Q&A: How Lonny Elliott Went from Millwright to Maintenance Manager and Chief Operating Engineer at Gay Lea Foods

Some people are lucky enough to know what they want to do from a young age, but for most of us, our career path is not a straight line. That’s not a bad thing though; every work experience you have can help you discover what you ultimately want to do. 

That was the case for Lonny Elliot, a Maintenance Manager and Chief Operating Engineer at Gay Lea Foods. When he first started his career, he thought he wanted to be a metal machinist–but it turns out, he really wanted to be a Millwright! This ultimately led to the successful career he has today at Gay Lea Foods in Guelph.  

We recently chatted with Lonny about his career journey, what his job as a Maintenance Manager entails, his advice for people looking to start their careers in the food and beverage processing industry, and more: 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started at Gay Lea Foods?  

I got started at Gay Lea Foods by accident.  

I’ve always loved working with my hands and, in high school, I decided I wanted to be a machinist. I got into a general metal machining program and am about 800 hours away from my ticket because, as soon as I began my career in that field, I hated it. I found being a machinist very repetitive – it was the same thing day in and day out. 

I ended up taking a job as a production worker somewhere else while I re-evaluated what I was going to do. Eventually, I started at a place called Bendall Automotive doing what they call machine setup.  After about three months there, the maintenance supervisor came over to me and asked me to join the maintenance team; within six months of that, I’d worked my way into an apprenticeship.  

I was a mechanic at Bendall for almost six years when work in the automotive industry began to slow down. I started taking part-time work at a company called Axiom Millwrighting and Fabrication, which eventually led to a full-time job where we did contract millwrighting and travelled all over North America, mostly. I even went as far as Mexico a couple of times. We did everything from installing and removing lines, to making machines.  

One of the jobs I had when I was working for Axiom was actually to come to Gay Lea Foods and install a new line at their facility in Guelph. At that time, Gay Lea Foods was looking for a night shift mechanic and since I had just installed the line, I was hired on contract to do the job.  I ended up liking it there so much, I put in my resume. Now here I am, going on 15 years later.  

I was a millwright on the floor for the first ten years, mostly working the night shift before transitioning to days with seniority. I was promoted to a management role about four years ago and have been Maintenance Manager and Chief Operating Engineer for the last two. 

Can you describe your current role and what a typical day looks like as a Maintenance Manager?  

General day-to-day duties for me include keeping things rolling, like payroll for the team and scheduling. But I’m also on the floor assisting with troubleshooting machines, breakdowns, working on capital projects, updating SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures], and as part of the Joint Health and Safety Committee. It’s all-encompassing. I not only worry about equipment, but I’ve got to worry about the buildings, roofs, grounds and everything else. It’s super busy.  

It’s unique here because there are actually two production facilities on site and I’m a manager for both facilities. I have two sets of production operators who think their equipment is the most important and I have to divvy up the millwrights’ time, and things like that. I also do future planning and a little bit of budgeting because you’ve got budgets that you have to work within. It’s a well-rounded, fast-paced position. 

What is your favourite part of your job as a Maintenance Manager?  

One of the things I love most is that it’s different every day. I get to challenge my mind and figure things out.  

As a manager, I also find it exciting to oversee capital projects that improve the overall facility. To manage the design, application, quotation, and execution of a big project and see it all come together – I absolutely love that.  It’s really satisfying at the end of the day when a job goes well. 

What makes working as a Maintenance Manager in the food and beverage industry different than working as one in another kind of industry?  

It’s definitely all the sanctioning bodies that make it so much different. There are much more stringent standards that you must stick to. I think the only thing more stringent than food is pharmaceuticals. Food companies are borderline in line with pharmaceuticals with our level of standards now.  

How would you describe the overall career opportunities in the food and beverage manufacturing industry?  

A lot of millwrights I know that aspired to move into management have not only moved into management but have moved up in the business too.  

The director of operations at Gay Lea Foods, who hired me, said to me that the best plant managers are the ones who have a mechanical background and come from millwrighting and maintenance, because they understand from the ground-up. So even within Gay Lea Foods, I think there is-out of 11 facilities-five plant managers who originated as millwrights on the floor and have now moved that far up through the business. There are a lot of opportunities there to really spread your wings and expand your knowledge, if you have the drive. 

What is your one piece of advice for someone looking to start their career in the industry? 

If you want to be challenged every day with something different, the food industry is where you want to be. It’s always changing and it’s always challenging.  

When it comes to millwrighting specifically, there is a lot of turning wrenches, but there is also a lot of head-scratchers out there where you really have to work your gray matter and push your brain. So, my advice would be, if you don’t want to do the same thing day in and day out, this would be a different, good path to take.  

CareersNOW! Mentorship Sessions  

Want to learn more about what a career in the food and beverage manufacturing industry could look like for you?    

Sign up for one of CareersNOW!’s upcoming career mentorship sessions! Whether you’re a college or university student planning your career in the industry or just starting to think about your future, these mentorship sessions will help you the chance to virtually meet with leading professionals to get great career advice and learn about exciting career pathways.    

Lonny recently took part in a session earlier in September. You can watch below:  

The next session takes place November 9, sign up today

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