Members of the Major Drilling executive management team (l-r): Ian Ross, Marc Landry, Ben Graham, Kelly Johnson, Ashley Martin, John Ross (JR) Davies. Not pictured: Andrew McLaughlin and Denis Larocque.
Growing up, Kelly Johnson saw his future written as clearly as an account statement. Following his family’s footsteps, he would log 30 years behind a desk as a banker or businessman and collect the dividends from a predictable profession.
Instead, at just 18 years old, he fell in love with the drilling business and ignited a career that challenged him in ways that no job at the Royal Bank of Canada could. He followed his heart and cut college short. His return home to Flin Flon, Manitoba, Canada, found him swiftly advancing from drilling warehouse hired muscle to operations management. Later, he would lead entire regions of the globe for the world leader in specialized drilling.
After 44 years in the mining and drilling industry, Johnson retired in July 2022 as Major Drilling’s Senior VP of North America and Africa. His decades of experience have served Major Drilling through international expansions, multiple acquisitions, and most importantly, in distinguishing the company’s culture.
President and CEO Denis Larocque knows the value of Johnson’s contribution to the company. “Kelly is leaving us a legacy of heart-led leadership that defines Major Drilling operations today,” he said.
While the drilling business is known for hard work and demanding conditions, Johnson always challenged the “tough guy” perception of drilling managers by focusing on the person behind the job. For years, he has personally mentored Major Drilling’s top brass in Mexico, the USA, Canada, South America and Africa.
Kelly and Major Drilling President and CEO, Denis Larocque in Saskatchewan, July 2022.
Major Drilling management team members (l-r) Ashley Martin, Marc Landry and Kelly Johnson, purchase a new Epiroc D65 drill and blast rig in Sweden in 2019.
Barry Zerbin, now General Manager of Canadian Operations, is heavily influenced by Johnson’s leadership style.
“Kelly’s leadership is inspiration for all of us at Major Canada,” said Zerbin. “For people like me that started immediately after school as a green helper, it shows that with hard work, dedication and a positive attitude, we can all grow with the company.”
Leading From the Heart, Start to Finish
Kelly Johnson and Barry Zerbin at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada Convention in 2020
Once a reliable fixture in several international airport travel lounges around the world, Johnson traveled widely and mentored generously as he brought the company’s inventory systems up to date, trained staff, purchased drills and devoted himself to clients. Mongolia, South Africa, Sweden, Australia, Suriname, Guyana, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, the USA and several more countries are stamped in his passport.
He said the drive to keep moving during those many days in the air and on the road are the outstanding employees he worked with every day. “It’s the building up of the people around me that makes me the proudest,” he said.
Nguyen Doh (center) leads the USA team’s outreach at the Geothermal Rising Conference in Nevada, USA. How he works with clients and employees is influenced by Kelly Johnson’s leadership style.
Nguyen Do (pronounced DOH) is the General Manager of USA Surface Operations based in Salt Lake City, Utah. He said across his 17 years with Major Drilling, his management style has evolved for the better, both in how he works with clients and how he created more space to offer praise and encouragement.
“The number-one thing Kelly has taught me is how to see people and what they need—to not miss the opportunity to give reassurance to support them.”
He said Johnson recently showed him how to sense when a USA client could use a more personal touch from its drilling contractor. With some follow through, Do now ranks that client as the second-highest in annual USA drilled meters with an outlook to become the first-ranked client in 2023.
“I see myself softening with our staff and clients. It only helps the overall ground we gain at my branch,” he said.
Likewise, Rocky McLellan, General Manager of North American Underground Operations, feels appreciative of Johnson’s guidance over the years. McLellan joined Major Drilling as part of the Taurus Drilling acquisition in 2014. It was a time when Major Drilling entered the underground percussive market.
As McLellan worked with Johnson to grow underground services, he recognized the value of kindness. “Whether he’s got a checklist, a golf club, or beer in his hand, Kelly uses his other hand to always pat you on the back and keep you going,” he said.
