Shattering Misconceptions of Union Contracting – through Training, Innovation, and a Culture of Excellence
Sturgeon Electric Company, Inc. (Sturgeon Electric) is shattering the negative connotations sometimes associated with being a Union contractor. Thriving today as the largest specialty contractor in the Rocky Mountain region, the company’s story is a tale of historical significance, humble beginnings, a struggle to survive, and the hardened resolve of a company committed to the growth of its most precious asset: its people.
By implementing home-grown education programs, embracing innovation, fostering creativity, promoting ongoing training, and holding fast to continuous improvement, Sturgeon Electric continues to exhibit a clear departure from the typecast notions of clunky, mechanized Union contracting. As a result, the company has enjoyed national company growth and wide-ranging capabilities as a full-service electrical contractor.
Founded by David Dwight ‘D.D.’ Sturgeon in 1912, the company still operates under its original license – one of the first ever issued in Colorado – electrical license #3. During Christmastime 1914, Mr. Sturgeon would dip lightbulbs in red and green paint and illuminate them in a treetop, allowing his son who had fallen ill to see them through his bedroom window; Mr. Sturgeon would later be credited as the father of Christmas tree lighting.
Sturgeon’s small operation soon experienced rapid growth with the roaring 1920s and 1930s yielding plenty of commercial and industrial work throughout Colorado. Wartime in the 1940s gave rise to several military projects, and in the 1950s, several large public contracts helped Sturgeon Electric flourish. However, the 1960s ushered in a devastating flood which abruptly interrupted the company’s growth, destroying its downtown Denver headquarters and much of its fleet.
Sturgeon Electric’s challenge of returning to prosperity during the 1970s was fortified by a massive steel mill project in Pueblo, CO. The company experienced major shifts during the 1980s, first by merging with Harlan Electric of Detroit, Michigan and second by relocating its headquarters to its current location in Henderson, Colorado to accommodate growth.
The 1990s were a defining decade for Sturgeon Electric, and a change in management significantly altered the culture and path of the company. “The shift in leadership created a focus on company values and continuous field-level education. The change created an empowered workforce focused on innovation and customer service,” C & I Division President Jeff Waneka explained. “This change led to Sturgeon’s growth as the largest specialty contractor in the Rocky Mountain region and its continued organic growth through the western U.S.”
During the 1990s, offices were expanded to Arizona in both Phoenix and Tucson, as major contracts were secured. Meanwhile, Denver International Airport generated over $150 Million worth of electrical work for Sturgeon Electric in Colorado, a facility in which it continues to provide maintenance and upgrade work to this day. In Las Vegas, Sturgeon Electric was awarded a $153 Million contract for electrical work on the world-famous Bellagio Hotel and Casino. By the end of the decade, the company was acquired by MYR Group, a national electrical contractor. The acquisition meant Sturgeon Electric was now backed by the resources and support of MYR Group’s nationwide presence and reputation, which included financial stability and a highly skilled workforce. In 2008, MYR Group became a publicly traded company.
Since the 1990s, Sturgeon Electric has ventured into nearly every industry and every region of the western United States, and has grown considerably. While striving to provide clients with a full array of electrical solutions, service offerings have expanded to include Commercial & Industrial, Transmission & Distribution, Voice/Data/Video, Transportation Construction, Building Automation Systems, Service & Maintenance, Pre-construction Services, Pre-fabrication, and Building Information Management (BIM). With strategically located offices in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington, Sturgeon Electric can combine regional and national resources to support clients with stable, quality and highly responsive project execution.
“That ties back to the training,” Waneka explained. “In order to leverage the strength of the company, you need the ability to tie together resources from different areas, and people have to be willing to work together. Collaboration can be an overused term these days, but it’s a real thing… It’s tailored into our company values, our mission statement, our vision. It’s what’s proven to really work well. You get the very best of everybody when you do that.”
Waneka was a driving force behind Sturgeon Electric’s transformation in the 1990s, and he’s had an impact through the introduction of training and safety programs that have been instrumental to building the company’s well-respected reputation. “When we started our foreman training program back in 1999 or 2000,” Waneka recalled, “we actually enrolled every single employee we had in that program. We had a very intense period of processing every project engineer, project manager, administrative person, office manager through the same class.” It served as a way of branding the company and empowering everyone with the same values of safety, respect, responsiveness, creativity, integrity, initiative and teamwork.
