Ken Breau, a member of IBEW Local 105 since 1989, now owns three Dairy Queen franchises and has also invented a pool and spa algaecide that is sold across North America. Over the years he has helped raise over $170,000 for the Rotary Club children’s charities and the McMaster Children’s Hospital.
When most people hear the word “union”, they might think “anti-business”. The members of IBEW, however, know that doesn’t have to be true. They and the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario (ECAO) are used to competing for market share against non-union providers.
A few members are entrepreneurs in their own right. In fact, IBEW Local 105’s Ken Breau has several businesses that he owns and runs with his family.
A self-described workaholic, Breau is generally on the go from 6 AM until 11 PM. “My wife always says to me that if I were to spend a month on an island in the Caribbean, I would start a business before I leave just to keep busy,” he says.
In spite of being an IBEW electrician and an owner of several businesses, Breau hasn’t slowed down even though he’s getting close to the typical retirement age.
“If anything, I am speeding up, not slowing down. We’re not wealthy, we’re definitely middle income, but I don’t plan to ever retire.”
What motivates Breau to work so hard isn’t the money: it’s his family and the community. “No one is ever going to remember how much money you made in your life,” he says, “but they will remember how much you did for your community.”
Over the years, Breau has made a great impression on his IBEW brothers and sisters, including Local 105 Business Manager Lorne Newick.
“As a supervisor with Guild Electric he fostered good working relations with his crews through respect and genuine care for his workers,” says Newick. “He was an advocate for the IBEW and promoted Local 105 at the many fundraising initiatives he’s been involved with over the years. He has done a phenomenal job of balancing a successful career with Local 105 and a very demanding personal life with his family. He is truly an inspiration to us all and we wish him the best.”
A Family Affair
After working for almost 30 years as an IBEW electrician, Breau and his family bought their first two Dairy Queen stores in the summer of 2016.
“It’s really a family operation,” says Breau of his Brantford area Dairy Queen stores. “Most of them are involved in some capacity.”
His family includes his wife Tammy and their children from their previous marriages. Even though their children are grown, and one lives in BC, they’ve been pitching in to handle daily operations, HR, accounting, and social media.
“My wife is fantastic,” says Breau. “She’s an RPN, but when we decided to buy the business it made more sense financially for me to keep working, so she took several years off to manage the stores. She misses nursing, though, so she’s going back.”
“I’m lucky that I’m able to do most of my own maintenance and upgrades, as a licensed electrician. The first two stores that we bought hadn’t been upgraded for many years, and if I wasn’t mechanically inclined, I don’t think we would have made it as a business.”
A lot of the improvements not only included general renovations, updated electrical power, and more efficient cooling, but systems to handle payment with debit, credit, and gift cards.
Choosing an Electrical Provider
Their third store, which just opened on February 27, 2019, required a different approach, as it was a new build from the ground up. “I was working full time so there was no way I could do all the electrical myself,” says Breau.
The 2,300 square foot store was going to require a lot of equipment that would allow them to branch out to serving hot food, as well as a 400 amp service to power the refrigeration system.
As a business owner, with responsibilities to keep his business in the black, Breau then had to decide whether to hire a unionized electrical contractor or a cheaper non-union provider. After getting quotes from a number of businesses on both sides, he chose Brantford Mechanical, an ECAO contractor.
“The IBEW gave me a great lifestyle, put food on my table and put my kids through school. I worked hard for it, mind you – I’ve never done a 40-hour week in my life. In spite of the temptation to go with the lowest price, in the end I couldn’t justify going with a non-union contractor. I knew the quality of work I would get, and the quality of the workers. I also knew the money would be going back into the community because I was hiring local.”
The Benefits of Having a Union Member as a Boss
With the opening of the new store, the employee count is currently 63, which will rise to 80 in May. Unlike most fast food franchises, the Breau Dairy Queen stores offer health benefits to employees, as well as a bursary program.
“Most of my staff are students,” says Breau. “And I’m a firm believer in post-secondary education, whether it’s college or university. We want our employees to save for school, and we also want them to work here as long as possible. So our employees earn extra money towards schooling on top of their salary.”
While most of Breau’s children have left the nest, one is still at home. Amanda is 25 years old: but she only weighs about 60 pounds, and is the size of a five year old.
Amanda was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality called Trisomy 11. “She wasn’t supposed to live past six months,” says Breau, “but she keeps defying the odds – she’s a fighter!”
