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CEL Electric turns 40


When Willie Unger started his electrical contracting company in Hague, Saskatchewan, in 1979, he had big dreams and small resources. With little more than a few partners, a dirt-floor shop and a strong drive to succeed, he built the firm from the ground up. As Community Electric grew quickly, Unger and his team seized opportunities, building a reputation for integrity and quality that hasn’t wavered despite the company’s incredible growth.

Over the past 40 years, Community Electric expanded across the Prairies, giving rise to CEL Electric. Today, CEL has nine locations across Canada, operating with a staff of more than 150 in Calgary, Camrose, Grande Prairie, Regina, Saskatoon, Brandon, Winnipeg, and most recently London, Ontario, and Vancouver.

“Our expansion results from our clients asking us to be in these places and our desire to better service our national clients.

“There’s no place too far,” says Dallas Smith, chief operating officer at CEL Electric. “We like to say we do inconvenient work in inconvenient places.”

CEL’s clients include some of the biggest names in agriculture, including Cargill, Nutrien, PotashCorp and Richardson International, and the electrical contractor has enjoyed relationships with many of these massive multinational corporations for more than 25 years. These enduring relationships are important at CEL so the team pursues them, preferring to get involved with projects that are collaborative and likely to develop long-term relationships. They don’t want to do one project with any company; CEL Electric is in it for the long haul.

CEL provides top-notch electrical services in everything from grain storage and expansion to plant-based protein processing. It is also expanding and diversifying its offerings, using existing proficiencies and processes and applying them to new areas including waste-water treatment, fertilizer and chemical processing, and soft and hard rock mining. CEL has expertise in a variety of areas ranging from elevator expansions to instrument calibration to electrical distribution and control system installations. It builds clients’ assets and maintains them for life.
While the company hasn’t traditionally focused on oil and gas work, this area has grown organically for CEL as process engineers in the food or fertilizer industries changed jobs and took the firm along with them to the new sector. The transition is seamless as the firm’s industrial process technical expertise transcends sectors. Clients appreciate the excellent service and quality product and want to continue to work with the CEL team.

Whether it’s a small or large job, building new or performing predictive preventative maintenance, CEL is dedicated to delivering the best product on time and on budget to minimize downtime while maximizing productivity. CEL offers turnkey design build services that provide engineering, automation and manufacturing capabilities on top of the traditional electrical and instrumentation installations. This makes CEL Electric a convenient and valuable one-stop shop for clients.

“We’ve been able to mimic our technical process skill sets to accommodate all of the major industries that are driving this country. We aren’t just agriculture guys even though that’s what we’re known best for. And we can manage everything from initial engineering conception all the way through commissioning and start up,” Smith says.

One such start-to-finish project is the Fraser Grain Terminal. This massive new grain-handling port facility in Surrey is a full design build and one of the largest CEL project to date. The firm also completed a full design build for Verdient Foods in Vanscoy, Saskatchewan, to create the largest organic pea protein fractionation facility in North America and has completed
a new port facility in Hamilton, Ontario for G3 as well as several projects for mining company Graymont with such innovations as robotic bag handling.

In Calgary, CEL Electric is proud to be partnering with the City of Calgary and PCL Construction to do the electrical work on the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) network stations.
The company’s diverse projects require a highly-skilled team, and CEL Electric employs the best in the business – and it strives to protect them. CEL invested heavily in developing a safety culture that allows staff to work safely in high-risk situations, adhering to the Mission Zero pledge that aims for zero incidents, accidents and lost time.

CEL invests in its staff, and the talented employees give back just as much. The employees reflect the founder’s high-quality standards and service levels, and their positive attitudes and work ethic have helped solidify CEL’s reputation in the industry. CEL’s management fosters incredible relationships with staff and this translates to incredible relationships with clients. Both sides of the coin are happy, and this had led to long-term staff and clients alike.

Many employees have been with the company for 25 years and are dedicated to clients in every way. Each team is familiar with the client’s history and has a personal investment in the success of their projects. The business is large enough to be competitive and leverage resources across the branches to better service clients while being small enough to provide those important personal touches.

“We have a big-company presence with a small-company handshake, and we are always trying to find a way to grow and be able to do any sized project anywhere in the country while still knowing everybody’s names and having these teams that work well together. That’s what separates us from most of our competitors. It’s one of our values to maintain that,” he says.

Another value engrained in the corporate culture is the importance of giving back to the community. CEL Electric has a charitable mandate that sees every branch donating time and money to various organizations. Branches can support those organizations and causes that are important to the staff provided they align with CEL’s core values. The company’s focus on family, community and education initiatives has led staff to such organizations as the Calgary Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity and the Louise Dean Centre as well as classroom outreach sessions teaching children about where their food comes from. Giving back is as important today as it was four decades ago when the company started.

After 40 years of business, Willie Unger and his team are proud of all they have achieved through steady, organic growth and hard work, all the while looking ahead at what is still to come.

“It’s been a great opportunity to reflect as well as to map out our future. Our growth and our youth and retention is going to set CEL up well for the next 40 years,” says Dallas Smith.