Built upon the basic belief that “when you improve the life of your foremen, you automatically elevate the performance of everyone in the company,” Sturgeon Electric’s culture of continuous self-improvement has proven to be an exceptional approach, yielding education platforms which are truly unique to the electrical construction industry. To date, the company’s home-grown education initiatives have expanded to eight distinctive programs: Foreman Management and Leadership Academy, Creating Dynamic Foremen, Healthcare Environment Training (I & II), Data Center University (I & II), Energized Work Competency and Authorization Program, Supervisor Training and Accident Reduction Techniques (START), Project Engineer Training, and National Electrical Code (NEC) upgrade classes. In addition, weekly classes are offered to all employees which cover several cutting-edge computer applications, First Aid/CPR, and blueprint reading.
Sturgeon Electric’s Foreman Management and Leadership Academy emphasizes the philosophy of Steven Covey’s book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Class participants are those who exhibit leadership ability and are nominated by a supervisor to participate in this immersive training in the company’s values and expectations to improve engagement levels and productivity. Leaders who harness what they’ve learned and exhibit exceptional qualities proceed to the second phase of leadership training, Creating Dynamic Foremen, where they enter a mentorship phase under the wing of the company’s most experienced and successful leaders.
Data Center University (DCU) and Healthcare Environment Training (HET) are multi-tiered courses which educate employees in great detail about the industry-specific aspects of active healthcare and data center facilities. Both courses instill knowledge of best practices and rigorous protocols required to be effective within each environment type. As Waneka states, “We recognize that for the average electrician going to work in a hospital (for instance), there’s a whole set of criteria to perform that job effectively. You may be a brilliant electrician, but if you’re oblivious to infectious disease control and patient safety protocols, then you could create risk for the owner.” This sentiment of possessing facility-specific awareness was reiterated by one of Sturgeon Electric’s data center clients (confidential), Tina Weber, who attended the DCU courses: “The DCU program focuses on the many obstacles encountered working in a live critical traffic carrying data center environment. Having a vendor initiate and promote additional training that far exceeds industry standards is very inspiring to end users and customers.”
Another unique education platform is Sturgeon Electric’s Energized Work Competency and Authorization Program (EWP). This is a three-tier class in which highly select licensed electricians endure intensive energized work training and demonstrate their competency in a live, proctored scenario. Much like the Foreman’s Leadership class, attendees must be nominated by Project Managers or Superintendents, and only after passing the class are they allowed to execute energized work in the field. This course was designed in 2015 and implemented in 2016 after safety management determined that possession of an electrical license does not accurately affirm the competency of an electrician tasked with performing energized work. Another bold step for Sturgeon Electric, this class requirement will officially become company policy beginning in 2017.
Sturgeon Electric’s START training has been a major factor in the company’s industry-leading safety performance and safety culture buy-in. An eight-hour course required of all employees, the content is so successful that several of Sturgeon Electric’s clients have placed their own employees through the class. START was the foundation of a safety culture shift which has led to Sturgeon Electric’s multiple awards and industry recognitions, such as STAR status in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Mobile Workforce Demonstration for Construction. Sturgeon Electric was named one of the nation’s safest specialty contractors by the Associated General Contractors (AGC) and has received numerous NECA safety awards.
Caring about the company as a whole is a significant difference for Sturgeon Electric. “It elevates everybody in the organization, and having observed this industry for so many years, I can say that’s a faint and often non-existent trait in other companies; they put their focus on upper-level managers and they kind of forget what it’s like to be in the field. They forget the frustration that occurs on the job site,” Waneka continued. “We’ve been able to create this organization – this culture – where we’re all on the same page of supporting the greater cause, and we continue to bring in talented people who are willing to step into situations to foster the betterment of other groups and share resources – that, really, is the creative catalyst driving these programs and allowing us to be successful in new regions,” he added.
Moving forward, Sturgeon Electric will continue to work toward being the leading specialty contractor in its market. “We definitely want to broaden our footprint. We’ve observed the economic growth and geographical expansion of several national brands. This demand has begun to draw us outside of our familiar territory. Outside markets didn’t provide the sustainability necessary to support operations the way that we are beginning to see now,” noted Waneka of the shifting direction of the market. “Many of our large national clients are pulling us into other parts of the country. If you have a really strong relationship with one location, they want to take you to their other locations. For years, we hesitated to embark on these ventures, either because of our lack of relationship with local field forces, or a disconnect with the local culture and vendor resources. Now, however, we’ve been able to answer the call with our organic growth initiative, which has recently yielded brand new offices in Seattle, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and California. We’d love to be the go-to source for all of our clients’ needs, and we’re evolving into a company that is able to do just that.” Sturgeon Electric undertakes great effort to study and research markets to ensure they are viable before entering.
By tying those locations together to create a national presence, Sturgeon Electric is asserting its brand as a national leader. Coupled with its unique approach to training and continued commitment to self-improvement, the company is empowering excellence through specialty electrical construction services from coast to coast.