Requiring constant care, Amanda can’t speak, is 80% deaf and blind, and needs a feeding tube and colostomy bag. About a year ago, her airway collapsed, and a tracheotomy saved her life. Since then, her airway has also required periodic suctioning so she can breathe.
The Breau family provides some of her care themselves, but relies on nursing help as well. “We renovated the house so she can be right in with everybody,” says Breau. “We didn’t want to keep her shut away in the back.”
Because of Amanda’s condition, the Breau family has spent a lot of time in hospitals over the years. Breau agrees that Amanda is the inspiration for a lot of the charitable fundraising he has done.
“Our daughter wouldn’t be here without the McMaster Children’s Hospital; there have been too many complex surgeries that only they can do. Without them, I just don’t know where we’d be now,” he says, overcome with emotion.
Breau has been fundraising steadily for local children’s hospitals and other kids’ causes for the past fifteen to eighteen years.
“Every year I’ve gone back to groups like IBEW Local 105, IBEW Local 804, and Guild Electric to ask for donations. Every year they’ve given without question.”
Since his family bought the Dairy Queen stores, however, he’s been increasing his efforts. While there are other fundraisers he does, he focuses on three main annual events:
- The Rotary Classic Run in spring (April 28 in 2019)
- DQ Miracle Treat Day in support of McMaster Children’s Hospital in summer (August 8 in 2019).
- DQ United Way Cupcake Day in fall.
For the Dairy Queen events, Breau finds that getting local musicians, police, and fire departments involved generates excitement and helps increase publicity. A dunk tank and a TD’s Monster Mirror Wall add to the festivities.
Breau enthuses, “We make it a fun day, and the staff have a really great time. The community really likes to come out for it, and we get photos of people lined up out in the parking lot. This year, we plan to do even more.”
The first year the Breau family did the DQ events, they earned over $6,000 for the causes. They earned over $11,000 the second year. He’s had even more success with the Rotary Classic Run, which has brought in over $141,000 to date for causes like the Lansdowne Children’s Centre for kids with disabilities, and the Boys and Girls Club.
To thank Breau for his efforts, the Rotary Club has awarded him the Paul Harris Award, their highest honour, twice.
Getting a Head Start
Ken’s entrepreneurial and technical instincts started surfacing when he was young. At the age of nine, he started a paper route and shovelling driveways, and in his teens he repaired lawn mowers.
“There was never any extra money so I learned at a very young age that if I was going to be successful that I would have to do it myself,” he remembers.
After volunteering for thousands of hours at a local cable station in high school, Breau decided to go to college for Television Broadcasting. To grow in the industry, however, you have to stay in Toronto, and he found he didn’t like big city life – or the long commute.
After talking with his uncle, an IBEW Local 105 member, he decided to switch careers and applied for an electrical apprenticeship with Brantfold Mechanical.
Since then, he has worked for several large companies and has looked after large construction projects, including all the highway electrical projects from Pearson Airport to London, Ontario.
In the Swim of Things
Breau got his first business idea in 2000, and it’s still going strong today.
The idea for Breau’s algaecide Eclipse3 was born out of necessity, when the Breaus bought a house in the 1990s with a swimming pool for their kids. The water chemistry had problems, and Breau soon found he was looking for a simpler and more economical solution.
Working with a chemical engineer he hired, Breau developed and patented a product that kills algae, balances pH, reduces the need for chlorine, and clarifies the water. The product saves typical pool owners several hundred dollars a year in chemicals, and also helps lower electricity use significantly.
Eclipse3 is now used by water parks and by pool owners throughout Canada and the US.
Working Towards a Legacy
When asked if he has any advice for younger IBEW members, Breau says, “You’ve got to have a good work ethic. You’ve got to be there on time, putting your best effort forward. It doesn’t matter if you’re an electrician, or a doctor, or a lawyer, someone else is trying to do better than you, and you’re always competing.”
Continuous learning is also important to succeed as an electrician. “If you go to work and didn’t learn something new, then you didn’t make good use of your time. The electrical field is one of the most diverse trades out there – there’s industrial controls, construction, fire safety, power distribution, traffic control systems – it’s always something different.
There’s no reason you can’t stay employed.”
The training and experience Breau accumulated with the IBEW has helped him with many aspects in his life. “I’ve always enjoyed building things, and I’ve helped build everything from hospitals to casinos to traffic lighting and signalling systems,” says Breau. “Now I have an opportunity to build a legacy for my kids, and for the community.”