Innovation opens up a world of opportunity
Why innovate? It’s a matter of survival, says James Surrette, president of Surrette Battery Company Ltd.
Surrette is Canada’s only independent battery manufacturer and a leading supplier of industrial batteries for marine, railroad and renewable energy applications around the globe.
Taking an innovative approach to business is not new to the Surrette family: It began in 1959 when the business moved from the United States to Nova Scotia after a partnership restructuring. “My father went to where his best customers were,” he says.
In 2003, James and his brother J.D. purchased the company from their father. That’s when things really got interesting.
The appreciation of the Canadian dollar at the time was extremely challenging for manufacturers who rely on a relatively weak dollar to remain competitive with the United States. The company had to find innovative solutions to counter the adverse effects of this rapid currency change.
“We spent a great deal of time, effort and money improving the efficiency of our operation,” Surrette says. “This allowed us to grow the business significantly — by a couple of hundred per cent — between 2005 and 2015. We also grew our distribution base, from primarily the U.S., to include Australia, Europe, Africa and South America.” Africa and Europe alone now make up 25% of production at the company, growing from zero in 2003.
Innovation in the markets they target has brought new applications for the company’s products. “We began exploring renewable energy before it really existed. There was no distribution channel and not many customers,” he says. “We believed in the ability of the lead-acid battery to be effective in renewable energy storage.” That foresight paid off – now 50% of production is for that market and exported globally.
Product performance is another key area for innovation. The company works with Dalhousie University’s engineering department at the Renewable Energy Storage Lab (RESL) headed by Dr. Lukas Swan. “Our hope is that current research will yield some significant advances,” says Surrette. “If we can improve the performance of the lead-acid battery in this area we can continue to improve our growth in the market.”
The advantages of the lead-acid battery are cost, durability and ease of recycling, he notes. “Over 97% of the battery is recyclable. That’s a great asset that alternative chemistries and products don’t enjoy.”
Funding comes come from a variety of sources including the company’s own research and development budget. For capital expenditures such as new buildings and equipment upgrades, Surrette says he relies on his banking partner, and support from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and Nova Scotia Business Inc. (NSBI) for repayable loans.
The company has also participated in several ACOA- and NSBI-sponsored trade missions. “These have allowed us to get our toe into markets we couldn’t break into alone.”
Where will innovation take the company next?
“We have great belief in the renewable energy space and the rail market, which continues to grow,” says Surrette. “We’re the primary supplier to Canadian National Railway (CNR) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Emission controls in the rail sector mean less idling in the yard. Reliable batteries are key to restarting the engines. We’re working with a number of operators to find ways to lower costs.”
Overseas, Surrette is looking to South Africa and the Caribbean for expansion. “Many markets, like the Dominican Republic and Haiti, have power interruptions four to seven times a day. Our renewable energy products can bring self-storage to these communities and help eliminate outages for both commercial and residential customers.”
Surrette Battery Company Ltd. lives and flourishes by the principle that
innovation is key to survival in the marketplace.