November 17, 2016
In September 1957, Ken Gerrie opened a storefront electrical supply counter in the growing town of Oakville, Ontario. The business would expand into one of Ontario’s most dominant electrical supply companies.
Elaine and Heather Gerrie, the two daughters of Ken, co-lead the company today. Of the two sisters’ six children, three have joined the company ranks. I had the great privilege of meeting them all in Halifax last spring at Electro-Federation Canada’s annual conference. Three generations gathered around the table. No questions had been distributed in advance, leading to a lot of spontaneity and laughter.
Before I recount our conversation, here’s a brief company history. When Ken Gerrie opened his electrical supply business, Oakville's population was just approaching 10,000. With his dedicated work ethic, he set in motion an operation that would become the cornerstone of one of Ontario’s foremost electrical supply companies.
Within a few short years, Gerrie Electric had grown enough to move from its modest 2,000 square foot location to a 5,000 square foot showroom and warehouse facility. Staff numbers increased to five. Gerrie Electric was also making territorial inroads in Guelph, Fergus and Elora.
In 1977, Gerrie Electric opened its first branch in Georgetown. A Milton branch followed in 1978. In 1981 the company moved its headquarters to a 20,000 square foot facility in Burlington. In 1982, Gerrie Electric formed a high tech Systems Group to take care of its customer's expanding automation requirements.
A centralized, integrated computer system to standardize common procedures was implemented in 1988, laying the framework for ISO compliance. Gerrie Electric became the first electrical distributor in North America to obtain ISO 9002 registration.
The company's tremendous growth led to a 25,000 square foot expansion at head office, allowing for an on-site training centre, more warehousing space, and more efficient, centralized administration.
Branch expansion continued into St. Catharines, Cambridge, Brantford, Hamilton Guelph, Mississauga, Kitchener, and Simcoe. In addition, six acquisitions were made to round off the territory:
• Economy Electric in Welland
• Bramtor Electric in Brampton
• Watt Electric in Bolton
• Concord Electric and Trade Electric in Concord
• Tesco Electric in London, Hyde Park, St Thomas and Woodstock
By the early 1990s, Gerrie Electric had moved into commodity management, providing a variety of services to the company's customers. Supply Chain Services implements customized Supply Programs for customers looking to reduce costs and improve the bottom line.
In the mid 2000s a move was made into a new venture — the process business. With an integrated business system, network connectivity and a paperless central warehouse, Gerrie is on the leading edge of technology today.
The first and second generation
Ken opens our discussion with what one might almost call a comment from the heart, “It is awesome to be working with the family. I can tell you that people who don't do this are missing a lot.” I ask him if in his wildest dreams he thought his two daughters will take over.
“As young girls we would go on the road with our father,” replies Heather. “On every vacation we would go from house to house to do business. I loved the concept of Gerrie and daughters and the way my father handles business with his customers. I saw my friends going for interviews at banks and I figured I could try the family business,” she says. Elaine adds “We grew up in the company. We would prepare invoices on weekends, put labels on products… But, like my mother I liked sciences. However, after one year of chemistry at university I switched to business administration. Looking back, I see it was the right choice.”
... and the third
Did they always know the third generation of the Gerrie family would join the company?
For Taylor, he was open to different avenues he says after studying business at university and continuing his education in technology. “As a student, I worked at Gerrie in the warehouse and on the electrical counter as well as a year outside the company and found that I missed the human interaction that I’d had at Gerrie. The experience helped me understand what the company was all about, and I wanted to stay there. I'm very happy with my choice.”
As for Joanna, she always knew her heart was in the family business. “I moved out west for my diploma in Business Management, knowing I would return to Ontario for my career at Gerrie.” She has since worked in marketing, the lighting studio and on the electrical counter.”
Jonathan studied international business and business management in Miami, FL with a goal to join the family business. “I was confident that these skills I learned were going to help me succeed at Gerrie Electric and help drive customer and employee success,” he said.
David is now in his second year of business at college, and remains undecided about his place in the company. He admires what his grandfather has accomplished, and has always wanted to continue his legacy. Maybe start his own company? All the doors are open.
And how has the transition been within the Gerrie family?
For Ken, the important thing has always been that his daughters are treated like any other employee. Heather chimes in by saying, “Our father put in place an executive team. It was a very easy transition. We have a very collaborative executive team. It's all about the people our father put together. He has always been a visionary.”
The two sisters are aware that their children will face similar challenges, and have implemented a succession plan. But it seems that the key to continuing success is a culture of innovation, collaboration, and openness to change. Inevitably disruption occurs with a change of direction, even if the transition has been well thought out. The third generation says they feel listened to when they offer new ideas. Joanna adds that everyone participates in the decisions, and the company has an inherent culture of change.
How do the three generations view industry challenges?
For Heather, the biggest challenge is people — recruiting them, keeping them, understanding what they want and how as a company we ensure that this is the place where they want to build their future.
Elaine identifies market changes, including new channels that are opening up. “We are in a global world. Clients can find information everywhere on the Internet. In the early days of the company, our father was doing business with the people of our cities or towns, we knew all our customers. Fortunately, today young people are more comfortable with new behaviours, like making purchases online.” Gerrie’s third generation, one after another, are saying, “We’re able to keep our customers happy, so we must be doing something right.”
They believe it is in the way they talk to their customers, and provide customer service. “Our customers want our people to help them find solutions, and Gerrie is part of that process. Customers have respect for our expertise. We see the importance of training, and not just technical product training. Our training is continuous; we also find there is value in Gerrie educating customers on the latest technology. Knowledge in sales is also critical. We have to adapt to new consumer models.”
Ken adds that today products are so specialized that one of the major challenges is staying ahead of new technologies, anticipating what will be the product or solution of tomorrow.
Elaine has helped develop a program for Mohawk College available online on distribution sales. It's a way to feed the channel. “We must reach out to young people, show them that we are an industry of choice, and help technologists develop sales skills.”
From the youngest to the oldest, would you have done things differently?
This time it’s the youth who take the floor. Taylor speaks first.
“I would say spontaneously that things have been done well because if you look at where we are today, we could hardly say otherwise. "It is clear that we are here to stay.”
Jonathan continues, insisting on the fact that the succession plan was well done. They’re all in a different phase in their careers. The plan involves five phases and other young professionals are welcome in this plan, with the goal of training them to be branch managers.
According to Joanna, everything was done well; people learn as much from their mistakes as from their successes. One thing the three generations share beyond doubt is their pride in being part of a company with a strong family culture. Not just for Gerrie family members. The company is part of the industry; Heather and Elaine have both served as Chair of Electro-Federation Canada. Gerrie Electric is active in their community in many ways.* This will continue with the third generation: “We want to preserve what our mothers and our grandfather built.”
* Among the organizations the Gerrie family is involved in are the following: Canadian Diabetes Association, Alzheimer Society, Power2Feed, United Way, Sick Kids, Salvation Army Toy Drive, Habitat for Humanity, Wellspring Birmingham Gilgan House, HOOTC, and CRC