A great unsung legacy of the Automobile Era has surely been all those extra garages in backyards and alleyways across America that have ended up serving as birthplaces for new enterprises. The recent history of American business—which is still being written—thrills with stories of high-tech startups founded in such unadorned settings and the heroes of those rags-to-riches legends, the entrepreneurs.


The electrical contracting industry has its own ample share of present-day entrepreneurs. Less celebrated than their counterparts in more publicized technology ventures, thousands of EC firm founders have proven their pluck at overcoming the obstacles of starting a business and displayed their determination by surviving the adversities and keeping it going.


The sequel to the initial success story of many high-tech companies has often found them falling on hard times because some scientific advancement or shift in consumer buying habits has allowed a new wave of competition with a next generation of products to blow right past them. By contrast, the plotlines in the corporate biographies of electrical contracting companies seldom contain such a dramatic turn of events. But, like every other kind of business, progress can bypass the EC.


The trick to staying on top of the game is the same for electrical contractors as it is for technology companies or any other kind for that matter. Periodically, they have to pause to analyze what they are doing and make adjustments to how they are operating—even when things seem to be going just fine.


Fortunately, most established firms are potentially capable of redirecting their efforts and re-energizing their operations because, somewhere inside virtually every company, there are talented people who can come up with fresh ideas to lead their organization onward to its next mark of achievement. We call them “intrapreneurs.” They have good ideas, and they can make good things happen.


The problem is that too many companies are incapable of recognizing the intrapreneurs within their ranks. Too many firms fail to capitalize on the talents and capabilities of those people within their midst who can contribute innovative ideas that might even be as compelling as the kind that once inspired the founder to start the business. Intrapreneurs can drive their organization to the next mile-post on the road to continuing success and beyond. That’s important because, to remain viable, companies must periodically reinvent themselves.


In line with that principle, the starting point in our standard recommendations to ECs calls for ramping up their service-based revenues in a steady effort to balance their overall sales mix. In case after case for the majority of ECs, carving out a separate business unit wholeheartedly dedicated to service work has proven to be a winning strategy. 


Two years ago, the management team at United Electric Co. Inc. saw things that way. As they huddled in a strategic planning meeting in their Atlanta office, they decided it was time to open the throttle on their service work activities. Of course, fulfilling that goal would require putting someone in charge. Matt Hayes accepted that challenge.


We have never heard Hayes refer to himself as an intrapreneur—that’s our word choice. But his role in United Electric’s strategic shift to a more structured approach in its service work activities is what we would call intrapreneurial. A second-generation member of this well-established firm that has maintained a loyal, years-long following of top-drawer construction project customers, Hayes was an ideal candidate to champion the conversion of the company’s electrical service work operations.


While providing increased day-to-day direction to the progress of the company’s service offerings is not his only management responsibility at United Electric, Hayes takes special pleasure in pointing out the results that the service team has chalked up thus far, including the reciprocal marketing relationship that is now connecting its construction project and service work activities.


“Everybody understands how construction project work can lead to ongoing service work after a big job is complete,” he said, “but new customers who have gotten to know us through our performance in service work have been calling us back to do larger construction jobs.”


Early on in this new commitment, Hayes quickly picked up on two keys for success. 


“First, it’s important that your service operation is a separate operation,” he said. “Second, you definitely have to make a regular habit of getting out and meeting with customers.”


As one more recipe for success, we add that ECs should always be on the lookout for potential intrapreneurs within their company and opportunities to make use of their talents.