Aug 13, 2021
By Line Goyette
Sean Dunnigan was recently appointed President of Techspan. Officially, he has been with the company for 10 years, but since he grew up in this family business it’s become part of his genetic code. He also told me that his experience as a teenager in the Techspan warehouse still serves him well today. Anyone who has grown up in a family business — three generations in the case of the Dunnigan family — will understand this.
I first met Sean six years ago at EFC’s annual conference in Banff as he was about to move to BC, where as Techspan’s Director of Western Operations he would manage the company’s new full-scale packaging, sub-assembly and warehousing facility in Burnaby.
After three busy years on the west coast, Sean took on a new challenge. When Techspan acquired Fusetek, he moved to Kingston, Ontario as Fusetek’s VP of Operations. Since then, Sean has worked to bring Techspan’s philosophy of exceptional customer service and value to Fusetek’s distributor customers.
The two companies recently announced plans to combine their sales and marketing departments. This will be Sean’s first task as he takes over as president of Techspan.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Sean about his new challenges, his understanding of leadership, and industry trends. Sean had already shared insights with our readers after his arrival in BC, in a series of articles on the Millennial generation and their perspectives on industry issues. Still relevant.
In what ways is your teenage work experience in Techspan’s warehouse still serving you today?
I would say that is has been very beneficial for learning all of Techspan’s processes. For someone in a leadership position, I think they should aspire to understand all aspects of the business on some level. Our warehouse is an important part of Techspan’s customer service experience. Our customers expect us to fill their orders quickly and accurately, so it’s essential to understand the process, and continuously improve upon it. There is no better way to learn than by doing.
You gained broad experience in setting up the BC facility and integrating Fusetek into Techspan. What did you gain from this experience? What did you learn about yourself?
I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have these opportunities, to start something almost from scratch in our BC distribution centre, and to lead the integration of the Fusetek division. There were many challenges, and I learned a lot about this business. I think one of the most important things I learned was the value of finding the right people.
It’s not about finding people who are necessarily experts right off the bat. It’s an attitude: people who are self-motivated, who want to come in and make a difference every day. You find those people and you train them. Techspan has employees who have been with the company for up to 28 years, and we’ve really tried to emulate that at the other locations.
I have been thrilled with the team we set up in Burnaby, and we were very fortunate that the Fusetek team in Kingston was incredibly dedicated.
Being part of a multi-generational family business has issues, challenges and unique perspectives. What do you, your father and grandfather talk about?
Well, my parents founded Techspan in 1989 after my grandfather sold his electric heating business to Siemens. My parents then hired my grandfather a few years later. So Techspan is not a traditional type of family business. When you work closely with family members, the conversation always returns to the business. The trials, tribulations, successes. There is always a new challenge to face in this industry, and I’m very fortunate to have this wealth of knowledge at family gatherings. I just try to soak it up as much as possible.
Techspan has worked successfully with so many members of the electrical wholesaler channel. How do you see these relationships evolving in the next five years?
My grandfather (Gerry Dunnigan) has been president of both the electrical manufacturers association (EEMAC) and the electrical distributors association (CEDA) in Canada. My father and mother started Techspan in 1989, utilizing relationships and knowledge of the industry gleaned through Gerry’s electric heating company. By understanding both sides of the channel, we are in an excellent position to drive future growth with our distributors.
There are many new entrants into the marketplace. Integrating our business plans with our channel partners will continue to be key. Closer collaboration through vendor managed inventory will help separate us from these new competitors.
How do you see leadership and has your vision changed since you started with the family business?
I think when you’re younger, you view leadership as always being the expert, and always having the right answer. But now I see it as a five-step process: 1) bring together the right team of people, 2) provide vision for the future so everyone sees the goal, 3) encourage debate and agree on the plan, 4) precise and effective execution, and finally, 5) continuously tweaking and perfecting the plan as market changes dictate.
I don’t have the flashy personality that some might associate with a prototypical leader. I consider myself a listener first. I want to be thoughtful in my approach and inspire people with dedication and action more than with words. Our team of nearly 100 employees at Techspan feel like they are part of something bigger. That is critical. Let those great people do their job.
How has the pandemic affected Techspan? The industry?
I think we are facing the same challenges that most companies are facing right now: cost increases and material shortages. These are very difficult times. Even with the price increases we are seeing across the industry, the key factor is going to be: who can get you this product? We invested in extra inventory in the first quarter of this year. Our customers are definitely benefiting from this foresight.
This fits well with our model: we are committed to the Canadian market, we aren’t afraid to make extra investments. We have to be smart about it. I’m not saying it’s easy, but this is what we’ve done for years.
The other major change has been tremendous growth in the number of distributors placing orders through our online portal. After huge growth in 2020, we weren’t sure if the trend would be quite as strong in 2021, but we have seen it actually accelerate in the first half of the year. So, we will continue to make investments in improving distributor access through our website. Factory automation, digital warehousing, improvements to our website for distributors, vendor managed inventory… there is a lot more we could be doing, and a lot more to come.
What do you see as the biggest challenges now facing the industry?
The continued disruption in supply chains will be the biggest issue facing the industry. The pandemic has created new paradigms in how we work. People have been forced to order personal products online and they are very comfortable doing so. They will now expect the same customer experience in their industrial electrical dealings. If we don’t meet their expectations, they will go elsewhere. There are thousands of fly-by-night suppliers on the internet. But that is only price driven. There is no assurance of quality, warranty, delivery, and follow up. The chain from manufacturer to distributor to end user will always be our strength. And it is fortified by the trust developed over many years. But we still need to deliver and compete with all comers.
What you would you say to a young person who is looking for a career in the electrical industry? To your daughter when the time comes?
I would say there has never been a better time to join this industry. Take a look at our world, and the changes we are seeing. Alternative energy, energy storage, the electrification of cars and transit…. these fields are growing by leaps and bounds. Everything must be wired, connected, and made to work in the way we are accustomed. This is an exciting time for our industry.
So I would say, absolutely, join this industry, make a difference, and get involved.
Line Goyette is Managing Editor of Kerrwil Publications’ Electrical Group.