Flashback: Dundas Power Line has tapped into success for more than four decades

DPL founder Frank Heerkens (right) poses with (from left) Head Estimator Tim McKay, Field Operations Manager Jeremy Heerkens and Head of Operations Kandi Heerkens. On the wall is a painting of Frank’s late parents. Zandbergen photo, Nation Valley News

Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

CHESTERVILLE — It’s not a stretch to say that Dundas Power Line (DPL) has strung high-voltage wire in quantities measurable on a planetary scale.

“I wouldn’t doubt twice around the world, easy,” says company co-founder Frank Heerkens, quickly tallying 40-plus years’ worth of new and replacement powerline work.

A recent job in Kapuskasing saw the DPL crew install over 300 km of wire alone (53 km of six-wire line), he notes as an example of that global estimate, while sitting at a boardroom table shared with his company partners — daughter Kandi (head of operations), son Jeremy (field operations manager and project manager) and Tim McKay (head estimator).

It’s a very long run of achievement that began in Chesterville and continues to spool out of the same North Dundas community where Frank — now semi-retired — established DPL on April 30th, 1979 with just “two men, two trucks and a backhoe.”

The company has grown and evolved to do work all over Ontario — and, when it comes to storm-relief activities, the rest of North America. But the operators say North Dundas Township remains the place to be for their main base of operations.

“It’s home,” declares Jeremy, who followed in his father’s footsteps by achieving ‘lineman’ status — known today as powerline technician — in 2001.

“It’s home, and it’s a great community,” his father echoes. “It’s been a fantastic place.”

They also highlight the success their firm has had dealing with the municipality on one building project or another as various expansions were erected at the DPL yard over the years.

DPL today typically employs more than 30 people — swelling to more than 60 at one point last year. Beyond the main electrical pole- and line-installation company (DPL), there is an affiliated rock-drilling and blasting outfit serving the utility industry (Dundas Drilling), a storage and property-management concern (Dundas Mini Storage) as well as a small hydroelectric generation company (Dundas Power Generation) that’s intended to one day build a planned 135 kW water-powered plant in Griffith, Ontario.

Following the example of their serial entrepreneur father, Kandi — who joined the company in 2002 — and Jeremy each have their own corporations that operate out of the same Chesterville site. Jeremy and a partner run Nationview Service Centre, while Kandi remotely operates Trans Test Ltd., which maintains 30,000 streetlights in the Niagara Region with her own crew based in that region.

Frank bought Trans Test in the early 2000s and sold it to Kandi, and they emphasize it wasn’t given to her. “I made her slug it all the way to the end,” he says of the financial arrangements. “So she knows what it was like to borrow the money,” he says, noting that his daughter now occupies the office that he once did at DPL headquarters. “She’s grown into her role. She can write stuff I can’t even dream about writing.”

The seeds of all this 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 the son of Dutch immigrant farmers with no doubt he wanted to be a journeyman lineman.

From that same twister eventually emerged DPL, which 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, New York,” Frank recounted during the company’s 40th anniversary celebrations last year.

Working through a broker specializing in utility relief work, DPL employees clocked in 21 days dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida, in 2017, where they were again among the last Canadian crews to leave the scene. And last year, they spent a similar period of time travelling 10,000 km through 14 states and four provinces effecting repairs to power lines after Hurricane Dorian.

They could have taken part in the rebuilding effort after the recent California wildfires but already had too much work on that occasion.

DPL is just one of two private high-voltage line installation contractors left in the region, out of the seven in the field when it started. Pursuing a philosophy of “go big or go home,” Frank played a role in that industry consolidation by buying up the firm run by the family of Tim McKay, which put the third-generation lineman (then in training) into the orbit of DPL several years ago.

Tim landed a powerline technician’s job with DPL and worked outside until the founder discovered his employee possessed a four-year business administration degree from Bishop’s University. “He was a diamond in the rough,” he says of Tim, now a partner in the enterprise.

The Bainsville native, who largely paid his way through university as an online poker player, helped DPL win its biggest contract ever in 2018. That job was completed on time and ahead of schedule as well.

Meanwhile, the semi-retired founder 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 a childhood friend. “If you stop, you die,” he says. “The problem with retirement is you never have a day off.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the township’s 2020 Explore North Dundas Spring/Summer Resource Guide. The involved interview took place in February 2020.

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