How the Leckelt brothers turned Silent-Aire into an industry-leading data centre manufacturer

For the Leckelt brothers, business is a lot like ice hockey: you must be agile, fast and work as a team to succeed

 
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Dan and Lindsey Leckelt have built a company based on the power and movement of air – an element that almost ruined the company back in 1987

Author: Marc Kronewitt, Director of Business Development and Continuity at Silent-Aire

28 Dec 2017

On July 31, 1987, the most destructive F4 tornado in Canada’s history ripped through Edmonton, Alberta, killing 27 people and causing more than $300m (€258m) of damage. Twelve-year-old Dan Leckelt and his 10-year-old brother, Lindsey, were in a movie theatre when the lights went out. “Everyone rushed into the lobby and we heard there had been a tornado,” Dan recalled.

“When we went outside, our mum was soaking wet and told us the business was gone.” When the brothers returned to their parents’ sheet metal contracting business, the destruction that the tornado had caused was unimaginable. “We were forced to move into a smaller location, but we still had to go back for weeks and pick through all the debris and salvage what we could,” said Dan.

This experience had a profound impact on the brothers and how they built their business, Silent-Aire, into a global, industry-leading modular data centre and cooling manufacturer for the world’s largest cloud and hyperscale data centre providers.

Our employees understand what we design and build is part of the infrastructure of the digital economy that governs daily life

Ironically, it was the power and movement of air that almost ruined the company back in 1987. But, 30 years on, Dan and Lindsey have built a company based on those very same principles. “We have a great appreciation and passion for engineering solutions that have been embraced by our clients,” Lindsey said.

“We were pioneers in deploying free air and directive evaporative cooling, saving our clients on capital and operating costs by reducing power consumption. Cooling air in data centres can be accomplished in many ways. We focused on designing highly efficient cooling solutions that reduce energy usage. We’re proud that we are having a positive impact on the environment.”

Playing the game
“We both went to engineering school at the University of Alberta,” Dan said. “I became a civil engineer and Lindsey a mechanical engineer.” The Leckelt brothers had plans to get into the family business as soon as they left university. “I was one year ahead of Lindsey, and took that year to play semi-professional hockey in the US,” Dan said.

Both Dan and Lindsey played ice hockey growing up, continued to play through university, and still play today. “We both played hockey for the Stony Plain Eagles while we were building Silent-Aire,” Dan said. “The Eagles became our second family and a form of stress release from the all-consuming challenges of being an entrepreneur.” In 1999, the Eagles won the Allan Cup National Championship, the highest level trophy for senior amateur ice hockey in Canada.

Reflecting on how the game has influenced the business, Lindsey explained: “Hockey has taught us leadership skills, how to build successful teams and the importance of having strong relationships and a network of people that we still work with today at Silent-Aire. Hockey is truly a team game; everybody has a role to play, everyone must contribute and trust each other.

“Hockey is fast and can be dangerous – on the ice you must focus, communicate and make decisions quickly. A lot of things fundamental to hockey have been ingrained into us as leaders, and it all starts with teamwork.”

The Leckelt brothers have come full circle with ice hockey, and are now owners of the Eagles, Spruce Grove Junior Saints and the Seattle Thunderbirds. “Seattle has been a hub for Silent-Aire for 15 years and we wanted to be more involved in the communities we work in,” Lindsey said.

Silent-Aire opened a new 15,000sq ft manufacturing plant in Gilbert, Arizona in July

Shared leadership
The Leckelt brothers have taken their collaborative leadership approach as far as sharing the role of CEO. Their unconventional co-CEO titles exemplify their belief that strategy and leadership are a shared responsibility. “We have never known anything different,” Dan said. “We have had great success working together and have found that the checks and balances we provide each other are an asset to Silent-Aire.”

Lindsey concurred: “Dan and I both have a lot of passion for our business and share the same values and beliefs. There’s never been a power struggle between us. It doesn’t mean we don’t disagree, but we collaborate and, most importantly, we respect and trust each other.”

The growth of Silent-Aire has resulted in Dan and Lindsey expanding their leadership team. “We decided to increase the number of VPs four years ago and have tried to instil in them the same leadership culture that we believe in,” Dan said.

