Penn-Lite Electrical & Mechanical
More than 30 years ago, Ernie and Gladys Penner established Penn-Lite Electrical as a small electrical construction and service company in Steinbach, Manitoba. In 2008, Ernie and Gladys retired and decided to sell the business. Wilfried “Wilf” Sawatzky and a partner purchased the company and added mechanical services a year later. The partners renamed the business Penn-Lite Electrical & Mechanical (Penn-Lite).
Wilf has a history in the industry. He grew up as the son of a factory worker and always dreamed of building a trade career. “I’ve been a mechanical guy all my life,” he explains. “I was involved in several ventures prior to purchasing Penn-Lite in 2008. I had worked as a construction supervisor for a large international agricultural firm 10 years. From 1987 to 1999 I owned a mechanical contracting business that I sold in 1999.”
When Wilf took over the business, the company had only a small electrical staff of around 15 people. Through growth and adding mechanical air conditioning, heating, cooling and ventilation services, the company has grown to around 55 employees today. Wilf recognized the opportunity early on. Most of his our customers who needed electrical also needed plumbing and HVAC services as well. Now Penn-Lite serves as a one-stop shop for clients. The business operates from a single location in Steinbach, with offices, inventory and a 5,000-square foot shop.
A growing market
Penn-Lite’s target market is small to medium commercial work between Steinbach and Winnipeg. A large portion of volume and revenue comes in from service work, but the crew also performs a significant amount of multifamily residential projects and some single-family home contracts. The crew has been involved in a diverse range of small and large projects over the last few years.
“Right now we are doing a curling club in Steinbach,” Wilf elaborates. “This is a five-sheet, brand new curling club being added to the local arena. We also just wrapped up a 54-unit condo unit in Steinbach.
“One of my personal favorites has been a 44-unit heritage structure in Winnipeg,” he adds. “As a historical building, we couldn’t alter the face of building or change design in any way. Everything had to go up through the roof: dryer vents, exhaust fans and other HVAC equipment. This is a six-story building, so the dynamics were interesting. As a general manager and owner, I enjoy those types of challenges the most. As far as cash benefits, they don’t stand out, but the personal gratification is there.”
The team’s sweet spot is with projects, including mechanical/electrical work at around $500,000. “We do six to 10 decent sized projects every year of varying sizes,” Wilf explains. “We also do service and warranty work in the mean time, such as repairs and replacements. We have a lot of smaller projects. We believe a good service dept generates a solid construction department. When you look after customers while servicing their systems, they will call you back when they are building or rebuilding facilities.”
Penn-Lite has built a reputation for high-quality electrical, HVAC and mechanical work over the last five years. This strong record has set the business up for growing opportunities in the local market. “Market trends are moving toward assisted living, semi-assisted living and senior housing,” Wilf notes. “Those areas will be seeing significant growth in the next 10 years. There is also some local manufacturing that has gotten a second leg underneath. We have been working for a local steel manufacturer that is growing in phases. We are seeing quite a bit of industrial/commercial growth. The other sector we serve is agriculture and there are a lot of pork ,poultry and dairy producers in our area. They have had a tough few years, but things are turning around.”
After a few tough years, Wilf is optimistic about growth for the company, too. One of the company’s largest challenges in recent years has been finding qualified, willing labor. “We have been in a labor-oriented market,” he explains. “Workers dictate where they need to be and how they are rewarded. The oil industry has taken a lot of the labor pool, but now there are some qualified staff retuning from the oil fields, we have more options. There is also a fairly large immigrant population in and around Steinbach. A lot of people who have come from Europe or the Philippines and they were tradespeople back home. They have a lot of valuable skills and as they get settled, they will want to return to skilled labor jobs that they were trained in.”
While the labor market is beyond the company’s control, Wilf strives to take care of the aspects of business that he can affect. He is working to build lasting relationships with clients that open doors to new opportunities. The crew works with several strategic partners on a repeat basis that look out for Penn-Lite in return. These mutually beneficial relationships also help the company to make new connections with partners’ clients.
In the next 12 to 18 months, Wilf is aiming for 10 percent growth. The company already has the infrastructure in place and he is looking to hire on some new employees to fill in where manpower is lacking. He continues to look forward to the satisfaction of taking on new challenges and enjoying the rush of starting something new and finishing it. With strong potential in the market, Penn-Lite Electrical & Mechanical should have no trouble meeting goals for growth.