Canadian Electrical Wholesaler

 

Dunnigan TechspanLine Goyette

Conferences are often unique opportunities to spend time with people who otherwise may not get together. I had a wonderful time talking with Frank, Mary Beth and Sean Dunnigan during the EFC conference in Banff this past May. As I listen to a recording of our conversation, which is punctuated by great bursts of laughter, I note that he who laughs least is the one stepping up to meet the challenges of the family’s third generation in the industry and second in their business: Sean Dunnigan, who will be responsible for a new facility soon to open near Vancouver. He may laugh less, but he listens more.

Sean is the youngest in the family, and at age 26 is preparing to manage the new full-scale packaging, sub-assembly and warehousing facility in Burnaby, BC. The facility will inventory more than 8,000 SKUs of connector, wire management, control and automation products. Having been born into and grown up in the industry, he wants to miss nothing, understand everything, and continue the family adventure. I say adventure, because that’s what it resembles from many perspectives.

His parents Frank and Mary Beth, newly wed, attended their first CEDA conference in 1982. It’s hard to see this as anything but a firm commitment to the electrical industry. At the time Frank was working with his father, travelling from one ocean to the other, meeting with distributors across the country, and developing his knowledge of the electrical industry. When his father sold the business to Siemens, Mary Beth prompted him to start his own company. "We had three young children under five years and a mortgage to pay, but we knew that the family would help us if the adventure didn’t go well. I just couldn't imagine Frank be happy in another industry,” says Mary Beth, who went from homemaker to business partner with responsibility for finance and human resources.

For Frank, who was already familiar with the industry, the timing was perfect. "It was at a moment when Canada was talking about free trade with the United States, and there were many American companies with no presence here. It was a beautiful opportunity to develop joint ventures.

Techspan Industries was born in 1989 with five joint venture companies. Today, there are more than a hundred product groups.

The challenge of generational renewal
Frank points out to me that many third and fourth generation distributors are attending the EFC conference, but he adds that this is not enough. He regrets the difficulty young people have today in entering the labour market.

"My wife and I got into the market in our twenties. We travelled the country, met people everywhere, and the previous generation supported us. Today young people struggle to find an entry level job that will allow them to not only pay their rent and food, but also their student debt. They change jobs frequently, and don’t acquire the experience that would allow them to contribute to the industry and build rewarding careers.
“Our industry is full of challenges. We don't produce music videos, but the people around us are so stimulating. Even competitors are working together to meet industry challenges, such as the replacement of one generation with the next.”

Sean, the only family member of his generation to pursue a career in the industry, even though all three children worked in the family business during their adolescence and academic years, agrees completely with his parents. “What’s exciting about our industry is the people who are part of it. I knew the company from having worked summers there, but when I started in sales after completing my studies at McGill, I also knew I had found my way.”
I then ask Sean how he will make a name for himself in the industry. "Vancouver is a unique opportunity to do so. The company wanted to remain true to its modus vivendi and offer the same quality of service to customers in Western Canada. This step was necessary for the growth of the company. We have clients, but we are not where we want to be.”

Sean will establish himself in Vancouver with his partner Sarah, even though neither of them knew the city before agreeing to jump into this new family adventure. The Dunnigan family is not afraid of challenges. The first family members arrived at Cacouna, Quebec as a result of the famine in Ireland.

When a couple works together and one of their sons is about to join the company, the two generations come together diligently, but how do they balance their professional and personal lives? This time, everyone bursts out laughing. “We try to relax on weekends at our cottage on Georgian Bay, but it's hard to not take the opportunity to share information about new orders, a new employee, or a new project,” says Mary Beth. “We're trying to do less, but it’s not easy.”

“Our work leads us to travel much in the world, says Frank, "the initial objective is of course to meet our business partners, but we also have time to discover... a little.”

But a new arrival in the family might change things: Audrey Rose, four months. Sean adds that in a single day pictures of him, his brother and sister disappeared from his parents’ home and were replaced by pictures of granddaughter Audrey Rose.

One can understand why Frank intends to tackle the challenge of succession in his position on Electro-Federation Canada’s Board of Directors. His experiences as a father and a hockey and baseball coach have taught him to respect young people, and he wants to create for them a place of choice in our industry.


 

Line Goyette is Managing Editor of Canadian Electrical Wholesaler. @LineGoyette

 

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