Wisconsin’s Master Electric strives to make each job beautiful
Robert “Bob” Salinas and Chad Smith have a formula for success in growing their electrical contracting company: hire the right people and teach them the Master Electric way to work.
That business model has helped them steadily build a reputation for excellence since they established Master Electric, a Division of Excel Electric of Wisconsin, LLC (Master Electric), in 2010. Located in West Bend, Wisconsin, Master Electric provides customers throughout the entire Badger State with commercial electrical services, from new construction to remodels, to lighting and data wiring, to ongoing electrical system design and maintenance.
Bob and Chad, the company’s two Managing Members, first met in 2004. Chad, who took electrical courses at Moraine Park Technical College (MPTC), received his master electrician license in 2003 and worked for several electric companies in the area before forming his own company in 2004 with another electrician. Bob was one of the company’s first employees. He had left his job as shift manager for a Coca-Cola bottling plant, where he worked with new maintenance electricians, picking up a thing or two about electrical work himself. Tired of wearing a suit and tie, he was looking for a more hands-on electrical work experience when he joined Chad’s company.
Six years later, the two would take over Master Electric and grow the company to the 10-person shop it is today. The work ethic and business owner experience they encountered along the way helped shape the company’s model for successful growth. “For the first three to four years, Chad and I performed all the work in the field and 80% of the office paperwork,” Bob remembers. “We got to the point where we knew if we wanted to grow, we needed to start hiring people.”
Growing Talent From Within
The duo tried a couple of different ways to build staff. Their first approach was to hire seasoned electricians, but that didn’t work out as they hoped. “We were not particularly happy with the employees we were getting because it’s tough trying to break seasoned guys of their bad work habits,” Bob says.
That’s when they decided to grow electricians from within the company. They turned to MPTC, the local technical college where Chad received his electrical education, to find students fresh out of school. “We’re able to show them our expectations and our way of doing the work in the field,” Bob explains.
“We teach them how Master Electric will want things done,” Chad says, “how we want things labeled, the way we want things circuited and run. We want to be able to go on a job and look at their work and understand exactly what they did because it was the way we taught them to do it.”
Now in their 11th year of business, Chad spends most of his day in the field working with new hires while Bob now spends most of his time in the office, estimating jobs and handling the business end of the operation. “They work with me or another lead electrician for the first year, getting baptized by everything electrical,” Chad says. “I go wherever the company needs me most at that moment. I make site visits on a regular basis to help answer questions or concerns and to address problems. A lot of times, you can solve a problem better on-site than you can over the phone.”
“As our company grows, we have more responsibilities for our employees,” Bob adds. “We have required safety meetings and, as part of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Wisconsin (ABC of Wisconsin) apprenticeship program, we have to meet documentation requirements. There is a lot more behind-the-scenes work. Besides estimating jobs, I’ve spent more time in the office developing the procedures and processes for the field to keep everybody on the same page and to make sure all of our electricians understand their job duties.”
He’s also helped make technology improvements to enhance communication. “Back in the day, Chad and I both had spiral notebooks and we’d literally make handwritten notes about what we did on the job that day and the material we used. We now use tablets in the field that are wirelessly networked so we can instantaneously see job notes. All employees have a tablet and an email address assigned to them when they are hired. Calendars are shared and everyone knows where everyone is working at a given point in time. So, if we have an issue on a job, we can pull from one location and send staff to help out.”
The company specializes in commercial electrical work for big-box stores and franchises, from fast food restaurants, like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Popeyes, to retailers like Best Buy, Walmart and DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse. While the firm finds bid work from various professional construction networks, including The Blue Book Network, invariably once a general contractor works with Master Electric, it leads to repeat business. “We don’t just work for general contractors; we create relationships with them,” Bob says. “They know the quality of our work, and they reach out to us on a regular basis for continuing work.”
“We have a saying here. We always want to be part of the solution,” Chad says. “As a company, what sets us apart is our accountability. If we say we’re going to do something, we do it to the client’s satisfaction and within the expected timeline. We’ve never missed a deadline. For certain general contractors and franchise owners, we’re their go-to people.”
Over the past two years, the company has expanded its service area from southeastern Wisconsin to include the entire state. “As we started growing as a company, we had several franchise owners that required us to travel outside of our traditional service area of southeastern Wisconsin,” Chad explains. “We’ve gotten to the point where we accept contracts in other areas, depending on the size of the job.”
