Written by Janet Davies
Wes and Jess Manlow were both born and raised in Prince Edward County. They never really left, and now they count their blessings (and work long hours) as small business owners as The County thrives. Wes is a certified electrician and owner of Manlow Electric in Bloomfield. Licensed for eight years, he struck out to become his own boss five years ago, the year he became a master electrician. Wes now has three employees, two fully licensed and one second-year apprentice plus the person he says is maybe his most valuable asset. He and Jessica told us their story.
“We’re partners. It’s not a formal partnership, but Jess is my total support,” he says. “I couldn’t do it without her. She’s the behind the scenes coordinator, pays all the bills and pays the guys.” She agrees. “Yep, I keep the business running,” she laughs.
“I’ve been in the business almost 15 years, including my apprenticeship and time spent working with Dan Claxton. It’s a good company, I learned a lot and he was a great guy to work with. Why did I go out on my own? Purely to challenge myself. I’d learned my trade and I wanted to do more. I never like to give in or get too comfortable. I guess I like to always strive to do a bit more. Five years ago the County was growing, for sure, but we were still going into the unknown. Will I be secure? Can I make a go of it on my own? Where am I going with this? I just jumped in with both feet and hoped I’d find enough work to support us. Looking back now, it definitely grew faster than I expected until I had three employees.
My aim was to give best value. Give you the best product you can install in your house or business. I wasn’t doing anything very different, but I did want to put my signature on my work. It was MY install, MY creativity, with MY brand.” Jess joins in at this point. “Customer service is what you’re known for. Even just returning phone calls. People really appreciate that, whether it’s yes or no to what they’re asking, at least they know what’s happening. We get positive feedback on that. People tell me they like the fact they can talk to us right away, directly to Wes.” Wes takes it up again with a laugh, “That’s where we get our slogan from ‘Your Reliable Connection.’ Like the little play on words there? Jess thought that up.
“The little things that count.”
People like the call back, having the costs set out and what the work will involve. It’s the little things that count. Tidying up after doing the work, being friendly and accommodating. A lot of people don’t understand what the work itself entails but they do see the customer service, the consideration and the sense that we are reliable. In a perfect world everything goes the way we predict, but things go differently from job to job. You can’t see inside the walls. So sometimes it takes longer than we estimated. As long as you keep your customers in the loop, tell them what’s happening and how it’s going, they don’t get frustrated.
Our work is 90% residential, some small commercial jobs, but mostly new homes, renovations and insurance work. In real estate, when properties are transferred, they want ungrounded wiring removed, knob and tube removed, fuse panels upgraded to breaker panels. And with the real estate market going crazy in The County there’s a lot of work. We work with four or five reputable contractors on new homes, ranging from cottages to great big houses. There are a lot of big old places changing hands and people want to preserve the character of them but still upgrade and modernize them. New people are bringing new ideas. Go back five or ten years and you see a big difference in the way new houses are being designed and old houses being renovated. Lighting plays a big part. Although we don’t focus on renewable energy installations we see increased demand for generators, standby and backup power. That ice storm three years ago made people take a hard look at all that. It’s an investment in peace of mind, perhaps more so with people who aren’t always at home.”
Wes and Jessica were born and raised in The County and are grateful to be able to stay where they grew up. They think it has probably helped business, too, and it’s great to have the support system of local friends and family. “In small town living word of mouth counts for a lot,” says Wes with a grin. “And it goes both ways, good news and bad news both travel fast.
I went straight from high school into full-time apprenticeship here in The County, and I commuted one day a week to St Lawrence College in Kingston. Jess studied at St Lawrence too, so we never did have to leave. Jess studied veterinary science and found work in a County animal hospital. We met at high school. Yes we did! High school sweethearts. We got married in 2008. Did we ever think of leaving? No. We have no desire to. Our daughter Ava is seven and this is our home, this is our life. There is great quality of life here, with room for children, a great pace of life. The only downside is we don’t have high speed Internet where we live yet!
