‘A Beacon of Light’
Lightning Electric owner opens opportunities for ex-offenders
Sekwan Merritt, Owner of Lightning Electric, has both construction services to offer and a story to tell. The services: His firm takes care of all electrical needs on residential and commercial construction projects. The story: Merritt started his company immediately after being released from prison in 2017. More about that later.
Lightning Electric is an electrical contracting company providing services from outside lighting and panel installation to transformers and light retrofitting. Tenant fit outs, new builds and expansions are within the company’s repertoire. The office of this certified Minority Business Enterprise is in Baltimore and its projects have ranged from the metro area to other parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“Lightning Electric is more than an electrical contracting firm,” Merritt says, explaining that the company also has a mission in the community to create opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals and at-risk youth living in Baltimore. “We hire everybody. We will hire ex-offenders that are the cream of the crop. We give them a chance to do what they love and be good at it.” He stresses that his employees must do top-quality work to continue with the company.
Energized by Knowledge
Merritt was incarcerated after a drug conviction in 2012. Determined to make a better life for himself, he asked his family to send him books on business, contracting and electrical codes. He had been an electrician since 2005, when he started with Aztec Electric Service Inc. He began working as an electrician for the prison, studying to stay up to date on electrical codes. Then he was accepted into the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership and began taking college courses, earning 40 credits toward a bachelor’s degree. “We had professors expanding our minds,” he says. “That just fueled me.”
When Merritt was released from prison in 2017, he started his electrical contracting business, providing services for homeowners in low-income neighborhoods while he built the company and also worked as a paralegal. He began speaking as an advocate on justice reform. In November 2017, just after his release, he spoke in favor of the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act introduced by Sens. Kamala Harris and Rand Paul.
As he worked to grow his business, Merritt, who is still on parole, needed to take the test to secure his Maryland Master Electrician license. He found that his felony conviction was an obstacle to taking the test. He gave testimony in the Maryland Senate on a bill to make it easier for those like him to earn professional licenses. The bill was passed and that allowed Merritt to take the test.
Focus on Commercial Projects
Lightning Electric was a subcontractor for other companies at first, but now has its own administrative office so that it can bid on contracts. The firm has generated larger contracts with homeowners, businesses and real estate investors. The first big commercial job was the Downtown Locker Room, a sports and urban apparel store in Baltimore. The company did all the electrical work for a store renovation in 2019, including installing LED tape strip lights.
The company’s first job won through competitive bidding was lighting at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Sweet Air in Phoenix, Maryland. The work on an expansion and bump-out in 2020-2021 included LED light retrofitting, landscaping and pole lights and installing outdoor charging stations for anyone to use. In completing the project, “We learned a lot,” Merritt says. “We stepped in the room with well-established companies, far more seasoned than Lightning Electric. However, we stood firm, adding value to the project. We were able to highlight some unforeseen building complications that the drawings did not detail.”
Recently finished was work on 72 FedEx facilities in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Another firm asked Lightning Electric to serve as master electrician on its proposal for the contract. “They asked me to take on the contract,” Merritt says. “I looked at it and said, ‘I can do this.’ I had three guys at the time!” He quickly hired a driver and four more workers. The work involved retrofitting lighting, changing from fluorescent to energy-efficient LEDs. Logistics were important as materials had to be stored and delivered and workers dispatched to many different sites.
The company’s first government-related job was installing low-voltage wiring in a conduit in the floor of an office building for the city of Annapolis, Merritt explains.
Building Capacity to Take on Larger Jobs
As Lightning Electric works to help those reentering society after incarceration, Merritt finds that, as a newer firm, the employees’ level of skill is underestimated. “As we build capacity, we will be a force to be reckoned with,” he says.
Lightning Electric has been chosen as primary electrical contractor on the development of 64 new homes being built by Ryan Homes at East Baltimore’s Towns at Eager Park. The townhomes are part of a major redevelopment by East Baltimore Development Inc., a 501(c)(3) established by community, government, institutional and philanthropic partners to revitalize, re-energize and rebuild the East Baltimore neighborhood. The homes will provide affordable housing for those working at the Johns Hopkins Medicine medical complex, as well as others.
Merritt spoke at the groundbreaking in September, highlighting his appreciation of being involved in the redevelopment of a tough area. “I’m a returning citizen that always wished that I could be here, not only as a minority business owner, but as a person that is going to support the values of owning businesses throughout the community,” he said. He suggested highlighting not only local hiring, “but local support of business owners so that we could be in a position to serve each other, be of some good to each other and not harm each other.”
Drive to Learn
At present, Merritt has four employees. “They are loyal, and they also have a drive to learn. They are not just installers; they are students of the National Electrical Code book. We are on the phone into the wee hours talking about the latest code revisions and upcoming revisions,” Merritt says. He hopes to eventually be able to reward his employees with a percentage of the income from each contract they work on; but for now, he buys them pizza for lunch on Fridays.
Merritt points out that his goal is to use the electrical trade to build hope for people who want good jobs. “If I have 10 houses, that’s 30 jobs. If I have 100, that’s 300 jobs.”
Merritt organized the Black Electricians Community with other companies to network, share information, mentor and help provide jobs. He says the group communicates via Slack to share information and materials. They help each other learn about reading construction documents, submitting bids and setting up payment schedules.
Merritt will soon begin teaching in the local Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Baltimore apprenticeship program, sharing his story and his experience with at-risk youth. At age 38, he has set goals for himself of getting a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, then going on for a master’s and a doctorate. “I never stop learning.”
Transitions for Business Growth
In 2020, Lightning Electric’s business dropped off significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Merritt applied for a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program but was deemed ineligible because he had a criminal record. Merritt and others went to court to challenge the U.S. Small Business Administration’s rule excluding him and won the opportunity to apply for a forgivable loan. The SBA, prodded by his lawsuit and Congress, eased the rules that blocked applicants who had been convicted of a felony or placed on parole or probation within the last five years.
Going forward, Lightning Electric will focus on commercial work, where profit margins are wider. Merritt says he would like to bid on larger government contracts and work with insurance companies who need electrical contractors to make repairs. Lightning Electric is focusing on trends toward energy efficiency, lighting controls, low voltage and building automation. For example, with advanced controls, a person in California could turn on the lights in a store in Maryland. Another focus is on strategies to mitigate electromagnetic interference in facilities such as hospitals and military bases.
Electrical systems have become much more complex, with an accompanying higher price tag for the work, Merritt says. “The average investor or homeowner doesn’t understand the price.”
Sharing Hopes and Dreams
His drive to succeed came from the trauma of prison, seeing men wasting away, feeling stuck. “I was raised in low-income housing,” Merritt explains. “I wanted to make a change in the generations, to make a new life for my family.”
He adds, “It means a lot to me to be a beacon of light for others on my similar path.” To potential customers, Merritt has this message: There are contractors of different backgrounds out there who are capable of doing excellent work.