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Prairie stars do Manitoba proud

Two Manitoba entrepreneurs singled out for recognition

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Russ Edwards may not be among the best known names in Manitoba business, but he is definitely one of its stars.

The 76-year-old founder and chairman of WGI Westman was named Prairie Entrepreneur of the Year in the manufacturing category of the annual Ernst & Young award program.

He joined Charlie Spiring, the founder and CEO of Wellington West Holdings Inc., who won late last week in the professional/financial services category, as the only Manitobans recognized.

"This means a lot to me and my company," Edwards said. "But it's the people who work here who are the ones who earned it."

Edwards and WGI Westman may not be as famous as some of Manitoba industry's other stars, but he is one of only 15 members of the Manitoba Manufacturers Hall of Fame and his company is one of only eight Manitoba platinum club members of the Best Managed Companies in the country.

Edwards' privately owned industrial and agricultural products manufacturer operates out of 24 facilities across the Canadian Prairies and into the United States with brand names like Westman Steel, Behlen Industries, Canada Culvert and Meridian Manufacturing Group.

Edwards started his first business building corrugated steel culverts in Winnipeg in 1975. Winnipeg is now the headquarter of the sprawling group -- with annual sales approaching $400 million and about 1,200 employees -- and is also the site of some of Canada Culvert's operations.

Its Winnipeg workforce numbers about 40, but it's places like Winkler, Brandon and Storm Lake, Iowa, where his firm employs hundreds of people.

It is the largest user of steel in Western Canada and the largest engineering steel building company in Canada with customers around the world.

In March, WGI Westman bought Sakundiak Equipment of Regina, a $12-million a year grain auger manufacturer.

At the time, company officials said it would strengthen its position as the North American leader in on-farm storage and handling solutions.

The success of companies like WGI Westman has a lot to do with the success of the Prairie economy through the recent global recession.

Edwards doesn't exactly say his business is recession-proof, but he did point out that 2008 was the company's best year ever and 2009 is on track to surpass last year's results by as much as 10 per cent.

"We are very diversified," he said. "We are geared to the agricultural industry a great deal and the ag industry is very strong. We are also geared to government work in our building and culvert operations and that is coming on as well."

His companies make steel building systems for the industrial, commercial, institutional and agricultural markets; metal roofing and siding products; every style and size of steel culverts; and hopper bins, tanks and silos for the commercial and agricultural markets.

While much of the world's industries were having trouble accessing capital, Edwards' companies never did feel that pressure.

As opposed to making credit scarce, Edwards said, "At the beginning of every fiscal year, our bankers ask us how much we need."

WGI Westman is riding the consolidation wave of small, mom and pop ag equipment manufacturers along with publicly traded companies like Winnipeg-based Ag Growth International and Vicwest Income Fund of Oakville, Ont.

Those two are among a relatively small group of TSX companies whose shares are trading near their 52-week high, something that probably would also be the case with WGI Westman if it were publicly traded.

"Russ is a great owner," said Paul Cunningham, president and CEO of WGI Westman

"We reinvest virtually 100 per cent of the profits back into the company. It is a marvellous place to be. We have the resources to withstand a downturn. We actually thrive on it."

Staff salutes CEO

Charlie Spiring -- Wellington West

When Charlie Spiring returned from the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year event in Calgary last week, Wellington West's entire staff of 110 people were waiting in the lobby to congratulate their chief executive officer.

"I was so excited to win this," said Spiring, who has had his share of successes building his Winnipeg-based financial services company into a force to be reckoned with against mostly Toronto-based firms over the last 16 years.

The full-service brokerage, financial planning, asset management, capital markets and wealth management business has about $8 billion under administration.

Wellington West has offices around the country and employs about 600 people, most of whom are shareholders in the company.

It is regularly ranked as one of the 50 best managed companies in Canada, one of the top employers and one of its industry's top performers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2009 B4

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