I had a chance to tour Home Hardware's massive distribution centre in St. Jacobs earlier this week during the company's semi-annual spring market.
I was expecting something large and overwhelming and I wasn't disappointed.
The hour-long tour was led by Joe Ament, a 23-year company veteran in charge of truck carrier safety. Neither of us are kids anymore but by the time we were done, he appeared none the worse for wear while I headed straight for the nearest chair.
To give you some perspective, the distribution centre is 1.5 million square feet. That's just a little smaller than the Toyota plant in Woodstock and about half the size of the Toyota plant in Cambridge.
Aisles are 200 metres long and skids laden with boxes rise to the ceiling, stacked six rows high on orange racks. The building has 130,000 different skid locations, Ament says.
It reminded me a little of a Home Depot store only much larger with narrower aisles and dimmer lighting.
Weaving through these aisles is a flotilla of forklifts depositing new skids or removing them for shipment to Home Hardware stores in all of Ontario, most of Quebec and more than half of Manitoba.
One type of forklift was taller and more robust looking than a normal tow motor. It lifts the driver up with the load so skids can be maneuvered more easily into the right spot.
The fork lifts are barely smaller than the narrow aisles but lock on to an electronc signal beneath the pavement so the driver can zip up and down the aisle without having to worry about hitting anything.
The warehouse is set up to deliver orders as small as just one lightbulb, says Ament. It accomplishes this with five kilometres of conveyor belts that feed boxes on to a series of nine different extendables that, as the name suggests, extend right into the trailers.
A machine reads a bar code on the box as it moves down the conveyor belt and automatically diverts it onto the right extendable.
The distribution centre ships an average of 860,000 lbs. of goods a day. On the day of our tour it was scheduled to ship 760,000 lbs. In May, when furniture orders abound, shipments can exceed one million lbs., says Ament.
The value of goods on inventory is about $121 million.
Staffed by an army of about 375 workers, the centre hums three shifts a day from Sunday night to Friday night. Two water reservoirs beneath the floor provide fire protection and each shift has its own fire crew equipped with 17 defibrillators spaced throughout the facility.
Chicken wire covers the racks in the hazardous goods section so aerosol cans don't become torpedoes in the event of a fire, says Ament.
The centre has 70 truck drivers and 250 transport trailers to handle deliveries. It has its own trailer service shop that allows drivers to walk underneath the truck for inspection or walk above it on a cat walk to brush snow off the top.
The St. Jacobs distribution centre is the largest of four owned by Home Hardware. The others are located in Elmira, Nova Scotia and Alberta.
Shipments travel as far as Baffin Island and even France, says Ament.
The French Home Hardware is actually located on the island of Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, he adds with a chuckle.