Taking Charge

Overseeing a business he grew up with, Jeff Peck is designing Peck Electric to compete in the 21st century by relying on the family blueprint for teamwork

by Larissa K. Vigue

Imagine being the 30-year-old president of South Burlington's Peck Electric, which, with its subdivision, Peck Data Communications, is the largest electrical/communications contractor in the state. Last year, the 225-person company, a stone's throw from the corner of Williston Road and Palmer Court, took on 360 projects, including Fletcher Allen Health Care's conversion of two Trinity College residence halls and the redevelopment of the Burlington Town Center (formerly Burlington Square Mall).

Jeff Peck, president of Peck Electric, took over the company two years ago, at the age of 28, from his mother and her husband. Now 30, Jeff looks to improve and expand the company's telecommunications capabilities in hooking up commercial buildings across Vermont.

Project and follow-up service price tags start around $100 and exceed more than $1 million. In February, the company expanded its telecommunications capabilities by purchasing the assets of Rutland's All Lines Communications, a phone systems company. Geographically, Peck spans from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire to IBM's Fishkill, New York, plant.

While all of that might sound like cause for patting oneself on the back, Jeff Peck thinks otherwise. Although he assumed the presidency of Peck Electricwhich has been in business since he was a year oldat the age of 28, his greatest asset just might be his humility.

"Here I am running a business that most people my age would never have the opportunity to do," Jeff says. "When I first came here (full-time), I would answer the phone by saying, 'Hi, this is Jeff at Peck Electric," purposely leaving off his surname because he was "so conscious of people prejudging me based on who I was. Some people were naturally going to think I was here because my name is on the building."

Technically, as Jeff is the first to admit, he is. His father, Harvey Peck, and partner Bernie Taylor started Peck Electric out of the Peck household in Milton in 1972 because, Jeff says, "it was either travel to where the work was or try to make a go of it" on their own. Over the next three to four years, Peck Electric rented warehouse space in Colchester's Fort Ethan Allen, developed a relationship with Burlington's ICV Construction, and slowly began adding employees. Soon, the company added commercial installations to its residential customer base, including restaurants like the Shelburne Road Burger King in 1976 (where Jeff remembers "helping sweep, but probably being more of a nuisance than a help") and the Key Bank building on the corner of Williston Road and Kennedy Drive in 1979.

Gary Chambers, let, Rick Gometz and Gary Plante, take a break from design work at Peck Electric's South Burlington office. Peck says it hires many of its skilled workers from the Vermont Joint Apprenticeship Training Program.

By 1981, Harvey had lost interest in the business and his wife, Diane, took on the day-to-day responsibilities of running the company. When the Pecks divorced, ownership was transferred to Diane and two other partners. Later, they opted out of the business and Diane's second husband, Neal Cone, a veteran electrician, bought into the company.

In the early 1990s, the Cones decided to scale back their duties in preparation for retirement, but they felt they needed to maintain Peck Electric as a family-run company. As Jeff explains, an electrical contracting company is not a highly saleable business because "you're only as good as your last job and your low bid," which may be difficult to reproduce.

The only way for the company to keep its roots was if an heir agreed to take the reins, and Jeff seemed the obvious choice. Brother Harvey Jr. worked at Peck as an expediter, coordinating material deliveries to the project site. Jeff was close to receiving an associate's degree in business administration at Champlain College and recently married. (Wife Krista, formerly a financial analyst at A.N. Derringer in St. Albans, now stays home with the couple's three children: 5-year-old Alex, 3-year-old Adam and 3-month-old Katelyn.)

Although he hadn't been grooming himself for the family business he says he was probably headed into the insurance or financial services industry his wife was supportive of the move, and he saw how his education would bring added value to the company, thereby "justifying my pay."

"We had great people in the field, working hard, but we were weak administratively ... (not) well-computerized. Competition was getting the better of us because of it," Jeff recalls. When he joined the company in 1994, "those were the kinds of things I focused on." While Neal oversaw project management and estimating duties, Jeff freed his mother from some of her administrative tasks. He spearheaded the transition to an all-in-one accounts payable and receivable database, ordered the materials that Peck purchases primarily from local wholesalers, and even chased down money from contractors on Tuesdays so the company could meet payroll for its 40 employees on Wednesday. "I did a little bit of everything," he says.

His mother agrees. "He came from the bottom up, starting off with us in high school as a (part-time) truck driver. He knows all aspects of the business a real asset."

Jeff "came from the bottom up, starting off with us in high school as a (part-time) truck driver. He knows all aspects of the business a real asset."
Diane Cone

When Peck won the bid against five competitors to install the electrical system at Milton's Husky Injection Molding Systems in October of 1997, more than doubling the company's work force and prompting Neal to manage the project on-site, Jeff's administrative responsibilities ballooned. Shortly thereafter, his mother and stepfather retired to Florida, bumping Jeff into the top spot. Although the Cones would retain ownership of the business and continue to advise and consult with Jeff on major decisions, the transition period was a real test of his leadership. "After the Husky job ended (in May 1998), we had a lot of people on the books and a huge backlog of work" due to the sudden increase in construction during the late 1990s. Suddenly, "everybody was scrambling, but two months into it we said, 'Wait a minutewe can handle this.' "

On a given day, Peck might have technicians working 30 to 40 jobs, with another 100 to 150 open contracts on the books. There are the occasional high-maintenance projects one developer last year requested 175 additions and deletions to the original bid but for the most part the process runs like a well-oiled machine. Most of Peck Electric's work results from winning the low bid after a construction manager or developer pre-selects qualified bidders for a project.

