UCC Industries International
Your partners in building excellence
Business View Magazine interviews Brent Hughes, President of UCC Industries International, as part of our focus on the Canadian construction sector.
Headquartered in Pickering, Ontario, Canada, UCC Industries International, Inc. (UCCI), is an authorized distributor of quality construction products from a myriad of other companies, as well as having expanded into its own product lines. These include an array of construction products spanning the fields of metal framing, traffic signage products, steel clamping, anchoring and concrete construction items, mechanical supports, trench drainage, and instrumentation tubing control, among other building and construction supplies.
Recently, Business View Magazine spoke with Brent Hughes, President of UCC Industries International, Inc. about the origins of the company, its growth, and its prospects. “My former partner bought a small existing company called Unistrut Central Canada in May 1995,” Hughes begins. “I joined him in June as the first hired employee who didn’t come with purchase of the business, in order to get the company started and move it to its present location on Sandy Beach Road in Pickering. When Alan May bought the business, we dropped the word ‘Canada,’ so the name became simply Unistrut Central. When we first started the company, all we sold was Unistrut Metal Framing, that being electrical and mechanical support products used by contractors and OEMs for different types of supports and frame building. Soon after, we expanded the business into different product lines, and operated as Unistrut Central for the first eleven and a half years of business.”
“In early 1997, Alan had a heart attack and didn’t come in to work for quite some time,” Hughes continues. “When he came back in May, he offered to open up 10 percent of the business by the end of the year for those of us who wanted to buy in. Three of us showed interest, including myself, who at the time was only 24 years old. Alan replied that by autumn, he would investigate how to open up 10 percent of the shares for the three of us interested. Unfortunately, only a few weeks later, my father passed away suddenly. He was a hard-working, blue-collar steamfitter and didn’t have a great deal of money, but he did leave me a small inheritance. In the autumn of 1997, I approached Alan and took him out for lunch. I said, ‘I don’t know how much the shares are going to cost, and I don’t know what you’re thinking, but this is how much money I have and I will give you every penny; how much can I buy?’ At only 25 years old, I handed over my entire inheritance from my father and bought 15 percent of the business. In February 1998, I became Vice President and General Manager of Unistrut Central. Soon after this occurred, Alan came down with another illness, from which he eventually recovered, but he never did come back to work, allowing me to essentially run the business from that point onwards.
“We started to grow. In 1998, we turned our first year of profit. We operated under the name Unistrut Central until late 2005. We had gained many new product lines and been quite successful up until that point, but then had a situation whereby one of our suppliers did an ‘end run’ around us and sold directly to the end user, causing us to lose a three-year contract. We realized that as a company with the name of our main supplier as our own, we were vulnerable. If Unistrut Corporation ever decided to pull their line from us, we would have a problem with our name being Unistrut Central. In addition, we were now selling so many different product lines that we were constantly hearing the statement ‘I didn’t know Unistrut did this’. We would always reply, ‘Well they don’t, but we do.’ It became clear to us that it was the right time to change our name and, on January 1st, 2007, we changed the name to UCC Industries International (UCCI), complete with own branding identity, logo, and marketing tagline: “Your Partners in Building Excellence.” By this point, we were truly an international company, purchasing from Europe and the United States, and filling in various niches in the Canadian marketplace.”
UCCI has different product line divisions for different markets, but, with one exception, they’re not separate entities as they all fall under the UCCI banner. However, in 2010, during the midst of the last recession, UCCI had an opportunity to expand into the United States with their Lindapter Steel Clamping product line, following a change in the way that Lindapter UK went to market in North America. In order to make this transition to the USA successful, Hughes and Vice President Cid Connon formed a new company known as UCC Steelwork Connections Inc (UCCSC). UCCSC opened in Tampa Florida on April 1, 2011, and in Syracuse NY on April 1, 2013.
