Claude Gagnon: The All-Terrain Engineer
Getting Down and dirty on rugged, remote trails is part of the job for this designer of recreational vehicles
Whizzing along the muddy, leaf-strewn trail, holds firmly to his Traxter 500 as he accelerates this seriously powerful four-wheeler past logs and rocks. His fellow riders roar off close by in various other all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, which are popular in this picturesque trail network just north of Montreal. It is nearly dusk on a crisp fall day when Gagnon and his colleagues reach the camp where they will spend the night, tired but looking forward to another day of rough-riding adventure.
A weekend of high adrenaline with friends? Not exactly. For Gagnon and the others, the fun was important, but that trip was work as well. The group was out in the woods of southeastern Canada to push some machines to the limit and evaluate their performance, from the ergonomics of their seats to their maneuverability across various terrains.
Tests like this have become routine for Gagnon, a design project manager at Bombardier Recreational Products Inc.—BRP, as it's known—which last year had revenues of more than US $2 billion selling snowmobiles, watercraft, ATVs, and engines for karts, motorcycles, and airplanes. At the company's headquarters in Valcourt, Que., Canada, Gagnon leads a team of engineers and technicians whose job is to make sure BRP has some of the coolest recreational machines in the world.
The team—the Advanced Concept group—works on two fronts: improving existing vehicles and designing new, futuristic ones. It is a competitive market, and to keep up with such heavyweights as Honda, Kawasaki, Polaris, and Yamaha, Gagnon and his crew spend long hours entrenched in their cubicles before computer-aided design (CAD) screens or tinkering with prototypes in the machine shop.
But above all, Gagnon says, what's most important is getting out of the office and having a good time motoring around. "It's part of the job to ride—and it's the nice part," says this amiable 46-year-old French Canadian.
Gagnon discovered his passion for machines—his "mechanical blood," as he puts it—at an early age. "I learned to drive on trucks and tractors," he says. "My father had an orchard and we grew apples in the summer, and in the winter we were opening the roads with a snowplow." Young Claude and his father would spend hours fixing, modifying, and trying to improve the family's vehicles.
Gagnon studied mechanical engineering at the University of Sherbrooke, in Quebec, not far from his hometown, Magog, and during his last year in school, he took a summer job at BRP. His first assignment was to analyze the stress distribution in the chassis of a ski-trail grooming machine, a task he completed by running massive calculations on the university's mainframe.
That was in 1983, and Gagnon has been at BRP ever since. Well, almost—in 1986 he quit to work at a rubber company, enticed by a better position and a bigger salary. "But honestly, it wasn't as fun," he says. "Nine months and I came back."
Now he spends most of his time on the second floor of the R&D building at BRP's 87 000-square-meter industrial complex in the small town of Valcourt, a 90-minute drive from Montreal in the French-speaking province of Quebec.
It was here that, in the late 1920s, a young entrepreneur named Joseph-Armand Bombardier began building snowmobiles by modifying old cars in his garage. His pursuit of a machine that could conquer Quebec's long and harsh winter evolved into a successful business, which later diversified and grew into today's multibillion-dollar plane-and-train-maker Bombardier Inc., based in Montreal.
Bombardier's recreational products division, with its flagship Ski-Doo snowmobile and Sea-Doo watercraft lines, was for years one of its most lucrative units. But the downturn in the airline and travel industries after 11 September 2001 hit the company hard, and in 2003, as part of a major restructuring, it sold the recreational unit.
BRP, now controlled by Boston investment firm Bain Capital LLC, also went through write-offs and job cuts, yet the legacy of invention and innovation left by founder Bombardier seems to survive. "Our mind-set has to be very open," Gagnon says. "That's how we push the limits."
Gagnon's routine includes a30-minute drive from his home in Compton, Que., to BRP ("The challenge of this road is to avoid the deer, the moose, and the police," he says) and then plenty of meetings with managers from different divisions, with his boss—the vice president of design—and, of course, with his team.
"The best part of my day is to work with the guys," Gagnon says. The "guys" are his team of eight. "We sit down in front of the CAD screen and discuss what we can do here or there, brainstorm, see how we can make the thing happen."
The group has the freedom to work to improve any part of the company's extensive line of vehicles. Gagnon says his team's ideas, which it submits to product steering committees, are not always approved as presented, but most of the time "they go somewhere."
One of the group's most successful innovations is a special ignition key developed for the Sea-Doo vehicles. The key contains a microchip that can be programmed to limit the vehicle's top speed. Adults can give kids a key that keeps the speed down to 55 kilometers per hour, helping them learn to ride with more safety and control.
Gagnon, however, says the one thing they are most proud of is their radical redesign of the chassis of the Ski-Doo snowmobiles. Their changes made the chassis stronger yet lighter, the vehicle more stable, and the rider's position more comfortable, especially for sporty, aggressive riding.
Gagnon's routine also includes flying to Palm Bay, Fla., where BRP has an R&D facility, and attending ATV and snowmobile races. One of his favorites happens right in town: the Grand Prix of Valcourt is a major event in the snowmobile world. "I once met Céline Dion when she came to sing here," he says with a laugh.
So is there anything that is not fun about his job? Alas, yes. He's got to be secretive about much of what he's doing, he says. "I was with my father last weekend and he was asking me, 'What're you working on?' and I had to say, 'I can't tell, it's confidential.' " When asked for even just a hint of what his team is up to now, all Gagnon can say is, "We do things, crazy things."
To Probe Further
The innovations in all-terrain vehicle technology made by Claude Gagnon and others at Bombardier Recreational Products, ranging from enhanced suspensions to smart traction systems, are described at http://www.bombardier-atv.com/BRPHtml/AtvTechno/en/Index.html. You can see a selection of snowmobiles that illustrate the technology innovation in the industry at http://www.museebombardier.com/en/content/motoneige/innovations.htm. For an overview of Sea-Doo watercraft's technology, see http://www.seadoo.com/en-US/Watercrafts/2004/Technology.htm.