What is this female, white-collar executive doing running an electrical contracting business in Omaha? Putting a valuable reputation built from 38 years of hard work serving neighbors, architects and builders in the area together with cutting-edge ideas in efficiency swiped from the button-down corporate world, that’s what.
And the result for D&J Electric?
“We punch above our weight class when it comes to large jobs,” agreed owner and operator Lori Buchanan.
'Does it feel right in our heads and our hearts?'
When Lori and her husband Jay searched a year ago for a small business to purchase, they discovered this small company tucked in a neighborhood southwest of 60th and L. Didn’t matter that they were a little out of the way; continual referrals from contractors and business owners familiar with the work of their skilled electricians filled D&J Electric’s schedule with remodel and restoration jobs, from multi-story office buildings, warehouses and restaurants to retail space and apartments.
Quite a bit to step into for Lori, a corporate human relations specialist, who left a leadership position with Mutual of Omaha in employee engagement and talent management for the challenge of running a small business. Jay left his job as director of global supply chain and logistics for Nebraska Furniture Mart to join her.
“Jay and I always have enjoyed talking about businesses, thinking about business and reading about business,” Buchanan said. “As we looked around for a business to buy, we sought one with a sustainable pipeline of work, asking ourselves, ‘are they in a good place, are they making money?’”
When the couple checked out D&J Electric, they found the company fit another of their personal criteria: “Does it feel right in our heads and our hearts? Does it feel like the business would be interesting and fun? You have to go a little bit on your gut instinct. And D&J had a healthy company culture, one certainly built by the owners but also by their long-term employees, too. This company has deep talent with tremendous capabilities.
Turning to the SBA to guarantee the deal
With D&J Electric’s owners ready to sell, Lori and Jay met with Omaha State Bank to lay the groundwork for a deal involving the purchase of the business’ three buildings, equipment, lift truck–and the considerable worth of the future cash flow the business could expect to generate. Then the deal hit a snag.
While the two were attracted to Omaha State Bank’s strong reputation and focus on investment in the local community’s small businesses, they were disappointed to learn the purchase would be held up temporarily as Omaha State Bank completed its merger with Centennial Bank, another locally-focused institution and the SBA’s Nebraska Small Lender of the Year for 2010, to form Core Bank. With the entire management team at Core Bank backing the purchase, all the way up to the bank’s CEO and president, they did suggest restructuring the deal under an SBA guarantee to manage around the banks’ merger activities.
Jay attended an SBA loan presentation seminar in Elkhorn to learn about the application process, and “put things in perspective.”
“We’re not a wholesaler, retailer or manufacturer, we’re in the service industry, so we didn’t have a lot of asset collateral,” he said.
“We negotiated hard on the property price,” Lori added.
Patience paid off, as the couple was approved for a 7(a) loan in August 2013 to purchase the business.
Common name at sites all over downtown Omaha
“We’re looking to be the “go-to” mid-tier contractor in the area,” Lori said. And the immediate future looks bright; in 2013, D&J Electric will report its biggest annual revenue in company history this year and recently brought five new employees on board, bringing the staff up to 40.
The company also specializes in upgrading electrical service for new equipment, often requiring advanced tech skills to improve the electrical service capacity for an entire building or that serve a single piece of equipment. They also do the brainy stuff for their clients, including job cost analysis and turning out detailed electrical drawings for design and build services.
D&J Electric is a common name at construction sites all over downtown Omaha; the biggest job for the company is found at the former Northwestern Bell Building, a multi-million job at 19th and Dodge converting the long-vacant 12-story, 380,000 square foot structure into modern, must-have apartments. Plans for the project, dubbed “The Wire,” for the 60-year old building’s history as a regional telephone headquarters, also call for commercial retail outlets on its first floor.
Then there’s similar electrical renovation work the company is doing for the four-story Fairbanks Building, the former Antiquarium, on Jackson right next to the Old Market, and a million-plus job on a renovation for a new apartment complex at 13th and Jones nearby. Add up work the company does with retail, office and large-scale apartment complexes, fast food and strip mall developers; like the “four retail stores” at the new Nebraska Crossing mall in Gretna. These are examples of our team’s deep “sense of purpose, intense focus, and performance that our customers have come to expect from D & J Electric” Jay said.
Message to their team: 'we have your back'
For D&J Electric, according to Lori, it’s the relationship the new owners have with their employees and clients which matters most of all.
“We don’t have the experience that our employees have in performing this specialized work,” Lori said, “so we do everything we can to support them so they are successful, which, in turn, will pay dividends for our client.”
