Jim Nowakowski was just 24 years old when he decided he’d reached his full potential with his current employer and became a businessman overnight.
“I was a farm boy, although I decided to go into the welding trade,” Nowakowski said. “After finishing pre-employment welding training, I worked in the trade for a short time before I became a supervisor. I did that for three years when I realized there wasn’t much room for growth there. So I wished my boss well and I started my own company.”
JNE Welding was born on that day in 1980. The idea was to provide a welding rig service for mechanical contractors, but he launched his one-man business just as that cycle of business was winding down due to winter conditions. “I had about a week’s work when I first started and then it slowed down.”
Being a resourceful chap, he rented a little shop and did small welding jobs there, while the welding rig business was slow.
“I did all kinds of odd jobs,” he said. “I installed trailer hitches, fixed kitchen chrome sets — whatever it took.”
Within four months, he was hiring staff members to work alongside him and at the five-year mark, he had eight employees. Slowly, he moved more towards fabrication work, instead of the mobile work on which he’d cut his entrepreneurial teeth.
“We were fabricating structural steel for buildings, and we were into everything from handrails to industrial pipe spooling for the potash and uranium mines,” he said. “As time went on, we got into more sophisticated fabrications, bigger stuff, more challenging projects. By the late ’90s, we were up to 65 or 70 people.”
As the company grew, he continued to innovate in his business practices. He became more focused on quality procedures and certifications that would separate him from his competition. It was this kind of business strategy — along with his succession plan to include two First Nations groups in the new ownership structure of JNE, that would provide a “win win” for all those involved — that won him the honour of being named one of Deloitte’s Best Managed Companies from among hundreds of entrepreneurial companies that competed in 2015.
By 2002, he decided to stop doing commercial work, such as structural steel for shopping malls, schools, strip-malls and big-box stores, altogether because the business was getting extremely competitive. Instead, he shifted his entire focus to industrial contracts, which continue to provide a challenging and rewarding future for JNE.
Today, the company has 150 employees and works mostly on custom large-scale metal fabrication projects, such as huge pressure vessels and pump boxes. His company produces some of the largest fabrications to be seen heading down the highways of Saskatchewan and Alberta. They are primarily for mining and oil sands customers, many of which are headquartered outside of Canada. So he exports his work, yet most of it never leaves Canada, because he’s working for European and American companies who either have operations in Canada, or are supplying to operations in Canada.
Because JNE Welding sells products to companies that are classified as net exporters, it could access the services of Export Development Canada (EDC). Nowakowski’s first EDC experience was when he needed a $1 million letter of credit in the form of security and EDC was able to provide a guaranty to his bank in support of that letter.
“That really helped with cash flow because those funds didn’t have to be frozen, therefore keeping our working capital open and free,” Nowakowski said. “We’ve had the opportunities we needed in Western Canada, but without EDC, we would have been limited and challenged on these deals.”