From Commercial Kitchen to Laboratory Manufacturing, Wes Patterson is Up to the Challenge

Wes Patterson.

Wes Patterson.

After graduating with a bachelor of commerce from the University of Alberta, Wes Patterson wanted to build a company that he could grow and learn with. In 1991, after scouring classifieds, he saw a business called Brokel Industries, started by two sheet metal journeymen, up for sale. Their business and partnership was suffering and Patterson saw an opportunity for growth.

“[We had] six employees that were operating out of a 4,000-square-foot shop in northwest Edmonton. And then in about ’96, we felt like we were able to grow and we bought our new building. It is 23,000 square feet and Brokel is operating out of 18 thousand of those feet.”

Operating under the commercial name, Brite Steel, Patterson has been producing high-quality, stainless steel kitchen products since 1991, with Brite Steel in business ten years earlier. Their products include everything from custom-designed refrigerated tables, hot food tables, cabinets, canopies, sinks, dish tables, bar sinks, faucets to shelving.

Patterson faced several hurdles when he got started; he knew nothing about the stainless steel industry. Although both of the previous owners worked for him for a time, Patterson was left blind when one of the previous owners, who was his estimator, decided to leave. Luckily, he found someone in the company’s shop to replace him, and business continued to grow.

He also faced a lack of skilled labor. Brokel manufactures customized stainless steel products, and there was not, and still is not, a program that teaches sheet metal apprentices custom kitchen work—their traditional training is in duct work, furnaces and air conditioning. Patterson had to fight to create a sustainable business culture, because he could not pay the wages that big oil and gas companies in Fort McMurray could. He created incentives for employees to stay and go through the intensive and expensive training required to produce custom kitchens. “We have helped several people become journeymen,” he says proudly. “We really believe in educating our employees.

When Patterson recognized that Brokel could no longer grow outside of Alberta, due to shipping, labor and manufacturing costs, he decided to buy Norlab, a company that designs, manufactures and installs laboratory equipment for clients such as PCL, Lexon, and Gilead. “I’ve paid off my bank loans a couple of times on this business only to reinvest that money and that’s exactly what I did when I bought into Norlab.

Norlab has worked in close conjunction with several Edmonton-based companies and with the University of Alberta. “Right now, we are right in the middle of a project with a company called Gilead, which is a very large chemical company. It will be the biggest contract that we’ve ever done; they’re doing private cutting edge science [right] here in Edmonton.”

However, following Brokel’s expansion, Patterson faced another hurdle when the 2008 recession hit. “Even though I’ve been doing this for over twenty years I’m always worried that there is some end around the corner, so I’m diligently trying to keep track of what is happening in the world.

Patterson anticipated the recession and quickly got his employees into a government program which would allow Patterson to retain his employees, while being able to lay them off and get them on employment insurance for a short period of time.

He credits Edmonton’s community for his success and growth. After joining the Young Entrepreneurs’ Society, now the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, in 1991 he was able to network and build relationships with several Edmonton businesses.

Patterson is excited about Brokel’s future—particularly, with Norlab’s expected growth into different Canadian markets, such as Quebec. He expects to see its revenue margins grow by two or three times. “We feel like we could be building laboratories all across Canada.”