The Journey of East Penn Canada – Our History and Bright Future
The Journey of East Penn Canada – Our History and Bright Future
Mike Wells Executive Vice President (Retired) – History at East Penn Canada
February 25, 2022
Forty-three years ago, a 25-year-old travelling sales rep was being driven to the airport by his father after a family gathering. On the way, the young man expressed his frustration with the constant travel, especially with having a young family. He needed a change that would allow him to stay closer to home. It was during that drive, that the seeds of an idea were sown. His employer was Varta Batteries, at the time, the largest battery manufacturer in Canada. The men knew that Varta didn’t have a reliable distributor in the Toronto area. It struck them, why not approach Varta to establish an exclusive distributorship in the east end of Toronto? Although Varta didn’t want to lose an up-and-coming star, they also realized the potential to increase sales in this creative way and so agreed to the proposal.
Consequently, on February 20, 1979, Jim Bouchard and his father Phil incorporated a new company, Power Battery Sales Ltd. The business started operating in the back corner of Phil’s machine shop with two sections of racking, and Phil started selling to his customers that needed batteries. One month later, Jim left Varta and took control of all aspects of the new company.
What Varta didn’t realize was that Jim had a much more ambitious vision for his company than just a small local automotive battery distributor, and he started to expand it very quickly – first throughout Southern Ontario and then into Quebec and Manitoba. Within five years, Power Battery had seven branches, 25 employees and annual sales approaching mid-seven figures. Jim had also expanded into other battery markets such as marine, RV, commercial, motorcycle, medical, farm, golf, construction, emergency lighting, and more.
The company continued to grow steadily under Jim’s philosophy of aggressive sales and marketing, combined with a responsible fiscal approach. Profits were re-invested into the company’s growth, and nothing was spent that wouldn’t generate further growth and profitability.
In fact, Power Battery was literally a textbook example of how to manage and successfully grow a start-up business. In the early 80’s the company was frequently used as a case study in the in-house training programs of their auditors, Clarkson Gordon (now Ernst & Young) to demonstrate the ideal process for young companies to grow and succeed. Jim had found the right balance of best business practices, creativity, innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit.
I was an audit manager at Clarkson Gordon at the time and from 1981 to 1984, I was responsible for the Power Battery account. It was my favourite client, and Jim and I really hit it off. Not only through our business dealings, but we grew up in the same area of Scarborough, had similar backgrounds, and even played in a men’s hockey league against each other. I had often thought that if there was one client I would consider working for, it would be Power Battery.
Fortunately, Jim was of the same mind, so when he decided in 1984 that Power Battery needed a more experienced Controller to manage the company’s finances and administration, he offered me the position. It was a major decision for me as I was being groomed for a possible partnership and we had just had our first child a few days earlier. But after meeting with Jim to discuss the details, I knew it would be the right move for me. It was the best career decision I ever made.
By 1987, sales had more than doubled again but, as with many rapidly growing businesses, Power Battery lacked the capital needed to continue to operate effectively – let alone grow. Things were becoming difficult but, after a lot of toil and stress, we were able to secure the financing required to support our growth and plans. It was like letting the genie out of the bottle. It allowed Jim and the sales team to be even more aggressive and they really started to make major inroads in the Canadian battery market, particularly with our POW-R-SURGE brand.
It was around this time that the first Canada/US Free Trade Agreement was signed. One of its ultimate consequences was the closing of all battery manufacturing plants in Canada – including Varta. The attention of the US battery manufacturers turned northward, and they quickly noticed our growth and aggressive sales approach. This was both positive and negative for Power Battery. Most of them were threatened by our ambitious and independent vision and began to take a hostile approach toward us. However, one of them - East Penn Manufacturing - saw the mutually beneficial potential of the two companies working together. East Penn wanted to secure and grow its distribution in Canada and Power Battery needed a high quality, reliable source of supply. By late 1988 Power Battery began to distribute East Penn products throughout Canada.
Within 4 years, our annual sales volume had grown by another 70%. East Penn was so impressed that in 1993 they approached us about acquiring Power Battery. Although the company wasn’t for sale, it was apparent to us that the opportunity for exponential growth and achieving our goal of being the #1 battery distributor in Canada would be significantly enhanced with the support of a company like East Penn. During the negotiations our primary concern was to ensure that the Canadian business and our Canadian employees would not only be protected but would benefit from the merger. A prime example is that we made it clear from the beginning that our employee profit-sharing plan must remain in place, or there would be no deal. Although the negotiations were intense, we had a friendly rivalry with the East Penn management team. During the height of our negotiations, the 1993 World Series was taking place between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies. Jim and I were fortunate enough to attend Game 4 in Philadelphia as East Penn’s guests. (The Blue Jays won Game 4 and the Series).
