Penn Elcom celebrates 50 years of business

Penn Elcom celebrated 50 years of being an innovative production and entertainment industry engineering specialist. 

Founded in 1974 by Roger Willems 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 co-ordinated operation involving over 600 full-time employees.

“So many fantastic people have contributed to making Penn Elcom what it is today! 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!” Willems stated.

The Penn Elcom story started inconspicuously enough in Penn, Buckinghamshire, when 26-year-old Willems 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.

The first major moment in his own business career presented itself in 1974 when Willems 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 Willems first met Andrew McCulloch of rock ‘n’ roll flightcase company, Bulldog Cases. McCulloch 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.

Willems recalled how that first meeting followed one between McCulloch and the lead singer of 1960s rockers Manfred Mann, an encounter making a huge impression on Willems that prized open the world of rock ‘n’ roll coolness with seismic effect, especially when McCulloch 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, Willems 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 Willems’s friend Phil Stratford 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,” recalled Willems.

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.

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

In 2004, Willems 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 Wong.  Wong together with Jesse Chen and their dedicated team, worked hard to ensure that Penn Elcom China became an integral part of the business.

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 enforced quality standards.

In 2019, Penn Elcom GmbH was taken over from Dennis Meertens 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. Willems 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 confirmed, “and this MO will keep us moving forward well into the future.”

Roger is still 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. An engineer at heart, “I know I drive everyone crazy at times,” he commented, and he’s every bit as fired-up about the company and the future as the day it all started.