People First, to the Core
“I brag a lot about our employees,” explained Johnson. “Our people are the best in the business with a culture they love. I’ve often heard about our people being approached with offers to work for more money elsewhere, but they stay at Major. That speaks highly of the company. People love being here. They want to be appreciated, and they want to see a future in the company.”
Attendees of Major Drilling’s 2019 Core College assemble for a portrait.
It’s that future that led him to become the founder and champion of Major Drilling’s “Core College,” a week-long professional development and management training course started in 2010 for the company’s leaders around the globe. In deep collaboration with Ben Graham, VP – HR & Safety, Johnson formed the course to focus on soft skills like being relatable and learning how to have “hard talks.” Managers learn to develop their ability to replace harsh words with ways to give their employees some well-earned approval. Core College also teaches participants basic financial knowledge and creates a pathway to upward management opportunities.
“I’m not a boss,” Johnson insisted. “I’m an assistant to people at the drills. You have to tell people they can succeed. I’ve spent a lot of time training people to treat people the way they would like to be treated.”
Midwest Drilling rig in Saskatchewan, circa 1978.
Kelly Johnson wears a Midwest Drilling ballcap in 1978, near Flin Flon, Manitoba.
Building A Drilling Career
As a bright, 16-year-old early high school graduate, Johnson was the son of a banker destined for university and corporate life. On a break from college, he hired on as what he calls “a warehouse guy” at Midwest Drilling. He quickly became a jack-of-all-trades overseeing inventory, staff and projects. He also began honing his people-first management style.
It’s a style very familiar to Bruno Zerbin, father of above-mentioned Barry Zerbin, who first hired Johnson in 1978. He helped the young stockroom assistant with his start in the industry and even helped him get hands-on experience on the drill.
After 20 years at Midwest, Johnson felt prepared to become a branch manager. But when an opportunity arose, another fellow got the job. His fortunes turned when Major Drilling purchased Midwest in 1998, expanding the company’s Canada-wide path of specialized drilling dominance to a global one. His chance to lead finally came.
Pam and Kelly Johnson reunite with Bruno Zerbin (right) in Saskatchewan, July 2022.
“Hiring Kelly was one of the best hiring moves Midwest Drilling ever made,” said Zerbin, who also joined Major Drilling through the 1998 Midwest acquisition. “He’s been an asset to Major Drilling and has always been respected in the drilling industry.”
By 2001, Johnson ran the warehouse in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and soon became Major Drilling’s global inventory manager. He zeroed in on improving access to parts and rigs through electronic systems and inventory controls. Extensive travel allowed him to reach branches and teach staff from South America to Mongolia to Australia about how to install computer systems and run automated inventories and pricing agreements.
“I traveled 260 days of the year in those days,” he said. “The global job gave me a view that others often don’t have.” He returned to lead the Canadian Operations for the next six years. The six-branch region accounts for 25 percent of company revenue.
In 2010, he relocated to Major Drilling’s headquarters in Moncton, New Brunswick, to lead and learn about new countries in South America and Africa as Major Drilling advanced its strategy of becoming the world leader in specialized drilling. By 2017, he oversaw all North America and Africa operations as senior vice president of those regions.
Mexico Branch General Manager David Boucher has known Johnson since 1999. He said the advice, mentorship and opportunities he has received from Johnson over the years have been invaluable to him and to the Mexico Branch.
Today, the branch continues to grow its client base and set records.
Members of the Major Drilling team of South Africa make a stop at an animal rescue park near drill operations in Johannesburg in February 2020. Standing near a cheetah raised by park staff are (l-r), Kelly Johnson, Eugene Nienaber, GM of South Africa; Denton Nienaber, Operations Manager of South Africa; and Harold Nienaber, deep hole specialist contractor.
