Marketing grad positioning family business for growth
When Sean Rayner took over VETS Group in 2004, he knew little about the family’s sheet metal business. Yet, in just over a decade, he’s expanded the company to include commercial and industrial clients and has increased revenue by 1,700% – and he says they aren’t stopping there.
Much of what Rayner (Marketing ’01) did know back then was rooted in his childhood experiences riding with his father in a shop truck or driving out to a job site.
Rayner’s great-grandfather Fred started VETS after serving in World War 1, building and installing furnaces in homes across Edmonton. Over the years, his grandfather and, later, his father bought and ran the company.
Naturally, the VETS shop with the large equipment, materials and tools used to cut and weld sheet metal was a big part of Rayner’s childhood. So much so, he grew to idolize his father’s work, his young imagination likening it to that of a superhero.
“To me, VETS was the crystal palace and my dad was Superman. It was my intention from a very young age to come work in the shop,” he says.
That all happened sooner than planned when his father became ill, and Rayner and his sister Erin (Marketing ’02) stepped in to help run the company. At just 22, he left a position in Toronto’s telecommunications industry to take the reins.
Although not entirely experienced in sheet metal, Rayner knows 2 things well: how to work with people and how to map out a vision with a big picture plan.
“We have a big, hairy, audacious goal, but it’s doable,” he says. “When I first came back to VETS, we blew our goals right out of the water. Following that, we did it again and again.”
Integral to achieving those goals, Rayner says, was seizing the right opportunities to expand the company.
They quickly gained traction in the commercial and industrial market and then branched out into complementary industries in mechanical and electrical. VETS was increasingly able to take on larger contacts—from industrial projects in Kearl Lake to commercial construction projects like the Edmonton Remand Centre.
During what is arguably one of the largest downturns in Alberta’s history, Rayner expanded the company into British Columbia. It was a risky but calculated move at a time when Rayner says so many other companies were “boarding up the doors to weather out the storm.”
“It was the summer of 2015, and just before that, we were starting to feel the nose dive,” he says candidly. “We could have said forget it, but we made the deliberate choice to continue negotiating the deal for the company we were looking at.”
With every decision, Rayner draws on the people around him: long-time employees and business associates. As VETS approaches its centennial, he sees opportunities to triple the company’s revenues over the next 5 years and potentially move towards an employee-owned business model.
“It’s been humbling to lead the business my family built. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he says. “It’s important to go with your gut, and be good to people and listen. Ultimately, my success has been because of the people around me.”
With the growth of the company, Rayner believes that being able to give back to the community is one of the biggest pay-offs.
In 2016, VETS celebrated their 95th anniversary, by fundraising to support local organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, Little Warriors and Valour Place. Thanks to in-kind donations and their fundraising efforts, VETS was able to increase their support to more than $180,000.
Being able to support organizations like Valour Place, a temporary home for veterans, military, RCMP and first responders, is particularly important to many people who work at VETS. After all, the company was named in honour of the many veterans employed since its inception. Rayner says he is proud that the company was able to continue their support.
Rayner has also kept his ties to NAIT. Since 2014, he has volunteered for Essential: The NAIT Campaign—the largest fundraising campaign in the polytechnic’s history. As an alumnus, he is proud to support the campaign, both as a donor and cabinet member. “It feels really good to reconnect with NAIT and be part of its vision,” Rayner says.