Pioneer Transformers

Continuing a 50-year Tradition

It was the Vice President of Operations at Pioneer Transformers, Raymond Haddad, who explained to me—a layperson—what transformers did. As a member of an industry-leading transformer manufacturing company, Haddad knows what he’s talking about.

It goes something like this. Power lines carry electricity at enormously high voltages from power plants to homes and businesses. But typical appliances require voltages that are thousands of times lower—usually between 110 and 250 volts. If you tried to power a toaster right from a power line, for example, it would explode and you would likely die in the process. To reduce the high-voltage electricity from power plants to the lower-voltage electricity used by factories, offices, and homes, we have pieces of equipment called transformers. The rest gets pretty technical, involving electromagnetic induction. Suffice it to say, the technology works.

Pioneer Transformers, located in Granby, Québec, has been in existence since the 1960s. At that time, the company was called Federal Power but the name changed to Pioneer Transformers in 1995, when it was sold. With sales up to $50 million last year, Pioneer is certainly doing well. “We sell to utilities like Hydro Québec, Enmax and Fortis,” says Haddad. “We also sell to industrial and commercial customers, for projects like universities, hospitals or manufacturing plants.” With another sales and engineering office in Toronto, Pioneer is prevalent all over Ontario, Québec and even Alberta. While the majority of their business is Canadian, they do have some clients in the United States.

Transformers come in various shapes and sizes to suit specific needs, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all industry. That’s where Pioneer comes in. “Our strength is custom designing transformers for clients with particular needs. Other companies don’t usually like to do that; they would prefer to mass produce them. But we take special orders, which makes us unique in the industry. Often, we’ll build a one-off transformer and never do that design again.” The team does have a specialty and that is liquid-filled transformers, as opposed to dry-type. In their design, the liquid is used to insulate windings and cool the transformer.
Pioneer Transformers is able to take the custom orders due to the small size of the company. With 40 people in the shop and 20 people in the office, they are a group that can turn on a dime.  “We’re not one of the big boys,” says Haddad, “but it makes us who we are. As a group, we’re good at adapting and there’s a need for it. We fill a real niche and we’re now known across Canada.”   

Individualised service is complemented by speedy delivery. “We have a great track record for being on time with a quality product,” adds Haddad. “It’s actually very important in this industry because customers order them 18 to 20 weeks ahead of time and usually have to coordinate work around the transformer installation. Timeliness is critical.”

Industry changes
Unlike other industries where the technology has completely transformed the workplace, transformer technology has seen few changes. Haddad says it’s an old technology. Even though the materials that go in it have improved over the years, how the transformers actually work dates way back. 

The only real changes that have impacted the whole industry would be external regulations. Of course, Pioneer subscribes both the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards, applying specific standards for each type of transformer. From there, customers will often have their own additional specs that modify the standards. The industry changes are in the standards.

“The biggest change I have seen is the efficiency of the transformers,” explains Haddad. “They have become more efficient (just like cars and household products), so they consume less electricity. A few years ago, CSA established a transformer-efficiency standard called ‘C802’, which specifies efficiency per kVA. That had an influence on our designs, what materials we used, how much material, etc.”

“For the last five years, it has been more enforced and, today, all transformers that are shipped into Canada must meet those standards. The United States will have one in 2010. Transformers are efficient as it is, anyway. They aren’t going from 60 per cent efficiency to 90 per cent, but they have made it tighter. A watt save is a watt gained.”

Steady work
Pioneer Transformers is fortunate to be in a business that exists outside of the boom and bust pressure. As long as people need electricity, they will need transformers. “We are only slightly affected by the economy,” says Haddad. “Companies aren’t building new facilities, but they are retrofitting. There are a lot of replacement projects on the go from transformers that were built 25 years ago. There is a pretty constant flow of work. Are we as busy as we were in 2007 when our industry was really busy? No. But business is still good. Transformers might not be that high-tech or exciting but it’s a product that’s necessary—you can’t function without one.”

Speaking of economy, Pioneer is careful to pour back into its own province. “We try to encourage local manufacturers to buy locally,” Haddad continues. “By doing that, Canadian companies can establish themselves in Québec. Getting a solid base and reputation here has permitted us to grow outside the province and get more business from elsewhere.”

For Pioneer Transformers, the priorities are clear: cater to the customer, maintain the delivery date and build a quality product that won’t fail during its lifetime. “That’s the key in our business,” says Haddad. “Reliability and quality are what we do well.” If the company sticks to their simple albeit highly effective business plan, there’s no reason their success can’t continue into the future. 

Over the years, the company has expanded its product range and gone to higher kVA transformers. What’s the next step? “We want to bring up our kVA range to a higher level in the future to 20 MVAs within the next few years,” he says. “It takes time and investment.”     

Growth is on the horizon for Pioneer, but as Haddad says, they want to grow gradually and efficiently. “We don’t want to be a monster company,” he concludes. “We don’t want to hinder our business because being bigger isn’t better. It can get in the way of quality.”