The business owners agree that the firm’s greatest strength—its employees—can also prove to be their greatest challenge.
“As workload goes up and down, your employee manpower is constantly a balancing act,” Chad says. “Bringing on guys the way we do it is a process. We don’t go to the store and buy an ear of corn. We plant it into the ground and let it grow.”
“Finding the right people and training them is important,” Bob adds. “We don’t just take someone who can do electrical work. They need to be able to trust each other and work well together. When we’re hiring someone, we look at their personality. Are they going to be open? Do they have a confidence about them when they talk to you? Do they have an ability to learn and an ability to be willing to learn? Those are two different things. And we want them to be accountable when they make a mistake. Are they willing to correct a mistake and learn from it to become a better electrician?”
Chad’s work on the Moraine Park Technical College Electrical Advisory Committee, along with the company’s involvement with ABC of Wisconsin, has helped to develop curriculum that ensures what is taught at school is what electrical contractors need in the field. These initiatives have also been a great resource for finding potential employees. Each semester, he talks to classes to answer students’ questions about the trade. And that’s helped raise Master Electric’s profile with potential job candidates. “When we put out ads for new electricians, oftentimes they will recognize the company and apply for the job because I spoke to their class,” Chad says.
“We have a saying here. We always want to be part of the solution.” Chad Smith, Managing Member, Master Electric, a Division of Excel Electric of Wisconsin, LLC
Doing Beautiful Work
It’s hard for the two business owners to single out which projects stand out the most. “Every project we do is special in its own way,” Bob says. “Everything we do has a beautiful aspect. Like a kitchen remodel at a home where the whole ceiling in the kitchen was a stained-glass window, with controlled lighting on the back side that made it look like the sun came up on one side and gradually went across the ceiling to set on the other, as if it were open to the sky. That was a beautiful project, but it was just a kitchen.”
The firm’s biggest job to date was a very intricate lighting project for the Zenith Tech building in Waukesha. “It was a massive project for the size of our company. Once we got done with it, we realized we can do anything,” Bob says.
Other notable jobs have included the electrical and lighting for the historic Mitchell Building in downtown Milwaukee and the outdoor landscape lighting on the south lawn of the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in West Bend. There’s also the remodel of 52 McDonald’s and a project replacing incandescent lighting with energy-efficient LEDs at 50 franchise restaurants across Wisconsin.
“When we look at a job as electricians, we like to make stuff look beautiful,” Bob says. “For different reasons, every one of these projects is important to us because as a company we get to watch one of our guys grow on that project,” Bob says. “Especially with franchise work; it’s not just one store, but the 50 you did. You look at it as a whole and say, ‘Wow, we’re obviously very good at what we do because we get asked to come back.’ ”
Master Electric belongs to the Historic Barton Business Association, which helps local businesses and the community in a historic area near West Bend. The electrical contracting firm also donates items, time and financial resources to help the needy and supports local school sports in West Bend and Kewaskum. To build camaraderie, Master Electric has company Christmas parties and sponsors team outings. One year, the staff visited one of its distributors in Georgia for a behind-the-scenes look at how products and materials are made. Two years ago, the company started a profit-sharing plan, giving 2% of profits on larger jobs to the senior electrician to divvy up among the staff who helped make the jobs successful.
Chad’s work with ABC of Wisconsin has not only helped develop the training of electricians in the area, but has also led to changes in state regulations to enhance the employment opportunities for graduating students. Several years ago, he testified before the state assembly to help change rules that required a fairly restrictive apprentice/journeyman staffing ratio. “The rules required one journeyman for one helper, but four journeymen for the second helper, which made it harder for students to find work. We lobbied the state to get the law changed to an apprentice per journeyman, making it more accessible for people to get into the trade.”
Over the next 10 years, Bob envisions continued business growth and plans to hire new staff to handle the workload. “With the model we’ve followed the past six years, our first apprentice is now moving into the journeyman spot and we will have our first homegrown licensed electrician working for us. There are a couple employees close behind him,” he says.
“We’d like to continue doing more ground-up new construction and larger remodels, as well as major relighting projects for warehouses and companies. There’s nothing electrically we can’t do. There is no job too large,” he adds.