Jay agreed: “Our message to our team is that “we have your back, and we support them.”
Upon taking over, they kept on the former owner as a key employee, depending on his years of experience deciding which contracts to take and which to take a pass; moreover, he provides much-needed and trusted continuity on current and future electrical contract jobs.
Then the couple met with each employee to discuss the core values and direction of the company. “Most businesses struggle without real buy-in from the employees,” Jay explained.
“We wanted to understand our employees’ capabilities and matching them with the jobs that fit,” Lori said. “There’s a real value in cross training and rounding out this talented team, because our future growth is based on the knowledge, skills and experience of our employees.”
That’s not a commitment they take lightly.
Take those five new employees. Three of them are first-year apprentices who are required to begin the educational process to become licensed electricians, and as long as those new hires keep their attendance and grades on track, the company will support these tuition expenses. Wellness and employee assistance plans are next.
There’s also a plan to put the seasoned employees in leadership positions on jobs to mentor the apprentices, giving the journeymen “ownership on a project, and real sense of challenge and responsibility,” Lori added. But there can be a problem with relying on a few key people.
“When it comes to putting people on a job, we often get ‘oh, put so-and-so on that job, he’s great at it,” she said. “That’s great, because that shows a lot of pride in the work to be the go-to expert. But we need those guys to be mentors, to bring along the whole team to learn that work, too, because we’ll need the depth. People can’t be all places at all times. If we are stronger all around, we’ll deepen our bench strength, improve our capabilities and performance. We believe the work at cross training will drive the sense of teamwork. We expect this to prove itself through the eyes of our clients and partners.”
Lori and Jay figure if they build a sense of teamwork, a culture of cross training, and bring their industry experience to guide more efficient ways of performing the company’s already strong reputation for quality work, D&J Electric will become not only a preferred employer for talented electricians in the area, but continue to improve its reputation as a high performance, quality driven organization.
After all, that reputation was a big part of the value of the business in the first place.
“At the end of the day our biggest concern is our reputation,” Jay explained. “If we’re going to have sustainable business model, you can’t live off it, you have to improve it while building that deep trust.”
Moving Marines and the equipment they need to fight a war is more than planning and effort; it’s a practical art just to get both tanks and toilet paper to the fight. There’s just as much to be done to move the grunts and their gear back home when the war is won. Surprisingly, a small part of that real-time logistics planning work in today’s Corps isn’t done on a baked desert battlefield; it’s done half a world away in a comfortable basement in a quiet, tidy suburban neighborhood in Bellevue.
Those leathernecks know one of their own, Marcus Preasha, has their back.
Providing crucial support for Marine Corps systems
Preasha started his own consulting firm, Preasha Logistics and Consulting, about two years ago, taking his eight years’ experience in uniform and subsequent resume in the logistics industry into a government contracting business serving clients from the Marine Corps to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
It’s some high-level work sometimes with real-world, instant impact. Preasha’s company specializes in mining and gathering hidden gems of valuable information from a wide range of often isolated and proprietary database systems. Sounds easy, right? Often, though, finding these specific pieces of data requires scouring multiple systems, each with its own permissions, access controls, and types of information to make sense out of, then compiling it all into a clean, quick and easily-understood analysis that can help decide where to eliminate costly duplication and where best to put scarce combat resources.
One of Preasha’s jobs is playing a role providing a rapid and flexible logistics capability supporting Global Combat Support System-Marine Corps, a leap forward in the way the service gets what riflemen in the field need faster than ever before. Working as a subcontractor with Oracle for the Marine Corps, his company offers technical, management, database and infrastructure answers, including creative patches and fixes to resolve software issues to the Corps can effectively track, transport and deliver that crucial support—and save taxpayer dollars doing so.
Preasha enlisted in the Marines after attending college at Hampton University and Old Dominion University in the Virginia Tidewater region, and “fell in love” with the logistics field while stationed as a supply administrator at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga. Instructor and inspector duty sent him to the reserve center at Fort Omaha, where he finished his degree work.
He left the Corps, and settling in this area, did work for a government contracting firm out of Virginia, where he continued logistics work with the Marines. His company sent him to Iraq for about five months to help on site during some of the hottest fighting in the war in that country.
“Never went to Iraq with the Marines, but it took being a civilian to be sent there,” Preasha said.
Catching the entrepreneurial bug
But it was at his next job, working for a firm out Johnstown, Pa., that he caught the entrepreneurial bug. Once more working in his specialty, Preasha moved up from support to subject matter expert in Marine Corps database systems.
