Partnership built on investments in talent and innovation

Published on February 16, 2021

Spartan Controls receives the inaugural Distinguished Industry Partner Award

Every great partnership has an origin story. For NAIT and Spartan Controls, it started with a single scholarship. Support that would only grow with each passing year – 54 years, to be exact.

Headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Spartan Controls was founded in 1963 as an employee-owned company to deliver process control equipment for the province’s growing industrial sector. 

“Spartan’s founders had their hearts and minds in the right place with giving back to the community and supporting education,” says Grant Wilde, Spartan Controls’ fifth president and CEO.

What began as a $250 scholarship for Instrumentation Engineering Technology has evolved into a dynamic partnership that responds to the ever-changing needs of the automation industry. Today, more than 200 of the company’s employees are NAIT graduates working in 14 locations across Western Canada.

“A better-educated workforce is absolutely foundational to our success.”

A Deloitte Best Managed Company for 19 years running, Spartan Controls has shown their commitment to supporting its people, innovation and the community. That community involvement includes supporting charitable organizations, including NAIT, as part of Spartan’s long-term corporate social responsibility.

“I want us to thrive in Western Canada, support local jobs and local competitiveness. Education is at the heart of it all,” says Wilde.

Spartan Controls was selected for the inaugural Distinguished Industry Partner Award in 2020 to honour their longstanding investment in the education of NAIT students. That support includes multiple student awards, innovative equipment and the Spartan Centre for Instrumentation Technology – which has allowed students to access the latest automation technology and products.

 “Spartan Controls’ leadership sees value in supporting post-secondary institutions like NAIT to attract forward-thinking, creative employees,” says Wilde. “A better-educated workforce is absolutely foundational to our success.”

NAIT Instrumentation Engineering Technology students getting hands-on experience in the lab

Empowering young leaders for the automation industry

More than 80 students have received financial support from Spartan since that first scholarship in 1967. Emilie Stevenson (Instrumentation Engineering Technology ’15) is a “second-generation Spartan,” which is not uncommon at the company. Growing up, she saw how much her dad, Ken Stevenson, (Instrumentation Engineering Technology ’95) enjoyed his work.

Following in her dad’s footsteps, she received a Spartan scholarship while attending NAIT. “It was encouraging that my hard work in school was being acknowledged by a company I aspired to work for,” says Stevenson. “It meant everything to me.”

Working as an application specialist, she now sees why her dad was so happy at his job. “It’s the people; it’s the passion. Everyone here has a strong work ethic, but they also enjoy time with each other and building relationships with our customers.”

In addition to instrumentation, Spartan’s support has now grown to support scholarships and bursaries for 4 additional programs: Water and Wastewater, Power Engineering Technology, Industrial Mechanic (Millwright) and Alternative Energy Technology.

Edmonton sales manager, Tom Osborn (Instrumentation Engineering Technology ’83), says their investment is a great way to give back to the community and it supports the wide variety of industries that are core to their business.

“NAIT graduates absolutely make an impact when they are hired because they have been trained on the latest technologies,” explains Osborn.

“They develop those skills that industry is looking for because NAIT engages with industry partners to help support the development of modern and relevant training environments.”

Spartan Controls Scott Foster and Tom Osborn pose in front of a gift in kind donation to the Water and Wastewater lab at NAIT Spartan Controls Scott Foster (pictured left), vice president of operations, and Tom Osborn, Edmonton sales manager in NAIT's Water and Wastewater lab.

Learning the right skill sets to succeed

After a career in Fort McMurray, working in a support role at some of the world’s largest oil sands operations, Jennifer AhYek landed a job at Spartan Controls. She says she immediately felt at home because of the company's inclusive and welcoming workplace. 

“I’ve never felt more empowered,” says AhYek. “Spartan didn’t just see me as a woman in the workplace, they saw the potential in me as a person, which empowered me to gain new skills that pushed my career to new heights.”

AhYek felt so supported, in fact, that she decided to upskill and earn her apprenticeship diploma. After graduating from NAIT, she returned to Spartan and became one of the first female automation specialists, supporting Emerson software DeltaV at their customer’s SAG-D facility in the Cold Lake region. 

Skilled graduates like AhYek are core to Spartan Controls operations in numerous industries – supporting the control systems for pulp and paper, power, building technologies, water and wastewater, mining, and oil and gas. The distributed control systems AhYek works on serve a similar function in industrial plants as the brain does in the body, she says.

“Sensing instruments are installed to collect information, which is sent back to the brain to be processed and sent back to a control element.” AhYek explains. “This information helps improve and optimize safety, efficiency and environmental impact.”

“I think we're as innovative as any organization. We’re making decisions that are supportive of long-term outcomes.”

As the world becomes increasingly more automated, Spartan Controls has an opportunity to improve productivity, conserve energy and reduce pollution, says Wilde. To ensure Spartan’s success – for the next 54 years and beyond – he foresees more opportunities to collaborate with industry and post-secondary institutions like NAIT.

“I think we're as innovative as any organization. We’re making decisions that are supportive of long-term outcomes,” Wilde explains. “We need to stay in lockstep with the polytechnics to make sure that future next generation workers are coming out enabled with leading technology and the right skill sets to continue to succeed locally and compete globally.”

A history of investing in skilled talent

John Ross (Instrumentation Engineering Technology ’70) was among the early recipients of the Spartan Controls student awards.

As a young, married student, receiving the scholarship money was appreciated, and provided the opportunity to meet Spartan’s Edmonton branch manager Bruce Hammond – who took him for lunch at the Edmonton Petroleum Club and offered him a job. It didn’t take a lot of convincing to accept.

“When I asked my instructor what he thought, he told me that I signed on with the best company in Alberta,” says the now-retired Ross, who enjoyed a long career at Spartan in sales and then management.

Spartan’s commitment to education continued with developing its own training centre for customers and educational partners, including NAIT, to learn to use the latest products and technology.

Mike Begin and Sam Shaw stand in from of the Spartan Centre for Instrumentation Technology on NAIT's campus in 2007 Mike Begin (pictured left), former Spartan Controls president and CEO and Dr. Sam Shaw, former NAIT president and CEO at the centre opening in 2007.

A decade later, the company made one of its largest investments ever to NAIT to support the Spartan Controls Centre for Instrumentation Technology – one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in North America.

Sheldon Weatherby (Instrumentation Engineering Technology ’75), a former NAIT Instructor (and now retired Spartan Controls education instructor) helped equip the new process labs with software and instrumentation equipment from Spartan. So, when the 3,865-square-metre facility opened in 2007, he says final result surpassed what he envisioned.

“It was a proud moment when the labs opened and we could show students how to properly see these pieces of equipment actually used in processes.”