Written by James Ro, President of Envoy Energy and ComTech Energy
As many people know, I graduated with a business degree at Wlifrid Laurier University and spent most of my career in investment banking advising privately-owned companies on mergers & acquisitions and raising (debt and equity) capital. In 2014 (by complete coincidence), I came across a small company based in Milton called, Compression Technology Corporation (now ComTech Energy) that designed, built and maintained compressed natural gas (CNG) fuelling stations for zambonis and forklifts in Ontario. For some reason, I had a burning desire to become an entrepreneur and acquire ComTech – at this point, I never heard of CNG or knew what it even stood for.
I tried to do as much due diligence and industry research as possible, just to get a sense of the potential opportunity. It was intriguing to me when I learned that CNG vehicles are common around the world and the U.S. had been transitioning towards CNG over the last ten years but focused on heavy-duty vehicles (refuse, transit and transportation). When I saw the coast-to-coast natural gas fuelling infrastructure, I looked for a similar fuelling station map in Canada but could not find one. My investment thesis was that Canada should follow a similar CNG adoption trend and was just a matter of who, when and how.
I managed to find an investor and a bank to provide me with the necessary financing to acquire the company, which gave me my first chance at being an entrepreneur. Of course, both the bank and investor required me to put some “skin in the game” as my equity contribution. It was at a level where I had to re-mortgage my house, tap into all my family investments/savings and provide a personal guarantee – in other words, my family’s financial assets were all at risk. With a wife and three young children, failure was not an option. I honestly don’t think my wife really understood how much financial risk our family was assuming but she supported me because she saw how badly I wanted to go ahead with the acquisition because in my mind, I felt that this was my only chance at being an entrepreneur. Within six months, I built my financial model, performed industry research, wrote my business plan, raised the necessary financing and acquired ComTech in March 2015.
I will never forget the day after the transaction closed when I met my four employees at the office for the first time. As I was introducing myself as the new owner of the company, I could only imagine what they were thinking as I told them that this was my first time owning a business, I’m not a gas fitter technician or an engineer, I was from Bay Street and I don’t understand what they did. It was an extremely steep learning curve for me from day one and if that wasn’t scary enough, after my first three months on the job, we had an opportunity to be the General Contractor for one of the largest CNG infrastructure developers in the North America (U.S. Gain). They asked me if I wanted to build their first public CNG station in Canada, which happened to be (and still is today), the largest public/private CNG station in the country. Of course I said “yes” but then thought to myself, how can I expect my employees to go from installing small CNG fuelling stations for hockey arenas to the largest CNG station in Canada, capable of filing up 120 refuse trucks and a 300-truck carrier fleet? This project could have single handedly bankrupted my company in the first six months. I knew the only way to have a successful project was to have the right people, in the right place, doing the right things. We started the project in July 2015 and finished in December 2015 – on time and on budget. It was at that moment when I realized what it took to be an entrepreneur – you never over analyze things (because you won’t make decisions) and always go with your gut. It is surprising what you are capable of when everything is on the line and failure is not an option.
If I was too afraid of taking calculated risks and declined the U.S. Gain project in Mississauga, we would not have had the opportunity to build the two CNG (Enbridge) stations for the City of Toronto and the next U.S. Gain station in Quebec (our first out-of-province project) in 2016, or Manitoba Hydro’s CNG station in Winnipeg and Truk-King Logistics (first carrier fleet in Ontario to adopt CNG) station in Fort Erie (ON) in 2017, or Waste Management’s (largest CNG fleet in North America) station in Stoney Creek (ON) and Calgary Transit’s CNG station to fill up over 400 transit buses (one of the largest private stations in North America) in 2018.
The last few years have been the most challenging, stressful and satisfying years in my life. I did not plan or anticipate growing from 4 to 35 employees and executing projects across Canada. Growth is good but if you don’t manage it properly, it will destroy your business. What I have come to realize is that the ingredients to a successful growth strategy is pretty straightforward (but difficult to implement) – having a sound business plan, capital for growth and the right mix of people. However, the only way to execute properly is establishing a solid foundation by creating the right company culture and work environment (can’t build a house on sticks).
I have been humbled by our journey since early 2015 and we could not have accomplished what we have done to date without dedicated employees, trusted partnerships, doing the right things for our customers and having true grit and determination. Having said all this, I fully understand that, in business, there is never room for complacency and competition is fierce. As such, we will continue to set the standard in Canada, strengthen our partnerships and focus on our customers. We will always to be innovative in our thinking and provide value-add solutions, not just “service” – which is why we recently hired full-time engineers and electricians to take our knowledge base and skill-set to the next level.
We have recently launched our new website (www.comtechenergy.ca) to start telling our story. We have also rebranded our company to ComTech Energy because we want to play a leading role in helping Canada transition to alternative energy – starting with CNG but eventually branching out into renewable natural gas (RNG) and electrification (solar power and battery storage).
I am excited to see the next chapter in our growth story but what gives me confidence in the future is our employees. Our culture is such that each individual comes into work every day because they want to, not to just collect a pay cheque – I believe that everyone has bought into ComTech’s vision and wants to be part of this exciting journey as we help companies lower their energy costs and play a leading role in helping Canada transition to a lower carbon economy.