“At present we have 17 employees at UCCI in Pickering, ON, and 5 employees with UCCSC in the USA – two in Syracuse NY, one in Philadelphia PA, one in Atlanta GA, and one in Tampa FL.” Hughes notes. “UCCI is still in the same location in Pickering, where we have just recently expanded again. We expanded once in 1998, and again in 2016, increasing the Pickering location to 18,000 sq ft. We have 3,000 sq. ft. of office and warehousing space in both the Syracuse and Tampa locations of UCCSC.”
“We do a little bit of foreign distribution, but only in Central America and the Caribbean,” Hughes explains. “We do not sell any of our items back into Europe, though many of our customers do work all over the world. We’ve completed many interesting projects with our Canadian and American customers from Iceland to Antarctica, South America to Asia and Australia, and certainly all across the United States and Canada.”
There is, of course, a lot of competition, especially in the Unistrut Metal Framing market, UCCI’s original product line. The Unistrut Metal Framing system has been around for almost 100 years. There are many different strut rolling mills around North America, so metal framing, as a product, itself, becomes quite a commodity item. Hughes adds, “We recognized early in our history the need to find a number of interesting niche products where we could fill certain needs in various areas of the marketplace, in order to stand apart from the competition.”
With some of UCCI’s product lines, the competition is more about changing the way things have been done in the past. For example, the Lindapter Steel Connection System is a clamping system for steel-to-steel that replaces the need for drilling or welding. UCCSC, therefore, needs to spend much of its time working with both the specifying engineers as well as the end users, in order to explain the benefits of changing the way things have been done in the past.
Further, Hughes remarks, “Our Traffic Division, consisting of various signposts, anchors, custom fittings and accessories, has many different competitors in the marketplace, but we have opted to stay with the highest quality suppliers of the posts and fittings, when possible, and concentrate on providing top notch service to all of our clients and customers. We carry more stock of traffic supply products than any other distribution company in Canada and are able to provide next day service to just about every customer that we have.”
In the last year, UCCI has gained exclusive distribution rights for two new product lines; one across Canada and the other across all of North America. The first product line is a support system for instrumentation and control cabling by the James C. White Co., Inc. (JCWCO), out of Greenville, South Carolina, a family-run business since 1952. They produce high-pressure tubing and low-voltage cable supports known as TubeTrack and CableRace, for nuclear and non-nuclear industries. The system isolates instrumentation and control wiring from the higher-voltage electrical runs that may be present in a plant.
“Whereas our Unistrut systems usually support high voltage cabling, electrical conduits, and water or gas piping, the JCW TubeTrack and Cable-Race isolates the more fragile low-voltage cable in systems throughout the instrumentation area, such as wiring that has to be completely isolated going from a control room to an operating center in a nuclear plant,” says Hughes. “JCW Tubetrack and CableRace are used in every nuclear plant in the United States, but up until late last year, did not have much of a presence in Canada. They approached UCCI last July and we put an agreement together. We are now supplying their products right across Canada, with customers as far away as Vancouver and Halifax. It’s still in the infancy stage but it’s growing, and we see a bright future with JCWCO, especially in the power generation and transmission business.”
The second exclusive product line is a fiberglass trench drain system known as Wolfa Trench Drains. Based in the Bavaria region of Germany, they’re the third-largest trench drain company in Europe. Even though they opened 100 years ago in 1919, they’ve never had a footprint in North America. “UCCI’s Vice President Connon first met Wolfa two years ago at the Bau Construction Fair in Germany,” Hughes recounts. “Cid saw a potential to help them grow their market in North America. In late 2018, we put together a deal with them to have distribution rights for North America. We have just received our first two container loads in Canada, and we have customers ready to begin working with us.”
The Wolfa trench drain system, unlike others, is made with 100-percent fiberglass rather than concrete. Concrete trench drains are much heavier, may be more fragile, and can be difficult to install. Wolfa not only manufacturers and assembles the product line, it owns all the means of production, right down to manufacturing the fiberglass matting and any metal products that go along with it. “It’s pretty exciting for us to partner with the Wolfa group. They are a great family business to be associated with,” says Hughes.
