La recette de succès d’Oneil Electric est fort simple. « Ça peut sembler être un cliché » nous dit le vice-président des ventes et marketing, Mike Buchholz, « mais les relations sont au cœur de notre modèle d’affaires et ces relations concernent nos clients. » L’entreprise aura bientôt 50 ans. Earl O’Neil quittait alors une compagnie qui avait promis de faire de lui un partenaire, mais qui n’avait pas été plus loin que la promesse. « Il en a eu assez, a fondé sa propre compagnie » explique son fils Mike O’Neil, « pas de magie, seulement du travail, et beaucoup de travail. »
O’Neil Electric’s recipe for success is a simple one. Strip away the slick new counters at their Woodbridge head office, peel off the well-designed wrap on their delivery trucks, and forget about strategic acquisitions, market analytics, or diversifying.
It’s been nearly 50 years of relationships for the independent electrical wholesaler, 50 years since Earl O’Neil left another company that had promised to make him partner but never followed through. “He got fed up and started his own little place on Martingrove Rd.,” explains CEO and Earl’s son Mike O’Neil. “And he just built it from there — no real magic to it just a lot of hard work.
From that “little place,” O’Neil Electric has grown to provide full service, fast turnaround pick-up counters, order desks, warehouses and sales offices at two branches in Woodbridge and Scarborough, ON. From these locations, the company’s own fleet of trucks provides same or next day delivery service across Southern Ontario. Annually, this amounts to travelling 875,000 kilometres to make 40,000 deliveries of 150,000 packages.
Turning a setback into an opportunity
“It was a bit of a vindictive move at the beginning that just worked out,” O’Neil says. Broken promises are tough to take, especially if you’ve planned your future on it, perhaps especially more so if you have a young family and a brand new house as the elder O’Neil did at the time.
But it was that broken promise that set the tone and future philosophy of O’Neil Electric. Talk to anyone at O’Neil and they will all, at one point or another, tell you about relationships, about family, the importance of people, support, honesty, and how this transfers to providing good customer service.
Counter Sales Manager Michael Grant has been with the company for 15 years. He started in the back sweeping floors before a driver called in sick and he was handed the keys. “I went out, I did the runs,” he says. Grant put in seven months of driving before moving to receiving then over to the counter. Asked why he has stayed with O’Neil for so long, his eyes soften: “They’ve helped me out a lot.”
Happy employees = happy customers and vendors
“We here at O’Neil try to keep our employees happy,” says Executive Vice President Tony Talarico. He’s been with O’Neil since the mid ’70s and has had a big hand in shaping it what it is today. “The work ethic is ‘enjoy your work, you’ll be rewarded and have fun while you are doing it. We try to make every day fun, and I try to keep everybody laughing and productive. Sometimes people think it’s a free for all, but we’re a very serious company. It’s just that I don’t want somebody leaving work and saying, ‘I don’t want to come back.’ That’s not a philosophy that Earl inspired. Earl was a very, very loyal family person and very, very loyal to his employees.”
So too is Mike O’Neil, a characteristic that Buchholz says “really hit home for me. He instills it with his kids at home and he instills in this business. You hear a lot about ‘Well, I feel part of the family,’ but he treats the people here like family.”
“We want to support our people,” explains President Stephen Kleynhans. That support not only extends from the personal (“Relatives get sick, and they need extra time”) but to the professional aspect of the job. “We’re really hands-off, more entrepreneurial — let the people take it where it needs to go and help our staff not worry about themselves. They need to worry about the customer.”
As O’Neil explains it, the idea has always been to give the employees a lot of autonomy. “We trust them to go out there and do what needs to be done. Do you always do the right thing? No. As long as you are smart about, for the most part you get it done.”
But it’s not all touchy-feely relationship stuff. This is a business, after all. “When I came in I re-shaped the compensation model, and it’s more variable now based on individuals producing and the company producing, hitting targets every month and every year. In the end if we’re successful, they are compensated generously in comparison to working elsewhere. There’s been great buy-in to that and frankly, if someone doesn’t buy in to that, they don’t work here. You have to be all in it or all out of it.”
Employee oversight is more “blue sky, like a casino,” says O’Neil. Sometimes discipline is needed, but “95% of the time it’s working and that’s been key to our growth. That’s why we’re a lower-cost executor, we do more for employee than anybody.”
Ten years ago Mike O’Neil took majority ownership of the company and set about a plan to grow it. “He wanted to have some substantial growth and came to me and said ‘you’re up,’” Buchholz explains. The management team got together and developed a plan, one that — surprise — involved people. “We took the outside sales force from four up to 15 and were able to really take advantage of an opportunity in the GTA where a lot of other companies were getting away from being in the face of customers. We went back to the old school way of doing things where people still wanted to see the face of a sales rep on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.”
Get sales on the street and work the relationships. “It’s a pretty simple business,” says O’Neil. “You buy it at the best price you can, sell it as high as you can and make the customer happy. That’s the formula my father started with and that’s the formula we continue to project both to our employees and customers today.”
The formula is working, too. “We’ve been labelled as the residential guys, but we operate in all segments of the electrical distribution business,” O’Neil says. One of their strongest segments is in project management and construction services. Scroll through the projects photo gallery on their website and you’ll recognize some of the GTA’s best designed and most notable structures. From the Thompson Hotel and the stunning Absolute Towers to Mapleview Mall in Burlington and Woodstock Hospital, their portfolio has breadth and weight.
Now, the company is actively taking on industry-wide challenges, like technology and attracting new talent, which kind of go hand-in-hand for O’Neil. “The next generation of contractors is going to be buying online because that’s what they know. So you better have those tools to put in front of them. Otherwise ,they won’t be dealing with you or working for you. We’re pedalling hard to build and install that platform so we can be the company in our industry to attract those candidates and make them not only comfortable here but feeling that they can really get ahead in life by working here.”
It’s a never-ending battle, running a successful distribution business for 50 years. There are challenges, both internally and externally, recessions, increased competition and the list goes on. But perhaps Director of Operations Stevan Melmed sums up the O’Neil approach best.
“The challenges aren’t specific to O’Neil Electric,” he says. “They are across the industry. It’s how we deal with them and what approach we take to it. Every player in the industry, somewhere at some point along the way makes an error in, say, delivery. You can’t shy away from it, you can’t say you’re never going to make any errors. Small errors creep in because there are humans involved in this entire process — but that there are humans involved in this whole process is actually one of our strengths.”