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Surrette Battery Charges Into New Markets

Surrette Battery president James Surrette. Image: submitted.

How much do you know about innovative Atlantic Canadian entrepreneurs? This article is part of a special feature showcasing exciting initiatives occurring in Atlantic Canada’s innovation ecosystem. Here, we will introduce you to the success of innovative men and women across the region that are making an impact on the economy. This special feature is sponsored by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of diversifying export markets these days, especially with the tenuous state of negotiations over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Nova Scotia-based Surrette Battery made this shift toward other global markets nearly 15 years ago.

The Springhill battery maker has been manufacturing specialized products for the rail, marine and renewable energy sectors since 1959. The family-owned company is now the only remaining independent battery maker in Canada.

Since brothers James and John David Surrette took over ownership from their father, the company has made its customer base more global. Prior to 2004, it focused on exporting its products under labels like Rolls Battery to the U.S. But currency exchange values at the time made it necessary for Surrette to look at other places on the map.

“Africa would now be our fastest growing market,” says company president James Surrette. “It represents about 15 per cent of our total turnover. Europe is about 15 per cent to 18 per cent of the total turnover, both of which would have been zero or close to zero prior to 2004.”

Surrette Battery currently has more than 160,000 off grid systems installed globally. In the last calendar year, it shipped its renewable products to more than 36 countries.

The company takes advantage of low rates at the Port of Halifax to fulfil demand in those markets, says Surrette.

“We can ship incredibly efficiently from Nova Scotia, particularly to Africa, to Europe and South America,” he says. “It becomes challenging for us to ship to some ports further to the west. Hawaii is a particular challenge for us at the moment. But we can actually ship efficiently to Australia. The rates are surprisingly low, compared to the road transport cost to, say, California.”

The growth of the company’s reach in those markets is also linked to the expansion of the renewable energy sector. Surrette Battery started supplying the industry in the 1990s, when it was still a very small market.

That early entrance to the marketplace helped the company establish brand loyalty and gain experience. Renewables now represent nearly 60 per cent of its total sales and it continues to grow.

“This time last year I was on a distributor discovery mission to Ecuador and Peru,” says Surette. “And although we’ve never actually visited those markets directly and all these meetings were new, of the dozen meetings we had over five days in two different countries, I don’t believe we met one company that hadn’t used our product in a project. [That was the case even though] we never supplied them directly. That brand establishment has really helped us drive the business over time and it’s been extremely beneficial.”

The rise of companies like Tesla in the renewable energy storage space is beneficial for Surrette Battery because they highlight deficiencies in the industry. Tesla doesn’t pose direct competition to Surrette, which exists in the lead battery market, particularly serving customers that are connected to grids that experience a lot of disruption.

“I don’t think we directly compete with [Tesla] but it actually opens the eyes of a broader audience to look at the opportunity to store energy,” Surrette says.

Surrette also attributes its growth, in part to its partnership with ACOA since the establishment of the Springhill factory.

“ACOA’s been a strong partner all the way along, particularly with equipment financing and productivity improvement and embarking on projects that would have been challenging otherwise. And they continue to be a good partner,” Surrette says.

Surrette has a bullish outlook on his family’s business. And although he feels fortunate about the company’s “very very loyal and dedicated workforce,” he acknowledges the challenges related to hiring.

“We’ve almost more than doubled the business in the last 10 years and I think we can double it again in the next 10,” he says. “Some of the challenges will be purely – can we find enough full-time equivalence as required in rural Nova Scotia? We’re not the only one concerned about employment in rural Canada.”

The company will continue to focus “very heavily” on automation and process improvements. These efforts have led to a doubling in production over the last decade with only 30 per cent more employees.

Globally, Surrette wants the lead battery industry to challenge the dominance of lithium-based products in the renewable sector so it can take advantage of the industry’s growth.

“Our industry has over 98 per cent recycled rate with no degradation to performance in the secondary market. So I think we need to wave that banner. It’s difficult for a small independent battery maker in Nova Scotia to get any focus on that, but that’s a challenge for us.”