Our growth exploded after that as we acquired many new accounts from our association with East Penn (and they acquired some significant customers through Power Battery). It also allowed us to delve into new battery markets. In 1996 we entered the Motive and Reserve Power markets using our automotive distribution network and business model. Industrial battery industry experts said such a model hadn’t been done before and wouldn’t succeed. We were determined to prove them wrong – and we did in a big way.
This expansion required us to expand our business support infrastructure by adding or expanding departments such as HR, IT, Operations, Marketing, and Financial Analysis.These major changes brought in many bright new people with expertise and experience that further enhanced our ability to grow and succeed.
By the end of the 1990’s our annual sales volume had tripled since the acquisition by East Penn. We had a national distribution network of 15 locations in every province except PEI and Newfoundland (both aptly serviced by our Dartmouth, NS branch), a national fleet of delivery vehicles, and most importantly, over 100 bright, hard working and motivated people.
The company’s impressive growth continued into the 2000’s. Two significant events occurred in 2005 that reflected how far the company had come. First, we acquired our own Head Office and Central Distribution Centre building in Ajax, Ontario. Previously we had always leased our Headquarter locations. Secondly, we decided to change our business and trade name. Going forward, we would now be known as East Penn Canada. This further associated the company with East Penn Manufacturing, which was particularly important in our Motive and Reserve divisions. The Power Battery name had been recognized mainly in the Automotive market and our use of the name was causing some confusion in our other markets. The name change lead to acquiring even more new customers in all our divisions.
After these moves, sales growth continued unabated, and from 2000 to 2008 doubled once again, which allowed us to reach a record milestone. We were also winning supplier of the year awards from many prestigious customers and environmental awards for our recycling programs.
The Motive and Reserve divisions in particular, experienced spectacular growth – so much so, that from 2008 to 2011, we acquired four well established industrial battery sales and service companies located in geographic areas where we needed to expand quickly. One in BC, two in Alberta and one in New Brunswick (our current Moncton branch). These moves did wonders to solidify our national sales and service network and our Motive and Reserve expertise by adding some great people.
Shortly thereafter, our Consumer products division was born, giving us more penetration into the overall Canadian battery market, with even more products to offer to our customers.
Another quantum leap in East Penn Canada’s history occurred in 2015. In the span of three short months, we had been awarded the business of three of the largest battery retailers in Canada. Virtually overnight, the company was doubling in size. The increase in our sales volume meant that major increases to our warehousing footprint, fleet size and employee complement were required – and in an extremely short time frame. With the extraordinary efforts and teamwork of all departments and employees, we pulled it off. Not only that, but the largest of our new customers rewarded us as their Supplier of the Year for the first full year after being awarded their business.
East Penn Canada now has over 400 employees, a truly national network, and we are the undisputed #1 battery distribution and power solution company in Canada. In the past few years, we have continued to succeed while taking on some major projects required to ensure our future success. In 2016 we implemented a new state-of-the-art, enterprise-wide computer software system. This was a daunting and complex project but as usual, our amazing employees and leadership team ensured that it was a huge success. And just this past year, we completed the construction of our new 200,000 sq. ft. Head Office and National Distribution Centre which also entailed consolidating our two major DC’s and HO locations under one (very large) roof, located just east of Toronto in Courtice, ON. Again, a huge project with a very successful outcome.
Forty-three years later, Jim is still the CEO of East Penn Canada. He has handed over the reins of the day-to-day management of the company to his son, company President Mike Bouchard, but he is still actively involved.
In his 25 years with the company, Mike has worked his way up the Company ranks from junior sales rep to Manager, Director, VP, EVP, and now President. Mike has already overseen many significant improvements to ensure the Company continues the path to success, while also leading the major projects referred to above. He and Jim work closely to carry on our vision of success and growth.
East Penn Canada’s success has allowed hundreds of Canadians to build very successful careers over the years. In April 2022, two of them, Shaun Keogh and Jim Decoste, will each celebrate their 40th year with East Penn Canada – an amazing accomplishment.