Electrical Business

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Determination and survival drive our industry • From the Editor


May 26, 2016
By Anthony Capkun


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May 26, 2016 – Several months ago, I thought I had a great idea for an article but, as it turned out, I didn’t… well, that’s not quite true. I ended up stumbling upon an altogether different revelation. Here’s what happened:

Many months ago, one of our industry curmudgeons mentioned that while every company says they invest in their employees—and that their employees are their No. 1 asset—the bitter reality is most don’t give a hoot about them (not the actual word he used). No one trains and develops their employees like they used to in the good old days.

I questioned the veracity of his words. But how to proceed?

Were I to ask current employers whether they pay lip-service to their employees, would they answer honestly (especially if that’s exactly what they do)? And would any employees turn on their employers with the truth? Both approaches seemed doomed to failure from the get-go.

So I pondered the curmudgeon’s assertion that training and development was better in the good old days. Now this was something, I thought, that people could get behind and talk about openly. Who were the industry’s incubators for new players? Who created the next generation of leaders?

I asked around. I called a few of EFC’s Alumni, and they weren’t really quite sure what I was looking for (neither was I, I suppose). I spoke with EFC’s Rick McCarten, and—because of the anniversary of the closure of the Phillips Cables plant in Brockville—I also chatted with Shelley Bacon and Todd Stafford of Northern Cables.

And I discovered I was on the wrong track… again! But this time I knew where I had gone amiss. I was focusing on companies—corporate entities—and not the one obvious thing I should have been focusing on: their people.

This realization came into clear focus while chatting with Bacon and Stafford. When I spoke with them, I asked what they had learned from Phillips Cables that enabled them to start up Northern Cables.

“They created a survivor mentality,” said Stafford facetiously. It was a lesson, he admits, they didn’t want to learn… but they were forced to. Within a week of learning the plant would shut down, Bacon, Stafford and few others started talking about creating a business.

“Our partners [when we were just starting] were local business people. They provided mentorship; they sit on our board and made us a well-rounded company,” explained Bacon, who had suffered the emotional blow of a closure just eight years prior in Smiths Falls.

And take a look at this year’s EFC Industry Recognition Award winner, Bob Shapiro, president of Franklin Empire: while accepting his award, he admitted he had no desire to enter the electrical industry.

“I came into the business in 1968, and it was reluctantly. I was working for IBM and I had other plans. But my father fell ill,” explained Shapiro. “My dad got better, and I had the good fortune of working with him for 15 years.”

You’ll note he never went back to IBM.

Consider, too, last year’s IRA winner, Harald Henze, the retired vice-president and general manager of Wesco Distribution Canada LP: “I dropped out of university after one year—I was bored stiff—and started in the warehouse and ended up running a $2-billion business.”

Now skim over our Feature on Canada’s Best Managed electrical companies, and you’ll see stories of people—not corporations—who made a living and built a brand with their guts, instinct, trial-and-error and duty. Consider Ideal Supply, which started off as a maker of bread-moulding machines; or Standard Products, which fancied itself a toy import company when it was founded; or E.B. Horsman & Son, which traces its roots to a young man who left his home in Hamilton, Ont., at the turn of the century seeking opportunity out west.

People in our industry are typically in it for the long haul. They are determined and driven to survive, regardless of any formal training program their current or past employers provide.

“As we get older, we worry less about turf and more about legacy,” explained McCarten to me during our chat. “10 years ago, there’s no way we could have launched the Young Professionals Network. Nowadays, companies want their young people to grow.” And they grow, it seems, by networking with other people.

(I hope to still be around when today’s YPN members become tomorrow’s Industry Recognition Award recipients!)

Ultimately, all the stories I uncovered were about people. Maybe they founded or helped run/expand a company in the electrical industry, but that’s almost beside the point. When you look around at the faces at the next industry event (likely EFC’s annual conference) you see people!

Sure, you see their company names on their badges or their tradeshow booths, but it’s the people who endure; they’re the ones with stories to tell, and who make our industry what it is. In the words of Shapiro, “This industry is full of terrific people and has a camaraderie that just doesn’t exist everywhere”.

Anthony Capkun, Editoracapkun@annexweb.comThis column appears in the Spring 2016 edition of Distribution & Supply.