A lot of things can happen in fifty years. In fact, it’s hard to overstate just how much has changed across many industries over the last half a century, and the construction industry is no exception. The standards, practices, regulations, and even the materials involved in putting up a building have all evolved dramatically during this time, and businesses have had to adapt to survive.
Very few construction companies can boast as much adaptability and longevity in the industry as Western Pacific Enterprises, one of Western Canada’s largest electrical contractors, and a true stalwart of the Canadian construction industry. WPE celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023 – an impressive achievement and a testament to the strong values and work ethic that have seen the company through to this remarkable milestone.
To mark the occasion, WPE has recently completed a coffee table book celebrating the rich history of the company. Miriam Gregory, Manager of Marketing and Proposals, who’s been involved in the production of this weighty tome, tells the story of the company’s history with no small amount of pride, beginning with its humble origins as the bold venture of friends and founders Dieter Fettback and Ernie Moore in 1973: “They were both working for a company that was doing electrical contracting, and were both thinking of leaving. So, they’re in Ernie’s kitchen one night, and over a bottle of Canadian Club they decided to start their own business, remortgaging their homes to get seed financing.”
This bold self-belief and entrepreneurial spirit was to characterize the development of the fledgling company and continues to stand it in good stead to this day. The story continues with an early bid to do cable work on the Vancouver SkyTrain, as Dave Fettback (Dieter’s son) relates in the book: “All the bidders were in a room. The bids were announced out loud. Our bid was $1 million lower than the next lowest bid. I rode the elevator down with all the other bidders, staring at my shoes, wondering what we had missed. But in the end, our estimate was right.” WPE has gone on to work on every SkyTrain project since its inception – a cornerstone of the company’s early and continued success.
“WPE has gone on to work on every SkyTrain project since its inception – a cornerstone of the company’s early and continued success.”
Continuing to be successful in a rapidly growing and changing market has required a lot of strong business acumen over the last fifty years, as well as a careful balance between expanding the company and maintaining the core principles that have been the driving force behind WPE since its inception. Of these, family values are very much at the forefront. As Miriam points out: “Dieter and Ernie passed the business on to their sons. Dieter had four sons, who all became electricians and came to work for the company, while Ernie’s son took on office management. As time went on, there were transitions. People came and went, but for the most part, it remained a family business until 2016.”
The idea of WPE as a family business extends beyond the founder families. As Miriam puts it: “It started as a family business, and we still have that element and we try to keep that family feel. We work hard on our social events. Every one of our offices does our ‘stretch and flex’ each morning. At 10 o’clock , we all get up and spend five minutes doing stretches, just like the crews do on site. That helps to bring us all together.”
The decision to sell to the business to MYR Group in 2016 was made very much with the longevity of the company in mind, but without giving away too much of the fiercely independent spirit that had driven WPE in its early years. Miriam explains: “It was part of a succession plan because they knew that they weren’t all going to be around forever. And they needed to come up with a way to organize and codify the business in a way. It allowed WPE to have its own identity and its own business, but with the financial stability, resources, and systems of a much larger corporation, allowing them to expand even further.”
Having access to the resources of this multi-million-dollar company has allowed WPE to expand and progress to even greater heights over the last few years. Miriam notes: “Our backlog right now is such that we have work for the next three to four years and we’re still adding work to that. We’re always looking for the next opportunity.” Current and upcoming projects include two large industrial hospitals at Williams Lake and Dawson Creek, the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, as well as The Post and Oakridge Park, a redeveloped business and cultural hub respectively, that promise to be flagship projects for WPE.
Miriam speaks with particular excitement about The Post as a building that really stands out for WPE, and for Vancouver as a whole: “The Post is one of the coolest buildings. We were awarded the electrical work for the base building of the redevelopment of the original Canada Post building in downtown Vancouver, a project that ran for four years. Then we were awarded work on each of the two towers, continuing our work stemming from the base building. Now it seems every time we turn around, we’re bidding on another fit out for one part of the project or another. So, our hands are all over that building, and it’s going to be stunning by the time it opens.”
Despite the lengthy list of projects that WPE currently has on its books, Miriam emphasizes that attention to detail and the upholding of essential standards still remain paramount: “Safety is huge. We do an audit every three years to assess our safety protocols. We also have what’s called a Safety Observation Report, which is a report that workers can complete when they see a safety issue or violation. It’s allows them to do something about it, they report it, and each month the best one gets a prize. It helps to encourage our culture of safety and increase awareness of its importance.”
Commitment to community is also high on WPE’s priority list. A current project that epitomizes this community spirit for WPE is Honour Ranch, a facility for ex-military personnel and first responders suffering from PTSD. Miriam speaks about this project with respect for its mission: “It’s a retreat for them to get the help they need to recover. We have volunteered our services with personnel, product, and finances to help them get on the BC Hydro grid so that they’re not running on generators. This is all volunteer time on our staff’s part; they’re taking time away from their families to work on a remote site, but it’s a labour of love in a beautiful part of B.C.”
With strong foundations and far-reaching aspirations, WPE stands as an example of what a company with a long-term vision and no small amount of tenacity can achieve over half a century in the construction industry. And the story continues. Dave Manson, Head of Business Development, adds a final thought: “Our goal is to try and grow within and become that company that everybody wants to gravitate towards, and get these big, exciting projects that provide a lot of development from a personal and professional growth perspective.” Fifty years later, there’s little doubt that the spirit of the original founders remains very much alive.