“The UCCSC business, along with the Lindapter distribution work that we do across the eastern USA and Canada, has grown tremendously in the last nine years since we started that business,” he continues. “We started this business from the ground up. One of the main challenges when we started in 2010, was that we were unable to secure financing to get it going. The U.S. economy was still suffering from the economic downturn of 2008-2009, and the construction industry in 2010 was well behind the pace of recovery. As such, we were forced to self-fund the start up through the retained earnings of UCCI. Although it took us a few years to finally start to turn a profit, we are quite proud of the fact that we were able to do it on our own and grow the business without relying on outside funding. It has been difficult, but in the end, very satisfying to see that we have made it into a profitable little company.
“The nuclear power renaissance here in Ontario has been, and will continue to be, an important part of the business. UCC Industries International has been a supplier to Ontario Power Generation, Bruce Power, Hydro One, and their associated contractors, for over 24 years. We’ve become an important supplier to the nuclear and non-nuclear utilities across Ontario as the go-to company for any sort of steel support products or electrical and mechanical supports in the nuclear business. Our employees, led by QA Manager Kurt Esterhuyse and Office Manager Mati Saar, work hard each and every day to provide excellent customer service and maintain the good customer relations that we have cultivated throughout the years.”
There is constant pricing and competitive pressure coming from all areas of the business, and new competitors are popping up all the time. Hughes relates, “We have changed our focus a bit in the last few years, from being more of an outside-sales-based company to becoming an inside-sales-based company. With the population growth and infrastructure pressures across North America, outside sales representatives can see fewer and fewer customers in a day, due to congestion and potentially wasted time sitting in traffic. Further, many people no longer have the time to see outside sales reps, as the pace of business in the past number of years has created time constraints within their own working environments. Finally, with the growth of the Internet and on-line marketing, LinkedIn, Facebook and different social media platforms, nearly all customers across the various spectrums of our business are more educated today than they were, say, five or ten years ago. By the time they look up a product and call in to our office, they already know much more than they used to about what it is that they’re looking for. This has led UCCI and UCCSC to change our focus on how we go to market with our customer base.
“We have invested heavily in hiring and training very good inside sales representatives, account managers, and support staff. We have a whole team of inside technical sales reps that work very hard to help in all aspects of a customer’s needs when they call in, and to keep those customers coming back. We offer same day quotations and drawings within 24 to 48 hours. It is mandated across the companies for somebody to get back to a customer within two hours of an initial inquiry. Going forward, we’ve focused our business advertising on various social media platforms such as Google Ads and LinkedIn as opposed to printed ads. In the next five years, we see this trend only increasing – more inside sales reps, more inside technical people, and more engineers to help get our various products specified.
“Although this is not a family business, we run it like it is a family business. I learned, early on, to always treat people – employees, customers, and suppliers – the same way you would want to be treated. I’ve worked very hard to make that a reality, and all our staff works hard to do so across both companies.
“UCCI and UCCSC have a very low employee turnover rate. We do our best to attract and retain good talent and try to keep employees here for a long time. In over 24 years of business, there have only ever been 61 employees on the payroll of UCCI, including the 17 presently employed here today. In Canada, everybody participates in a group retirement savings plan (RRSP), where we match employee contributions dollar-for-dollar. We have a comprehensive extended health care plan, offer generous vacation days, and sick leave. Each year, employees along with their spouses, attend a weekend Christmas party getaway, usually to a different location, fully paid for by UCCI and UCCSC.
“In addition, we treat our suppliers, bankers, and accounting partners with the same respect. We are honest, we pay our bills on time, and we are debt-free, all of which has allowed us to keep the company in very solid financial shape over the last 24 years. It is our sincere belief that that these values have helped to shape UCC Industries International and UCC Steelwork Connections into the successful companies that they are today, and we hope for many years of future success together.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: UCC Industries International
WHAT: A distributor of quality construction products
WHERE: Pickering, Ontario