CHESTERVILLE — As the son of Dutch immigrant parents, Frank Heerkens dreamed of putting his “foreign” name in lights above his hometown of Chesterville. The Dundas Power Line (DPL) founder achieved that milestone early in a four-decade entrepreneurial career when he acquired the village gas station on Main Street North and proudly lit a custom sign with the Heerkens moniker.
While those lights went out when he shrewdly sold the establishment to MacEwen’s (first outlet in that fuel retailer’s fleet), the professional lineman continued building DPL into a local business star that has helped deliver electrical power and illumination far and wide.
“I achieved my goals. Impossible wasn’t the word in my vocabulary,” he told an interviewer at the recent 40th anniversary celebration for the firm. “There’s no such word as ‘can’t’ in my vocabulary,” he added.
The festivities under the big tent off County Rd. 43 that afternoon also served to mark Heerkens’ recent 64th birthday and acknowledge his “semi” retirement from company operations. Already working with their dad for years, his daughter and son — Kandi (head of operations) and Jeremy (field operations manager and project manager) — have been assuming the reins while Tim McKay has recently bought into their partnership as head estimator.
DPL today employs more than 30 people across several spin-off sub-entities and corporate affiliates. Beyond the main electrical pole- and line-installation company (DPL), there are individual outfits dedicated to rock drilling, an expanding storage concern (Dundas Mini Storage off County Rd. 43), truck servicing and repair (Nationview Service Centre), as well as a company specializing in solar, wind and small-scale hydroelectric power generation projects.
Meanwhile, Heerkens himself has been tapping a totally different opportunity for the last several years — running On the Bend Sugar Shack off County Rd. 11 in partnership with his friend since Grade 2, Gary Gallinger.
“He made 635 gallons of syrup this year … while I was in Hawaii,” quipped Heerkens about Gallinger in one of the highlights of a sometimes emotional speech.
The seeds of all this sweet success were sown when a tornado tore through Chesterville in 1973. A teenaged Frank Heerkens’ — “fresh out of high school and not knowing what I wanted in life” — worked on the local recovery effort. Employed at the time installing poles and anchors for the only boss he ever had in his life — electrical line contractor Art Duff — he spent “two days straight … helping people get their life in order.”
It was an experience that left him with no doubt he wanted to be a journeyman power lineman. “I have never looked back or regretted that decision,” he said, recounting how he went on to start his own company six years later. “That was April the 30th, 1979, 40 years ago. I call it tax day. Who can forget that, especially under this Liberal government?” he deadpanned.
And from that same twister emerged a private company that has carried on a tradition of working to restore power after Mother Nature does her worst — from the 1998 Ice Storm to dozens of calamities south of the border. DPL crews have lent assistance at least 30 times in the U.S., starting with Hurricane Sandy in 2012: After 26 days, “DPL was the last Canadian crew to leave Long Island, NY,” Heerkens proudly reported, adding to applause: “Canadian linemen are the best, well-trained all-round linemen, hard-working group of men, and there’s a number of them here today, Hydro One and everybody else.”
Among the linemen acknowledged from the podium was Heerkens’ own brother, Peter, longest-serving employee at DPL since the company’s very first job installing a single power pole at a farm in Delta, Ont.
Sprinkling his address with similar shout-outs to other longtime employees, family members and associates, Heerkens remembered the great Eastern Ontario Ice Storm as a time “when grown men cried at the devastation around them, and then we went to work.” For DPL employees and the owner, that effort ran “34 days straight, 12 to 18 hours a day, and I broke two ribs, but we never missed a day.”
More recently, they clocked in 21 days dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida, where they were again among the last Canadian crews to leave the scene, he said.
A “great team” will carry DPL forward in that successful tradition, he said, highlighting the leadership trio of his daughter, son and McKay. “I always said it would take three people to replace me,” he joked to laughter and applause.
McKay turned out to be a “diamond in the rough” as a third-year lineman who, unbeknownst to Heerkens, possessed a four-year degree in business administration and accounting from Bishop’s University. The fact came out when he asked for an estimating position that opened up four years ago. “And I remember staring into his eyes saying, ‘What the hell are you trying to do being a lineman? You start Monday in the office.’”
The younger man also wound up helping the company land the firm’s biggest contract ever last year, which, as Heerkens bragged, “finished on time and ahead of schedule.”
