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Technical Support Specialist

Ron Fetzko – Sharing the Reality Behind Reality TV

Remote locations and challenging situations are nothing new for Ron Fetzko. As a Technical Support Specialist with the remote mining division, his role is to visit customer work sites and help with any number of tasks that need support.

An assignment last summer, however, took Ron by great surprise. He was seconded to the Alaska branch team for a special project that required him drive to Anchorage, fly to Nome, then commute by ferry to a remote gold mining site. There, he’d spend three months living on-site – and on set – of the reality TV series Hoffman Family Gold.

“I believe I have the best job in the whole company. I get to visit weird and wonderful places. I’m always faced with new challenges. And I have the direct opportunity to apply my experience and problem-solving skills to help our customers every day.”
The road to Alaska

The road to Alaska

A dual-ticket automotive service technician and heavy equipment technician, Ron joined SMS Equipment in 1999. Throughout his career, he’s worked on a wide range of equipment from a range of suppliers, though he jokes that he has a “lifetime’s worth” of experience with Komatsu. His recent work has focused on remote mining, often helping new customers set up their equipment and maintenance programs, then training their mechanics and on-site crews. Other times, he’s sent in to troubleshoot.

“I’m known as a ‘triage doctor,’” says Ron. “I go into customer sites all across Canada and help solve whatever needs solving.”

Ron’s broad experience allows him to operate as a “one stop shop” in remote locations. This diverse skill set made him the perfect fit for a very unique assignment.

A dose of reality

Nome, Alaska sits on the southern Seward Peninsula on the Bering Sea. One hundred kilometres north, in the middle of the Arctic wilderness, is the Hoffman family mine. It is accessed only by barge, which runs June through September. It was Ron’s home for more than three months.

Hoffman Family Gold is a spin-off of Discovery’s hit series Gold Rush, which follows Todd Hoffman, his father Jack, son Hunter and a veteran crew of gold miners as they seek to revive a rundown mine. The show’s first season was riddled with equipment challenges in the face of the remote location, rugged terrain and unforgiving weather conditions. But season two took a different approach: the team used a full line-up of new Komatsu products, including articulated trucks, excavators and wheel loaders.

SMS Equipment partnered with Komatsu, which provided machinery to the show, to provide 24-7 mobile service and support to the operation. They established a dedicated maintenance team, including Ron and the team at SMS Equipment’s Anchorage branch, and provided a fully stocked equipment trailer.

The experience, says Ron, was more than meets the eye.
“This is a full production gold mine,” clarifies Ron. “It is not made for TV. It is not a hobby mine. The cameras were running eight hours a day, but the mine itself was running 19 or 20 hours a day, six to seven days a week. SMS Equipment’s role was critical in keeping things moving.”

As in any customer situation, up-time at the mine was imperative. “We had a very real deadline,” adds Ron. “We had to be back on the barge before the route froze. That meant meeting the company’s business goals, as well as winterizing the camp and the equipment before we left.”
A life-changing phone call

A life-changing phone call

Ron recalls the fateful phone call that would set his career in an unexpected direction.

“I’d just returned from a 34-day run in Northwest Territories,” recalls Ron. “Dennis Chmielewski [Executive Vice President, Mining] called and the first thing he said was ‘is your wife with you? She’s going to need to hear this.’”

Before he knew it, Ron was in his truck, towing a travel trailer packed with a few boxes of essentials, with his wife Donna, their cat and their dog, Stoli.

“It was really an all-in experience,” says Ron. “We weren’t sure what to expect.”

Ready for anything

When he got to the mine, Ron set aside his practised routines of managing people and training, donned his coveralls and did what needed to be done – in the face of wind, rain, snow, mosquitos, foxes and one pesky grizzly bear.

Despite the wild setting, his approach to the work did not change.

“Whether I’m in PPE or in a boardroom, I look at the customer in front of me and give them the resources they need,” says Ron. “In this case, I looked at the things that weren’t getting done, the tooling they were missing and the expertise they were missing – and I just became a part of the team.”

From the first phone call through the end of the mining season, logistics were a constant challenge. Parts needed to be ordered in a short time frame, in the midst of a supply shortage, to make the barge schedule. The SMS Equipment team had to plan for and stock the equipment trailer for many possible scenarios, as getting supplies delivered mid-project would be unlikely. And once on site, there was no internet connection, so communication back to the Anchorage and corporate office teams was difficult.

“We planned carefully. We solved problems creatively. And I kept a ‘my door is always open’ philosophy.”
Big risk for big reward

Big risk for big reward

The biggest reward, says Ron, is all about the people.
“The cast and crew all left their lives to take a risk that their time in Alaska would pay off,” says Ron. “It was an honour to be part of this grounded, honest and hardworking team.”

Moreover, Ron is proud that SMS Equipment has a chance to showcase its capabilities to the general public. “We’re the largest Komatsu dealer in the world.

We’re able to show SMS Equipment’s boots on the ground, getting it done. I had a special opportunity to represent 2,600 other employees who can sit down to watch the show and proudly say, ‘that’s who I work for.’”

That opportunity, he adds, was worth its weight in gold.

As for whether the Hoffmans struck it rich? You’ll have to tune in to the show to find out. Hoffman Family Gold premiers Tuesday, June 20, 2023 on Discovery.

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