Voices & Visions Northern Electric Inc.

“The lights are on but no one’s home” isn’t something you’d say to Tracy Conard, because the president of Northern Electric, Inc. just might suggest energy-saving motion-detector lights. Conard knows a thing or two about wiring. She launched NEI in 1992, shortly after she married her husband, Jim.

She’s had to prove herself through electrical education and certification, but the full-service commercial and industrial electrical contracting company in Green Bay has grown to employ 65 people and service a wide swath of northeast Wisconsin.

What led you to launch NEI?

Both Jim and I grew up in families that were self-employed, so it was in our DNA to try our own venture. Before starting NEI, I was a part owner in another business that I sold. With experience in business and the desire to be self-employed, I wanted to find my own identity as a woman in the construction industry.

Have you faced challenges unique to being a female boss?

Twenty-five years ago the construction industry was predominantly male, and for a woman in a man’s world at the time, I wanted people to take me seriously. I had to know a thing or two about the construction industry and find my identity – which meant I needed to earn the respect from others to make my identity become real.

What’s your background?

I grew up in the Green Bay area watching my father working hard running multiple businesses. He was 100 percent of my business influence and instilled a solid work ethic in me – I learned the value of hard work and dedication while watching him.

After graduating Preble High School, I decided to further my education at UW Eau Claire before returning back to Green Bay where I received a degree in criminal justice and police science. I furthered my education going through an electrical program and receiving a diploma in Atlanta.

What does being a certified woman-owned business mean?

This was a personal goal of mine to prove that a woman can be accepted and respected in the construction industry. That being said, it helps other businesses achieve goals set by entities that require working with WBEs (women-owned business enterprises).

How did the company grow?

Initially we grew too fast and hence had some growing pains, which made us step back so we could re-evaluate the future growth strategy of the company. We have since learned to properly expand as a business and have doubled our company size over the last five years. We’re projecting to double the size of the company in the next five years.

As we’ve grown, we’ve moved to a larger location, put on a few additions, purchased all our own equipment, and manage a fleet of service vehicles.

What challenges accompanied that growth?

In its early stages, cash flow was a financial challenge. NEI in its infancy didn’t have the relationships with the banks, vendors, subcontractors and even general contractors that it does today – we had to earn the trust and faith from them. As we grew the company, new positions opened, and I found that filling those positions from within worked best for NEI.

How did you remain successful through the recession?

The success of NEI during the recession and its aftermath contributed to our diversification of the company, and we owe it to our customer relationships. Through the recession, we had to make changes to accommodate our customers’ economic changes.

How does NEI achieve its strong safety record?

By creating a culture and living by the culture by growing vertically and not diluting it with outside influences. We hire the correct attitudes and teach proper safety culture of zero at-risk behaviors.

We believe a big part of our safety is also cultivated in our weekly pre-task pre-plan meetings, quarterly safety training, and in on-site safety assessments that show appreciation and emphasize our employees’ well being. We also have a partnership with (our insurance carriers) to promote proper work practices on job sites.

Are there challenges finding skilled electricians?

Due to the recession, many retired and moved on from the trades, and the demand for skilled workers went down.

The emphasis at the high school level is for every child to go to college and attain a degree. This led to a 6 to 8-year gap when labor recruitment from out of high school and technical colleges was down.

More recently the need for skilled electricians is in high demand, as there seems to be more work in the industry than workers, and we have not been able to make up for the gap over the last six to eight years. For NEI it was vital to try to retain our employees over that time through benefits like continuing education, health and wellness packages, and competitive 401(k) packages. Creating that family-like atmosphere truly helped our company.

What’s unique about NEI?

We’ve created a culture with a family atmosphere and a door-always-open policy no matter who you are in the company.

Another unique factor is the high qualification of our employees. The majority of our guys are master electricians, and we continue to encourage them to further their education and training.