“This is my swan song, 40 years in business, up and down like a roller coaster,” declared the grandfather of five, with tears in his eyes. “It’s been one hell of a ride. But I couldn’t do it without you. Without you, it would never happen. Everybody in this room and the thousands of others I have met over the last 40 years. I have memories that would fill volumes …
“In the words of my late father, life is nothing but a vacation, but it’s a real short one. Enjoy every day of it. And I have.”
Jeremy and Kandi Heerkens demonstrated equal measures of their father’s confidence and penchant for wearing heart on sleeve during addresses steeped with family sentiment.
Jeremy Heerkens talked about his continuing “journey” with DPL, starting when he worked summers for the company from the age 12 and his later personal reinvention after a 2007 injury threatened to end his career as a lineman. “We look ahead to setting the next set of milestones here at Dundas Power Line as we push forward to the future. See you all again in celebrating 50 years,” he declared.
“Having two entrepreneurs as parents, not just one … meant hard work, education, knowledge, and discipline was a standard they strived for themselves but instilled in myself and my siblings,” Kandi Heerkens said of her father and her mother, Judy, who also worked 23 years in the operation.
Of her father, she noted: “It amazes me how he can see years into the future … what he wants, and come hell or high water, he will make sure that he gets that,” adding with a smile, “Now how he gets there sometimes can be a little questionable.”
“Working alongside my brother,” she added, “has been one of the major highlights of my career.” Looking over at Jeremy as her voice broke, she thanked him “for everything you’ve done, bro.”
Her 17-year tenure with DPL has “had its share of ups and downs,” she conceded, “but having been surrounded, encouraged and supported by family, staff, friends … has played a tremendous role in getting me here where I am today.” That included her parents, whom she lauded for sinking “every drop of blood, sweat and tears into this business.”
“Thank you, dad, for believing in me, seeing my potential even when I didn’t, and giving me every opportunity possible to succeed, ” she said with gratitude, also thanking her mother “for keeping me grounded and teaching me to save every penny!”
With the company for seven years, McKay recalled wondering what he had gotten himself into when he first snagged that estimating job and moved into the office. “I had a lot to learn but I had a great mentor,” he said.
“To Frank, nothing is impossible. His ability to adapt to situations and move forward is unmatched. It is that mentality that has maintained DPL for 40 years.”
The company founder was also lauded for his generosity through the years. Former North Dundas Mayor Eric Duncan reminded the audience of Heerkens’ impromptu $8,000 pledge to the Chesterville Rotary Club a couple of years ago.
“I also had an opportunity to be at that dinner that night,” said current North Dundas Mayor Tony Fraser, remembering that occasion of Heerkens largesse. “For Frank to stand there and make that commitment, supporting the Rotary Club, it gave me a better insight into how important and how dedicated a person he is to this community.”
The Chesterville Legion’s Maureen Corrick acknowledged and thanked him for “contributing greatly to our legion over the years, which nobody knows about.” That included, Corrick said, a $10,000 sound system installed about eight years ago and free donations of labour for improvements at Veterans’ Memorial Park, location of Chesterville’s cenotaph.
Steve and Sharon Erdeyli of Chesterville also had good things to say about Heerkens for hiring their son after he graduated from the lineman program at Conestoga College. “Frank was good enough to offer him a job,” said Steve Erdeyli. “He’s moulding him. It’s a good group of people and a good company.”
Heerkens and DPL generosity were on full display that afternoon as well. Proceeds of a DPL-organized 50/50 were turned over to the Children’s Aid Society Kids’ Camp; the full $1,830 collected went to the charitable cause after the draw winner, Sharon Erdeyli, turned back her half to the cause. First- and second-place door prizes for attendees were respective $2,000 and $1,000 travel vouchers.
Also looming over the celebration was a reminder of the company’s past 25th anniversary — a 1,000-square-foot mural that has graced DPL headquarters for the last 15 years. Created by Pierre Hardy, A Lineman’s Journey depicts the line worker trade as carried out in 1920 and in the current day, along with the familiar faces of Heerkens, his employees and family members. Also large in the image is Heerkens’ late father, Cory, imagining him as a lineman, though in real life he was a farmer who would help out in the DPL yard after his retirement.
A popular draw for tourists and mural aficionados over the years, it proved the perfect backdrop for group photos taken to mark the company’s 40th.
Below, the full proceedings of the afternoon.
Below, a gallery of additional photos from the day.