While Berts Electric is a complex organization, its founder and partners display an old-world friendliness and they enjoy discussing the values that drive their success. Founder Bert Heinrichs, whose family emigrated from the Ukraine to Abbotsford in the 1940’s says, “We get a deep satisfaction in bringing projects to a successful conclusion. Sure it’s important to be competitive and maintain a select client base, but what really keeps us going is the day-to-day challenges of providing design-build expertise, purchasing properly and maintaining a core group of employees, most of whom have grown with the company over the years and who are responsible for creating the opportunities for the next wave of apprentices and electricians.”

President Werner Friesen adds,
“Our clients, like our employees, are our biggest asset, and we work hard to take care of both.”
Berts junior by 32 years, Neal Rempel shares the same mindset. “It’s probably due to the majority of us having started out as apprentices,” he says. “We’ve been raised under the Berts ‘work hard and you’ll be rewarded’ value system and therefore act cohesively as a team.”

The two “junior” partners, Ryan Cooke and Ed deHaan couldn’t agree more. Ryan remembers apprenticing under Neal, then supervising jobsites for him and now, as partner, “being trained in the same school of thought.” He adds, “Progressing through the apprenticeship, you get a real sense of how the company operates and what’s expected of you.”

“Senior” Partner Brian Albertson says, “This has a significant practical value given the demands of the industry, because we could be working on eight budgets and closing out five or six projects while another fifteen to twenty are in full production.”

It may surprise people to learn that Heinrichs, who still thrives on getting his hands dirty and solving unforeseen problems, had no intention of becoming an electrician when his family moved to Abbotsford. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a poultry farmer. “I still love farming,” he declares. Indeed, he maintains early-rising farming hours even on weekends and enjoys working on projects around his acreage. Heinrichs took an electrician apprenticeship in 1968 after his father got out of the farming business: “I figured that I could do more than farming. I like working hard and felt I could do more; often, the harder you work the more you enjoy it.”

This comment prompts a smile from Rempel, who sets the record straight: “Bert loved being an electrician from the get-go.”

To this Heinrichs replies, “Once I got my papers and a few projects under my belt, I developed a real thirst for bigger jobs. My dream was to have a business that would constantly grow in terms of assignments, ability and staff.”

Berts Electric was established in 1975. Early work in the Fraser Valley included providing electricity to farms, small apartments and, of course, new homes. Heinrichs’ first major assignment was to outfit a bulk fuel station in Surrey. Similar light-industrial assignments followed, and by the late 1970s Berts Electric, manned by only a dozen professionals, handled multiple jobs in Tumbler Ridge and Fort St. John in addition to their work in the Fraser Valey. “In Tumbler Ridge we worked on houses, large apartments and City Hall – frequently in minus-30-degree weather,” recalls Heinrichs.

The company’s origins may seem quaint considering that today it’s relied upon to provide complete electrical services for facilities as complex as the recently-completed Quest University in Squamish. Rempel points out, however, that “a lot of practical experience was gained during the early years. As innocuous as a barn or bulk storage construction may sound, these facilities had many challenges that tested one’s skill.”

Friesen and Albertson joined the company in the early 1980s, the former coming straight out of high school. “We got busy with a lot of stuff related to Expo 86, such as a 160-unit housing project at the University of B.C. that led to other work on that campus over the next 10 years,” says Albertson.

Friesen organized numerous assignments in Whistler, including the Chateau Whistler expansion for the Scott Construction Group. “Scott and Van Maren Construction were two of several early clients who helped put us on the map, and they’re still among our most valued clients today,” he says.

Rempel has been working for Heinrichs since age 17. “I was one of the very few electricians in my high school graduating class, which shows just how poorly regarded the trades were by baby boomers,” he says. “The joke’s on them, as the construction industry has not only produced exceptional, well-paid tradesmen, it has also provided opportunities to advance to supervisory roles or management positions. Personally, my family leads a good life and I’m part of a great team that supports each other and enjoys company perks such as a golf tournament, Vancouver Canucks nights and other social gatherings.”

As Heinrichs and colleagues gained additional skills, Heinrichs kept securing increasingly demanding assignments. “People in the industry said we were crazy to take on some tasks, but what was there to be afraid of? We knew the trade, and if we encountered a problem we weren’t shy about asking for help. All young tradesmen should know this: if you ask, everyone will help you out, from municipal engineers to building inspectors.” In fact, Heinrichs’ only regret is “the odd occasion when we would turn down a project. Saying no always came back to haunt me later.” One practical advantage of his large appetite for work was that his company was always busy when others suffered seasonal downturns. “In all our years, we only had a few lean periods during the 1980s, and today the pace is constant. With our range of expertise and the way we organize assignments, we’re fairly impervious to economic cycles.”

Friesen concurs.
"Basically, we’re always open to opportunities..."
"When we were up in Whistler doing all that elaborate hotel work, for example, we also lined up a few smaller wood-frame jobs just to keep us busy.” Albertson laughs when he looks back on his early years with the company. “Back then, with our home base in Abbotsford and all the development going on in and around Vancouver, it seemed we were as far out as we could be,” he says. “Now, with all the rapid growth throughout the Fraser Valley and more to come in the future, we’ve become centrally located.”

In typical down-home fashion, Berts Electric goes out of its way to foster new talent. “We don’t have barriers,” says Rempel. “If you come to us looking for work but don’t have any experience and can get through an interview with us, we’ll supply you with a hardhat and tools, and get you started.” This support ensures a steady stream of new talent, not to mention loyalty. “People who start out as apprentices with us learn the trade and our company values from the inside out. We feel that continuous coaching and promotion allows our journeymen to be among the best in the industry today. Our site foremen are brilliant. In today’s industry they are both sophisticated managers and technical experts in an extremely challenging, constantly changing field,” says Rempel.

Heinrichs is still constantly on the go, and knows that with the wide range of partners, continued leadership is assured for years to come. “We are all motivated to do a good job continue to keep the standards high,” he says confidently.

The company also keeps up with the times. It offers online training for its employees and has developed a computerized ordering system for material. Twitter feeds keep the crews up to date on news and trends.

Its subsidiary, Cascade Communications, also allows Berts Electric to be a one-stop-shop for clients for communications (phone, Internet) and security installation, as well as electrical services.

For their part, Friesen and Albertson are eager to take advantage of whatever market trends come down the turnpike. “Today’s boom is in high-rise towers, but demographics indicate that seniors’ care facilities and social housing – many of such projects that we undertake with VanMar – will dominate the construction sector down the road,” says Albertson. “As for tackling jobs outside of Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, we’re not planning anything – but we’re not ruling anything out either. If opportunity moves, you move with it.”

Cooke and deHaan are motivated to push whichever way the market takes them. “We’re pretty versatile,” Cooke says, “and while we gear up for the next run we are eager and ready”

As if mirroring the ambition that drove Heinrichs during his early days, Rempel summarizes the future of Berts Electric in four words: “We’ll go full throttle. It’s taken a lot of effort to get where we are, but there’s nothing we can bite off that we can’t chew.”