Just as many great companies before it, Custom Electric got its start with two guys in a garage. Electricians Vern Kemble and Heinz Weiss began moonlighting in 1967 to save money to one day open their own shop, and in 1970, they joined forces to create Custom Electric Calgary Ltd. With little more than a truck, determination and some tools and the expertise to wield them, Kemble and Weiss built their business from the ground up.
“It started out as strictly residential, wiring houses,” says Gord Bandy, president of Custom Electric. “In the early 1970s, they started picking up small commercial jobs and built up the commercial side of the company.”
Building the Business
After only a year, the partners outgrew their garage office and leased a building in Forest Lawn to facilitate their burgeoning growth. Their expansion took the company beyond Calgary in 1974 with a branch in B.C., and Custom Electric Calgary and Kalmala Custom Electric in Vernon thrived until they separated the businesses in 1977; Kemble took over Calgary operations and Weiss ran the British Columbia location.
Continuing to grow the Calgary company, Kemble again sought partners to help the business prosper. He brought in Rick Kuzek, Ken Jones and Phil Chromartie in 1981 and together they built Custom Electric’s reputation in the city while constructing its permanent (and current) location on 27th Avenue NE. Over the next decade, Vern Kemble began selling shares to Kuzek, Jones and Chromartie and by 1992, they were equal partners. Soon after, they bought Vern Kemble out and the Custom Electric founder retired in 1993.
Jones and Chromartie followed suit in 1999 with their own retirements leaving Kuzek as the sole owner of Custom Electric.
“He developed his 10-year exit strategy by creating an employee-owned company,” says Bandy. “He started selling off shares in Custom Electric and named three other gentlemen to step in as senior management to help him run the company. Fred Schum, Stu Hay and Brian Phelps started acquiring more shares than anyone else to retain the management team,” he says.
The team prided itself on providing quality services in all areas of the business, implementing the company motto of “Service with Economy” as a strategy to grow. With solid leadership, Custom Electric expanded from residential to commercial and ultimately to industrial jobs across Western Canada. Its robust service department accentuated the company’s focus on meeting customers’ needs and the company earned the reputation for standing behind its work.
Schum retired in 2008 and Rick Kuzek stuck to his plan to retire in 2010, leaving Hay and Phelps as the company’s major shareholders. When Hay retired in 2012, Richard Fleurant and Gord Bandy were brought into senior management, and once Phelps retired four years later, Scott Gibson and Doug Miller joined to round out the team. Together, the four-person management team is leading Custom Electric into the next phase as it celebrates 50 years in business.
The People Make the Difference
Over the years, many people have shaped the company’s path as it evolved into a full-service electrical contractor in the region. The company has weathered the stormy Alberta market, riding the economic highs and persevering during the lows. Custom Electric has gone from a small residential electrical business to one with around 300 employees in two locations with expertise in managing and executing large and small commercial, residential and industrial projects. While much has changed in its five decades in business, the dedication to providing the best possible value for clients never faltered.
To achieve that, Custom Electric invests heavily in its staff to ensure every interaction with clients is a positive, productive one. Employees apply the high standards engrained in the company’s culture on every job to deliver clients a cost-effective, quality product on schedule, all the while staying safe through a superior safety program. The company’s two full-time safety officers have done an exemplary job implementing the award-winning program, and the results are impressive. On average, Custom Electric employees put in 500,000 man-hours a year and over the last three years, it boasts 0 lost time accidents and 0 lost time days in 2019.
“Safety is part of the culture and it’s hugely important. We’ve maintained one of the highest safety records in the industry,” says Scott Gibson, partner at Custom Electric.
With ISO and COR certification along with proactive training in the field – from first aid and lift training to fall arrest and H2S training – as well as significant leadership and safety excellence training for most team foremen, Custom Electric is definitely a leader in the industry.
It’s no wonder, then, that staff tend to stay put. Last year, management gave out a 40-year service award to an employee, adding him to the company’s long list of staff with 30 and 35 years of service.
“One of our strengths is to drive on long-term employees. We don’t hire and lay off. We try to train our people so they become an asset at Custom Electric for a long time,” says Richard Fleurant, operations manager at Custom Electric.