"Today, we're on all of the lists," says Jeff, who decides which jobs the company will bid on. "If we want to do something in the state, typically, we can." Once Peck makes it onto the contractors' list of possible subcontracting companies, project blueprints and specifications go straight to one of the company's five estimators. They figure a cost based on drawings and notes. Then Jeff sits down with them and "we put our number on it. If we're low, we get the work."

Jeff Peck and Steve Lindler look over plans before bidding on a project. More than than three decades in business has earned Peck a slot on many estimators' short list of subcontractors.

Guy LaPlume, an estimator who joined the company in 1981, says Jeff has the right amount of give-and-take. "He's good at being able to put our ideas with dollar amounts and decide yes, this'll work, or maybe we ought to re-look at this ... (when) we show him the plan." In general, LaPlume says, "he supports any decisions we need to make, 100 percent."

If that sounds like the definition of a "team player," it should. It's an analogy that Jeff uses to describe why he enjoys his job. "Everybody works as a team, moving in the same direction. There's not a lot of (need for) watching over people. If an estimator wants to bid a job, I'm going to trust his instincts. I'm more of a 'big picture' person. I focus on where I want the company to go places where I think we can be competitive but everyone wants to grow the business."

Growing the business is something Peck has had some experience with, whether out of necessity or by design. In the mid-'80s, "trying to gradually grow the business was (a matter of) survival at that point," Diane recalls. "The market was horrible. People were working out of state." Instead of waiting out the slump, Peck Electric anticipated a different kind of upswing. The company had won a contract in 1980 to provide IBM's electrical work at its River Road plant in Essex Junction. Four years later, a crew of 10 Peck employees went on site at Big Blue to "take over the telecommunications and cabling a big step," Diane explains. "It was basically just pulling cables early on, making the connections, but it was the up-and-coming thing."

The experience at IBM paid off, and Peck Electric took on more telecommunications cabling jobs and expanded the company's Williston Road facility in 1987 to make room for the influx of electrical work. The trade name "Peck Data Communications" was adopted in 1995 to differentiate the subdivisions. Sixty of Peck's 200 technicians now work on communications cabling and phone systems exclusively.

The company might have broadened its reach, but it's determined not to spread itself too thin. Erika Humphrey, information systems project manager at IDX Systems Corp., which has contracted with Peck Data for more than six years, says the quality of the work is what sets the company apart. "They're very particular with how the cables are run, how neat the communications rooms look. We feel confident that whenever we ask them to do something fixing a broken jack or adding a new piece of equipment they take pride in it."

Jeff calls Peck "a high-end solutions provider. We may not be the cheapest guy in town every day, but as long as we show the customer value, we'll continue to be successful." That means streamlining customer needs, which in turn benefits Peck Electric's bottom line. "We're (already) in there doing the lights and the structured cabling, and fiber optics needs to be done at the same time in the same conduit we've just run. If we get a project and move in with our electrical work, I want to then bring in the communications and phone sides. By getting one dollar in sales here, you add a dollar here and there."

That was the case with last year's Fletcher Allen project at Trinity College. Transforming McCauley and Mercy halls into 30 hospital offices required creating "a complete infrastructure of phone, data, light and power systems" in eight months, explains project manager Chris Lynch of Neagley and Chase Construction. Peck, one of 12 bidders approved by the hospital, "was one source for the complete job," Lynch says, "able to do (everything) in-house. They responded very well and quickly to the demands of the job, leading the way and driving the schedule."

According to Jeff, being a leader in the industry doesn't give Peck call to rest on its laurels. "The challenge for us is not to be complacent sit back, be happy that we're doing well. We need to continue to focus on how we can best serve our customers." One way to do this is by maintaining a large and well-trained work force. Jeff sits on the committee that oversees the Vermont Joint Apprenticeship Training Program, the five-year combination of schooling and on-the-job training that turns applicants into licensed electricians with membership in the IBEW Local 300 union. "The nature of this business is that people come and go," Jeff says, "so access to a skilled labor force" is almost a constant necessity.

During the last two years of low unemployment, Peck has applied for, and received, a visa to hire workers from Canada; 15 Canadians are on the payroll. By law, Jeff explains, "we can't displace an American worker, but on certain big projects, it allows us access to a labor source that no one else has."

"The trades offer women (financial) control over their lives."
Jeff Peck

The apprenticeship committee focuses on another untapped labor pool: women. "The trades offer women (financial) control over their lives," Jeff says. "Compare a traditional line of work ... (for) women early childhood education with a journeyman electrician making $24 an hour. That's a huge wage disparity." The program accepts 95 percent of the women who apply, Jeff says, since they tend to "have decided they really want to do this ... (vs.) a guy who answers an ad."

Although more workers translate into more business, there is also more risk no small concern in an already high-risk trade. With two full-time safety officers, a written safety program and an all-around concerted effort to ensure on-site safety, Peck Electric spends a tremendous amount of money on safety equipment, Jeff says. "We take it seriously."

Staying true to the motto "safety first" pays dividends, however. Peck's last Experience Modification Rating, a state-conducted safety assessment based on loss history, was 0.83 on a scale measured against an industry average of 1. The number rises as safety violations accrue, so 0.17 points on the minus side translates into a corresponding deduction in insurance premiums. "It's important financially," Jeff says, "but obviously you don't want your people to get hurt on the job."

That's the team-player in Jeff, his mother says. "There's such dedication in him because it's a family-owned business. Jeff's very levelheaded and able to get along with many people of different age groups and sympathize with their questions. He's good with younger people who don't know what they want out of life, and he treats older people with respect. In turn, they give him respect."

Originally published in May 2001 Business People-Vermont