In­no­va­tion opens up a world of op­por­tu­nity

National Post (Latest Edition) - - BUSINESS SOLUTIONS - By Kathryn Boothby

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.

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