These assets are the keys to the company’s success. Custom Electric’s culture of community involvement with such organizations as Habitat for Humanity, the Calgary Drop-In Centre and various charity events, its dedication to the industry through association affiliations and its team approach to business attracts the best people in the industry – and the company wants to keep them. Unlike many competitors who do blanket layoffs at the end of projects, Custom Electric repositions its resources to other jobs or seeks out additional projects to ensure they can carry their staff forward. Staff appreciate the respectful, supportive culture at the company and in return work hard to exceed the standards set by the founders. In fact, close to 100 of the staff believe so strongly in the company that they are shareholders in the employee-owned business.
“A big part of the employee ownership is most of our supervision in the field has an ownership stake within the company so they have a vested interest in making sure our projects are successful and high quality,” says Gibson.
Doing it Differently
Over the years, many of these projects established the company’s reputation as they shaped the Calgary landscape, and Custom Electric’s expertise and opinions grew more highly valued in the industry. The team is called in at early conception stages to provide developers, owners and general contractors with information to make the project successful. With the company’s vast experience spanning five decades, they have seen it all and can use their historical data to help clients accurately plan future projects.
“Our clients have diverse needs of different types of electrical services so we’re that one-stop shop,” says Doug Miller, business development manager for Custom Electric. “We can provide clients with those early numbers and early tests of their ideas accurately and quickly.”
Custom Electric is known for its expertise from pre-design stages through to operations and project management. It also has a full-time BIM technician to create 3D modelling of projects to detect any design and system conflicts between trades, provide input on constructability and create sequencing schedules.
“We could have upwards of 10 electricians in the shop prefabricating materials directly from the 3D model the BIM technician produces,” says Gibson. “Whole systems are pre-built, disassembled, shipped to site and then reassembled.”
Custom Electric is leading edge, saving clients time and money with their innovations. And throughout the process, the team advocates for the client to protect the project’s budget, schedule and design integrity in an effort to deliver exactly what clients want. The relationships that result from this process carry on past the turnover date, and Custom Electric has enjoyed repeat business from loyal clients over the years. The company fosters great relationships with clients in all sectors of Calgary’s business community and have produced incredible projects with them.
Custom Electric has been attached to everything from the challenging Rockyview Hospital expansion and renovation, which involved replacing the emergency systems in an occupied hospital, to the 520-store New Horizon Mall, which the company worked on from pre-construction through budgeting and design to eventual tender.
It recently completed some key downtown buildings as well. Custom Electric was involved with Studio Bell from the early design stages. The $10-million electrical contract required years of budgeting and design-assist before construction of the now landmark building even began. The company also completed work on the 27-storey Manulife Place office building, which is a state-of-the-art tower incorporating the newest technologies connected through an integrated building system.
Custom Electric teams are currently working on the $24-million electrical project at the MacKimmie Complex at the University of Calgary. It will be the first net-zero targeted building in Western Canada, and Custom Electric is implementing intricate mechanical systems, a huge solar array on the roof to generate power and energy-efficient lighting control systems.
On the industrial side, Custom Electric completed the Bearspaw and Glenmore water treatment plants, building and modernizing those facilities while they maintained operations. These types of jobs are challenging and complicated, and that’s exactly why clients go to Custom Electric. The company has a reputation for skill and work ethic, and clients can count on Custom Electric to get the job done.
That was especially true during the 2013 flood. The company was called on Sunday afternoon and it deployed crews to the Saddledome Monday morning. It provided three shifts of 25 people working 24-7 for three weeks to start with and then finished the job within 69 days to allow the Calgary Flames to start their season.
“The flood speaks to the depth of our resources and that we can perform under pressure – and have the manpower to be able to do that,” says Gord Bandy.
Custom Electric proudly services every client with the same high levels of service and quality, whether they are a homeowner needing a breaker replaced in their panel or a client with a $40-million electrical contract. For 50 years, Custom Electric has brought quality, service, integrity and innovation to its residential, commercial and industrial clients across the province. With its strong reputation in the industry and diverse client base, Custom Electric will continue to be a leader in electrical contracting for decades more.