“Kelly had a passion for whatever job he was doing with Major,” Boucher said. “He was always there when we needed guidance or help. He showed great pride in working for Major which always helped everyone to take pride in the work that they did as part of the Major Drilling family.”
Major Drilling booth staff at PDAC 2014 (l-r): David Boucher, Mexico General Manager; Daniel Lacharité (retired); Kelly Johnson; DJ Wilson, Canada Underground Area Manager; Normand Doyon (retired); and Canada Business Development Manager John Stringer.
An Industry of Change
The mining industry is very cyclical, and Johnson has seen his fair share of ups and downs. During his tenure as Canadian General Manager, he faced the heart-wrenching decision to let 50 percent of employees go as revenue dropped during the 2008-2012 mining industry downcycle. “In any industry, you need to be very willing to adapt,” he said.
He’s very happy that today’s upcycle supports the demand to replace commodity reserves through specialized drilling. A renewed global workforce stands more than 3,800 strong. End of 2022 revenues show the strategy to keep the business very simple and the balance sheet healthy is the best way to weather the cycles of change.
Representatives from Major Drilling, Wahgoshig Resources and Black Diamond Drilling, a fully owned First Nation drilling company owned by WRI, meet to sign partnership agreements during PDAC 2020. Standing, back row (l-r): Kelly Johnson, Senior VP – North America & Africa, Major Drilling; Barry Zerbin, GM Canadian Operations, Major Drilling; Serge Gagnon, Area Manager, Major Drilling; Lance Black, WFN Band Negotiator; John Stringer, Canada Area Business Development Manager, Major Drilling; George Pirie, Mayor of Timmins, Ontario, and Board of Director member of WRI. Seated (l-r): Marc C. Bilodeau, General Manager – WRI / President of Black Diamond Drilling Inc.; Denis Larocque, President & CEO, Major Drilling; Paul MacKenzie, Former Chief, now Councillor for WFN.
Also in Johnson’s time in the industry is the evolution of machinery. Drills go greater depths to achieve results for clients, part of Major Drilling’s specialized drilling prowess. Worldwide commodity reserves are depleted, and exploration for new targets means specialized drilling services are needed more than ever to reach them. “It used to be that a deep hole was 1,000 feet or 300 meters,” he said. “Now 35 years later, we’ve gone 10 times deeper like we did on our record 3,467-meter hole for Osisko.”
Pausing during a golf outing in La Serena Chile in 2013, are (l-r) Juan Luis Valenzuela, former salesman and now Business Development Manager for the Chile Branch; Richard Aube, former General Manager of Chile; Kelly Johnson; Ryan Stringham former Controller in Chile, and now Controller of the USA Branch in Salt Lake City, Utah; and John McPhail, who was the owner of Matex Chemicals, a drilling fluid company.
Johnson’s exit will be gradual as he continues to consult for Major Drilling over the coming three years. As he prepares for another installment of Core College, he is at ease knowing the next generation of leaders in the office and in the field are prepared.
He credits a great deal of his own success to his wife, Pam, who has been his traveling companion and source of personal support for more than 20 years. “She’s the one who brings me down to earth and calls me out on my B.S.,” he mused. He is also proud of his four daughters and 11 grandchildren and looks forward to enjoying more time with them. He and Pam have settled into a cottage in Saskatchewan not far from where his drilling career began in Flin Flon.
While reluctant to pinpoint his personal contributions to the industry and to Major Drilling, Johnson admits he is very proud he can take credit for a portion of that progress.
Pam and Kelly Johnson shelter under an umbrella during the 2019 PDAC Convention in Toronto.
“We like to talk about how Major Drilling’s management team has more than 1,000 years of experience and expertise in the industry,” he said. “I’m proud of my biggest achievement which is bringing people up to the next position. It makes me sleep well at night.”
Kelly Johnson (seated, second from left) celebrates with colleagues after receiving a Life Member award in recognition of his distinguished service to the drilling industry from the Canadian Diamond Drillers Association on Sept. 12, 2022.