When we look ahead, we know running a business involves a lot of people management. We have three employees and I guess we’re in management now, but I really like being on the tools, I like doing the physical work myself. I also like meeting and greeting and being out there doing business with people. I could never walk away from the hands on part of it and just do the management side. Jess and I talk about that a lot. We could expand if we want to. There’s a whole lot of work, and everybody is busy. Timelines are stretching out as work pours in. But we want our business to be sustainable. Tomorrow could be different. I won’t take more people on if I can’t keep them busy.
We don’t advertise but the phone is ringing every day with jobs. It’s word of mouth, and we’re also involved in the community. We sponsor the high school’s basketball teams at PECI, the Quinte Dolphins, too, and we do local golf tournaments. We sponsor Dan Ferguson who races his Sportsman Modified dirt car locally as well as in the US. So we get our name out there. Besides it’s a good way to give back to the community who supports us. I like being known that way, not just touting for business.
FINDING QUALIFIED PEOPLE
We’ve been very lucky with our employees. Our one licensed guy was our first hire. I trained him myself, brought him from start to finish. That’s the nice thing about the trades, you can train your people to your own requirements and standards, sort of mould them to the style of your company. But, you know, the nature of the trade is that employees can decide to go off on their own once you’ve trained them. We try to be exceptional employers so they will want to stay, but if it happens, that really is just the nature of it. If they want to go there will be no stopping them.”
Jess interrupts at this point, “Like there was no stopping you, Wes,” she says with a laugh. He carries on, “I know large companies might make employees sign a non-compete agreement, because there is an expense in hiring and training people, it’s time and effort. But we like to think positive. It’s like competition from part-timers or non-licensed guys who work out of the back of a truck. That happens, but there are big repercussions, especially in electrical if they get caught. It doesn’t happen much in this trade, not like, say, carpentry. In electrical, everybody is licensed, whether it’s journeyman certified or apprentice, and there’s the Electrical Safety Authority to enforce laws, code. If work is found being completed without proper permits or licensing there are fines, even jail time depending on hazards that are left behind. It can be quite severe, and there’s even more to lose for people doing tailgate work without proper certificates.
RULES & REGULATIONS
In residential work, the only people that can complete work legally are the homeowner or a contractor who is master licensed or working under a master license. It does sound strange that a homeowner can do their own electrical work, but they still need a permit and their work has to be inspected and approved. As part of the ACP Approved Contractor Program we can speed up our processes. We have already proved ourselves to the electrical safety people that we can complete work without defect. Once on the program we can just call in for, say, a rough-in before they can insulate or vapour. The inspector may or may not show up to pass that stage of the work. But we have had to prove ourselves to maintain that. Now if you make a fault – you lose that privilege. If they inspect and you fall short you lose that status. Sometimes it will be a warning but they are pretty strict. It is a dangerous thing to fall short.
OPPORTUNITIES IN THE COUNTY
Is there opportunity for skilled trades people to move The County? There’s enough work, yes, but getting hired is a bit of a Catch-22. Electrical companies have ratios, strict limits on how many apprentices one employer can have. With the ticketing or licensing end, here in The County, you have to find a company with the required number of licensed journeymen to accommodate more apprentices. If you already have a license and are moving here it will be easier to get hired. Obviously there is more work and higher pay in the city, so a skilled licensed tradesperson would need other reasons to move to The County. And there are lots of good reasons! There is definitely a need for more skilled trades, a lot of businesses don’t expand because they can’t find the help they need.
The construction industry is ramping up again, and, if it continues to grow, the number of construction contractors versus sub-trades could be an issue. Manlow Electric can only be in so many places. If there are 20 contractors building houses or doing big renovations, and we have a limited number of electricians and plumbers and HVAC people available, we can’t cover it all. It could be a lag factor. Many good, solid contractors and tradespeople are booked months ahead. If the real estate market continues to go crazy, people are forced to go outside The County, Belleville contractors and tradespeople are spending a lot of time here these days. And some people just bring everybody in from Toronto. Who could have anticipated this? It’s quite the time here in The County.
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.