“We have weekly executive team meetings and quarterly off-sites where we build our strategies and plans together. We recognise that we accomplish more when we have input from the team. It also results in more accountability, because they have contributed to the strategies and growth plans. There is complexity and interdependence in engineering, procurement, manufacturing and commissioning, so collaboration is a necessity, not an option.”

Going global
Global expansion was part of the brothers’ long-term strategy, and in 2017, Silent-Aire Europe was launched through the acquisition of RMI Engineering in Dublin. “Dan and I discussed all our options to accelerate Silent-Aire’s capabilities, improve delivery times and optimise costs in Europe,” Lindsey said. “We made the decision to acquire instead of build, because we recognised the value of the infrastructure, employees and relationships that RMI had in Europe.

You must challenge the status quo and take on projects that others may see as impossible

“We had competed with RMI in the past on projects and had the highest level of respect for the quality of its solutions. Ireland was always our first choice, as it has an advanced data centre industry, strong engineering and a progressive business culture.”

Dan agreed: “In the US we decided to build Silent-Aire organically. We started off with three employees in 2012, and have since grown to over 300. Managing this growth was complex, but we had experience from building our head office in Edmonton. We recognised the importance of business continuity, and having two manufacturing facilities in Edmonton and Gilbert that mirror each other was part of that.

“Mission critical data centres take the same approach to redundancy that we do in our manufacturing infrastructure and our 24/7 production schedule. In 2016, we decided to greenfield-build our largest facility yet in Gilbert, and shipped our first units 12 months after we broke ground. Growing our infrastructure at the same pace as our clients’ demands has always been difficult, but we are up for the challenge.”

Continuous improvement
Instilling the company’s mission of continuous improvement is an ongoing effort. “Our customers are in mission-critical services; they must always be operational,” Lindsey said.

“There is a shared responsibility for all departments to ensure Silent-Aire solutions are designed, engineered, manufactured and installed to the highest standard, and that we never compromise on safety. The organisation’s expansion has been aggressive, with six facilities and 600,000sq ft of manufacturing capacity. If we want to compete in the global data centre industry, we must have the infrastructure and capacity to meet our customers’ demands. We strive to be reliable, always meeting deadlines and construction schedules.”

Silent-Aire’s turnkey modular data centres are another example of how the company has developed a solution that is designed to improve on traditional brick-and-mortar data centres. “When a client needs to have a data centre up and running in less than six months, then a brick-and-mortar build is going to be a challenge,” Lindsey continued. “Our modular data centres can be rapidly set up anywhere in the world, giving our clients the opportunity to accelerate their business and save money.”

The Leckelt brothers have learned many lessons over the years, but the most consistent message they talk about is resilience and problem solving

In 2015, Silent-Aire put a business continuity management system in place. “We know that continuity is a key for our business,” Lindsey said. “We understand the value of being prepared, and part of that includes doing simulations and business impact analysis. We do risk assessments and measure the financial impact of outages and supply chain delays.”

Silent-Aire has adopted a ‘cloud first’ approach to its IT services: “The cloud has provided our business with the benefits of agility, scalability and security that we needed during our growth. Our employees understand that what we design and build is part of the infrastructure of the digital economy that now governs daily life.”

Game changers
The Leckelt brothers have learned many lessons over the years, but the most consistent message they talk about is resilience and problem solving. “When our parents’ business was wiped out, we learned how much drive and hard work is needed to survive, recover and succeed,” Dan said.

“You have to be resilient. I think that goes for everything you do in life. You need courage to be an entrepreneur because not everything goes as planned. But if you’re resilient, you can battle through it. When you have a team that is resilient, you can be game changers. To do this, you must challenge the status quo and take on projects that others may see as impossible. It has become part of our culture, and we look forward to continuing to grow because the data centre business is truly global.”

Lindsey agrees: “A big part of resilience and being a game changer is problem solving. As our organisation grew, problem solving moved from an individual responsibility to a team responsibility. Our business culture encourages our employees to improve, investigate different approaches and collaborate with their peers to find the best solution. Through teamwork, leadership and collaboration we solve problems with our customers. There is a lot of pride at Silent-Aire when we see them succeed.”