was quite proud the bank had stood by them all that time.”
A reversion back to war production in the 1940s brought Ramsay Machine Works out of the trough and allowed them to expand. A lathe they used for hollowing out the barrels of artillery pieces still sits proudly in their machine shop.
Ramsay’s fortunes in the post-war era have been largely shaped by B.C.’s various booms and busts. They supplied heavy equipment to the pulp and paper industry before it crashed in the early 1980s, then quickly changed gears and began machining work for B.C. Ferries and other industries.
Victoria’s desire to rid itself of its heavy industry downtown turned out to be a boon for Ramsay. In 1993 they moved their machine shop to a plot on Henry Avenue, adjacent to the Victoria International Airport, which, along with the ability to load barges with projects as large as 747s in Patricia Bay, connected them to the global economy.
Ramsay has found itself a niche. Recently it has been moving into the energy sector, manufacturing pressure vessels for oil and gas refining, fracking tanks for shale gas drilling and gigantic conveyers for loading coal onto Asia-bound freighters.
The company employs around 50 people and has become “known for its high quality work and done some world class projects,” Gregory said, pointing to projects built to export around the Pacific Rim and across North America.
Brock, who began work in high school sweeping the factory floor just as his father did before him, knows staying competitive will not be easy.
“We want to see the company continue, but the world is changing so quickly,” Brock said. “We have to adapt and reinvent ourselves to demographics and market conditions every five years or so, so it’s tough to say what the future will hold.”