Penn Elcom celebrates 50 years in business: company history timeline

Penn Elcom, flightcase hardware, racking, speaker component, cabling, LED lighting and assorted other related elements manufacturer, is celebrating 50 years of being an innovative production / entertainment industry engineering specialist.

Founded in 1974 by Roger Willems, initially focusing on metals and anodising, the company has expanded and diversified over the five decades and is now producing and supplying an array of vital entertainment industry related infrastructural elements, which are fabricated from bases in the UK, USA, Germany and China in a tightly coordinated operation involving over 600 full-time employees.

Roger is the first person to acknowledge the ongoing global teamwork involved in this success, together with the commitment and passion of management and employees. 

“So many fantastic people have contributed to making Penn Elcom what it is today,” he says. “Their collective personalities, foresight and diligence have helped shape the strong brand identity that sees us achieve this landmark anniversary. I want to say a huge and sincere THANK YOU to each and every one!” 

Penn Elcom’s famous logo can be found on numerous bits of kit in multiple places around the world, everywhere from concert halls to conference centres, clubs to churches and everywhere in between.

The brand is synonymous with quality, good engineering, and reliability, and acclaimed for efficient service and dedication to excellence and customer satisfaction.

Behind the success story there has been plenty of vision, serious hard work, a joyful willingness to embrace innovation, change and the future, and the nerve to sustain a degree of risk-taking.

The Penn Elcom story started inconspicuously enough in Penn, Buckinghamshire, when 26-year-old Roger purchased his first metal engineering plant in 1974. The embryonic Penn Fabrications – as it was then known – focussed on steel fabrication, anodising and associated sub-contracting services.

Roger was born to a working-class family in Glasgow, Scotland and was one of seven siblings. His father was a Dutch merchant seaman and his mother, Dorothy, led a colourful, action-packed life. 

As a youth, he was always a grafter and naturally entrepreneurial. Before the age of 10, he worked several paper rounds, and as a teenager living in the notorious Easterhouse, he worked in a bookshop, at a restaurant, as a silver service waiter, turning his hand to pretty much anything, also engaging in several local creative money-making schemes.

These moments of business-and-life education sharpened Roger’s street smarts, and soon after starting as the office boy for a metal merchant, he graduated to metal trading – copper, steel, aluminium – as his charisma, cheekiness and quick wit soon elevated him to a star salesman. 

A few years and many adventures later, the first major moment in his own business career presented itself in 1974 when Roger and business partners David Wanstall and Ron Luzar purchased Penn Anodising. 

Located on the ‘Penn Estate’, an industrial area on the edge of the picturesque village of Penn in Buckinghamshire. They immediately re-imagined this business as Penn Fabrications, and started sourcing, anodising and polishing metal products.

The second pivotal moment in Penn’s development was 1981, when Roger first met Andrew McCulloch of rock ‘n’ roll flightcase company, Bulldog Cases. 

Andrew was seeking specific components – handles, corners, butterfly clips – when Penn came on his radar and then started producing these, a side of the business that expanded rapidly. 

Roger recalled how that first meeting followed one between Andrew and the lead singer of 1960s rockers Manfred Mann, an encounter making a huge impression on Roger that prized open the world of rock ‘n’ roll coolness with seismic effect, especially when Andrew put his faith in Penn Fabrications to start making his case handles. This soon expanded to other elements and to more clients involved in flightcase manufacturing.

Also in the early 1980s, Roger was next looking at overseas opportunities as the first solid American venture presented itself. New Jersey-based sound mixer hardware manufacturer Audiotec was acquired by Penn from Music Productiv, and Roger’s great friend Phil Stratford – then still a fresh-faced forklift driver on the Penn Estate – went over to manage this together with his younger brother, Richard. 

“Everyone back then had a massive sense of adventure and we all dreamed big,” says Roger, adding that the US was also “a crazy place in the 1980s, a place of many opportunities that fuelled his appetite for new markets or possibilities”.

Around the same time, another friend, Frank McCourt, started up Penn Fabrication on the west coast of the USA and the overall product portfolio expanded to include cables and other installation related elements as Penn’s international reach started expanding to Canada, Australia, Latin America, and other places. 

The next two decades saw steady growth and diversification. Penn in the UK focused on the core elements of manufacturing metalwork, developing core problem-solving products that were cost effective and could be delivered fast and efficiently to its growing customer base.

In 2001, Penn Fabrications became Penn Elcom via a merger with Elcom Hardware in California which also consolidated the ever-expanding West Coast operation. Penn then bought out the minority shareholders, so the business came back to himself and Phil.

Thinking Ahead

In 2004, Roger and the team met Chinese entrepreneur Stanley Wong and launched a pathway to the next steps in international manufacturing, forging a strong and invigorating partnership in China via Stanley, based on “mutual respect for his wonderful engineering skills, knowledge and intelligence,” notes Roger.

Opening in China was the fourth major business moment for Roger and Penn Elcom’s long term development, and one critical to competing on a world stage and an ever-changing market that was becoming consistently more ‘global’.

Stanely together with Jesse Chen and their dedicated team, worked hard to ensure that Penn Elcom China became an integral part of the business.

Having a locally managed and run operation in China has hugely boosted Penn’s ability to stay abreast of technology and demand. Maintaining quality products and quick service was their mantra and what customers expected. 

Today, two UK factories in the UK – in Washington, country Durham and Hastings, East Sussex – plus a new 180,000 square metre facility in Huizhou City, Guangdong Province, China, all make identical Penn Elcom products with the highest and most rigorously enforced quality standards. This integration has taken around seven years to complete and is a process of which everyone is proud.

This 20-year investment in China – not just for profit but also embracing dynamics, culture, and different working practices – is part of Penn Elcom’s global success that additionally reflects the importance of the Chinese domestic market. Roger had always wanted to build an operation that is fully international so all can benefit from multiple experiences.

In 2019, Penn Elcom GmbH was taken over from Dennis Meertens – who still runs the daily operations – and Thomas Mostert who is now retired, giving a prime distribution hub on the German / Dutch border and ideally placed for access and expedition of goods across Europe.

Being people-focused has always been part of the Penn Elcom energy. Developing environments where staff can excel and feel valued, included, and encouraged to speak up if they have a good idea, or spot an opportunity.

Roger is also convinced that independent ownership has also been instrumental in the journey. “It’s allowed us to remain agile and able to react to various situations and take decisions quickly as needed,” he confirms, “and this MO will keep us moving forward well into the future.”

Roger is still very involved in many day-to-day aspects driving Penn Elcom’s business, basing himself in Hastings and Washington, he frequently visits other Penn Elcom facilities and is involved with specific product development, exploring new business opportunities.

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