Established in 1921 by WWI Veteran Fred Rayner, the VETS group has been a quiet yet powerful force in Edmonton for 100 years. It started as Vet’s Sheet Metal Ltd. and grew to be a family business that includes VETS Sheet Metal and VETS Facility Services. The Group provides a full suite of HVAC services from full system design, through fabrication, construction, installation and service.
For those who go to war to protect their country, does the war ever really end? The experience Fred endured on the front lines led him to name his company “VETS,” and the philanthropy extended to veterans by the brand continues to this day. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s turn back the clock and meet young Fred.
Fred immigrated to Canada from England. When WWI broke out, he was working west of Edmonton, but joined the war effort.
“He was injured in the war,” explains Erin Rayner, Marketing & Business Development Manager. “When he was in the hospital healing, he fell in love with his nurse, Fanny Sudlow. He convinced Fanny to come back to Edmonton with him after the war.”
He opened Vet’s Sheet Metal in 1921. The name honoured the veterans he fought alongside and would later employ. Fred proved to be a resourceful innovator and a very hard worker. It wasn’t uncommon to see Fred cycling to residential sites with sheet metal under his arm. Over time he developed and patented the Vet’s Sheet Metal Supreme, a fan-less gas furnace. Many homes in Edmonton still have this model. Fanny played a pivotal role too, encouraging and inspiring Fred, passing on timely information (which once cheekily came from eavesdropping on the party line!) to help move his innovations forward.
The company became a legacy.
“The VETS Group has always been a family business,” says Sean Rayner, President and CEO. “My grandfather, who was the oldest of Fred and Fanny’s boys, took over the business and his younger brother worked in the business for his entire career. Our grandfather, Al, later became the owner, President and sole shareholder. Our father, David, then took over the business in 1977 and ran it through 2005. That is when Erin and I joined as the fourth generation in the family enterprise.”
The latest succession, however, was not going according to the plan. Sean was just 24; the decision was made for them when David was diagnosed with cancer. His prognosis was grim so the succession was pushed forward quickly. In true Rayner tenacity, however, David beat the disease and is still with the family today. Erin, left to set up her own event planning and marketing company, and later returned to handle The VETS Group’s communication and branding. As always, the bumps in the road didn’t slow this family – or the business – down.
That is, until 2008.
Sean shakes his head. “We had just doubled our space, purchased a ton of new equipment, and created the business that had been the vision in our heads when we took over from dad. Then along came the recession of 2008 and all the work dried up.
“Within five months of moving we were facing a very uncertain future. Thankfully and fortunately, in May 2009 (on the eve of the customer open house in our new facility) we landed the first portion of the single largest contract in our history.”
That contract was for the new Edmonton Remand Center.
“It was a pivotal point in our recent history,” says Sean.
From there it was ebb and flow but in a way that the team could always adapt. A firm foundation set by the previous owners along with the technology and forward-thinking of the generation of employees and ownership has kept The VETS Group moving through economic ups and downs and now, the pandemic. Steady growth allowed the company to now serve all kinds of industry including forestry, agriculture, energy, wastewater, and mining. The acquisition of a facility services division broke them into HVAC service in Edmonton and Northern Alberta.
For Sean and Erin, the success always goes back to the core values on which Fred built the company.
“The acronym HONOUR harkens back to our military history. Our key customers appreciate and identify with those values in a way of their own. When we come into an environment with a customer that has had a challenge with a different vendor, etc. and we succeed with them it is because we like to do business the same way.”
HONOUR stands for:
• Human leadership
• Ownership mentality
• Nurturing environment
• Open communication
• United team
• Renowned craftsmanship
On top of this is a laser focus on a culture of safety.
“We have been COR certified in Alberta for over three decades,” confirms Sean. “The fellow responsible for starting our safety program is still with us today, having been here for over 40 years. We are consistently one of the top five per cent of employers when it comes to safety in the province.”
For Sean and Erin, what they appreciate the most about The VETS Group is the team.
“Without their commitment there wouldn’t be a VETS Group,” says Erin.
“The commitment and support of the people in the organization is the most rewarding thing for me,” adds Sean. “We have come through a really difficult time economically and corporately, dealing with some challenges in divisions, the Alberta economy and now the pandemic. We are coming out of it now stronger solely due to the support shown to myself and the organization by the management the rest of the team. We’ve asked a lot from them and they have given it. Through the pandemic there were reduced hours. The two years previous to that everyone did more with less because we asked them to and they did what we needed to grow and change.”
To thank the team and celebrate their achievements, Sean implemented an employee shareholder plan. The first offer was extended to 36 people; 15 accepted.
“I felt that this was just the thing to give our employees that hold the company together and who make it a great place to work, to have them benefit from it long-term. It’s not just our family legacy. Many of our team members have had multiple generations working here too. I’d like that to carry on.”
The VETS Group doesn’t just have an incredible impact on its team and clients, it also has an impact on the community. In keeping with the commitment to veterans, The VETS Group is a strong supporter of Valor Place.
“We committed to providing the HVAC, labour, materials and installation for the construction build,” says Sean. “Since then we have raised and donated well over $200,000 through efforts, internally and externally, for Valor Place. It is near and dear to our hearts. We feel Veterans are under supported. This cause ties in really well with our values and it is a unique thing we can do to support the community.”
Erin remembers how they learned about Valor Place. “In the year The VETS Group turned 90, David saw an article in the paper about a new effort that was just beginning. In the column it mentioned that they were looking for a long ladder for a fundraising event. We have all the ladders in the world! Dad and I took a ladder to the event, which turned out to be in support of building Valor Place.”
It’s been 100 years and the family business is stronger than ever.
“We can’t thank our suppliers, vendors, family, and team enough,” conclude Sean and Erin. “We are back in growth mode. We acknowledge the lessons we learned where we grew too much too fast; it was a challenge. We have committed to growing responsibly in a way that endears us further to the great customers we serve. Growing our capacity, acquiring geographically, and finding even more ways to serve our customers is the plan going forward, along with continuing the evolution of our employee ownership program and supporting the team.”
Q&A with Sean and Erin
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about The VETS Group?
Erin: When they see the name… that we are not veterinarians!
What is a really interesting thing most people don’t know about The VETS Group?
Sean: The interconnected ways our 100 year history plays out. I recently went to get some records from our long-term accounting group. They had our financials from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Those records include many of the national brands we still work with today. Those brands were happy to support local companies from the start. Now they are part of our success and growth just as we were part of theirs.