“I realized in doing the work for my company to get these contracts I could cut out the middle man and start my own business,” Preasha said.
After a year on the job, Preasha left that firm, and itching to go out on his own, began in 2011 working as a subcontractor to Anglicotech, a D.C.-based veteran-owned small business specializing in supply chain management.
“I kind of lucked into the opportunity,” Preasha said. The Marine Corps had rolled out its combat support system and Anglicotech and Oracle had plenty of work to go around.
“Without that SBA loan, I’d really be struggling financially,” Preasha said. “The loan gave me some breathing room, and a chance to really understand the financial part of running a business. The work was the easiest part, I know how to work with clients. The hardest part in starting a business is to understand all the different sites you have to go to register, and then there’s all the taxes you have to pay as a business owner.”
He used some of the proceeds from the loan to fly around the country to sell his nascent company’s services to provide subcontracting work. Once, on a connecting flight from Minnesota to D.C., Preasha struck up a conversation with a colleague, a talk which led to a small consulting job with the Secretary of Defense improving accountability and cutting waste with government-loaned equipment to contracting firms. At one point, Preasha claimed, the Defense Department was missing millions worth of equipment waiting to be shipped back from civilian companies.
“There’s a big emphasis by Congress to improve accountability for all the money appropriated to Defense,” he explained.
Working with PTAC to bid on more business
While at first Preasha ran his company as an “employee” of his former firm, as he continues to snag more and more contracts, “I’m more directed to really running this as a business, not just finding work on an ad hoc basis and getting money month to month.”
To that end, Preasha meets often with the Nebraska Business Development Center’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), where he’s picked up tips to search job solicitations on the Federal Business Opportunities site, and certifying his company to qualify for set-aside contracts.
“PTAC really opened my eyes and helped me with that first step to really understand what I was getting into,” Preasha added.
And after one year of leaving his corporate contractor job running his own firm, Preasha said he’s doubled his income .
“I’ve got big hopes for this year,” he said. In addition to moving out of his basement and finding office space in Bellevue, he wants to win “a couple more contracts,” to expand from a staff of one part-time administrative assistant to 10 employees.
And he’s also made an effort to give back to the Marine Corps for giving him his start. Preasha has mentored several Marines making the move to civilian life, including pointing one master sergeant toward opening his own logistics contracting company.
“A lot of junior Marines especially aren’t taught to look at their future, that they’re focused on their day-to-day job,” Preasha said. “I always say take as many classes as you can, learn as much as you can. I tell them, ‘this is what I did, and you can do it, too.’”
With her Army husband deployed overseas, Chelsey Hershey returned to her home town to finish up a business degree and with a dream to go into business for herself. She found a place for sale and during a long-distance call to her husband exclaimed: “I could be a business owner tomorrow!”
His quick and supportive answer? “Go for it!”
And within a few months, her shop, Down Home Emporium, made a quick name for itself as the go-to florist in rural central Nebraska. Her place offers fresh and silk arrangements, brand-name greeting cards, a selection of toys and jewelry, and the perfect feature to finish off any home décor.
“We take care of a lot of little towns that don’t have floral services,” said Hershey, who offers services for weddings and funerals up to 75 miles away from the shop’s location in Arnold.
It’s a big help that Hershey, along with her two part-timers and a seasonal employee, have a passion to serve their customers.
“At first, we didn’t advertise very much because frankly we weren’t very experienced,” Hershey said. “But we’ve taken classes through national flower chains and have vastly improved our expertise and the range of services we can offer. We’re still learning, it’s an interesting field and one rewarding and fun.
“We’re always busy with one event or another. Doing weddings for my friends has been wonderful,” she added, “and every funeral feels like a blessing for us to be able to provide this service. We really incorporate what that person was in our arrangements.”
Perhaps the store’s best offering is the chance for local artists to offer for sale their handmade collectibles, “from crocheting, to sewing, to woodwork and furniture,” Hershey said.
“We want to give back to the community shopping at our store something that adds to the economy of our small town,” she added.
While Down Home Emporium markets through newspaper ads and sponsoring local high school athletic game broadcasts on area radio, Hershey aggressively uses social media, such as Facebook, to promote sales and display special arrangements.
Hershey’s entrepreneurial path began slowly, training horses for some spare cash when she was younger, and she picked up experience in retail working with her mom at a boutique in Arnold; that store was in the very building she would later purchase for Down Home Emporium.
After a semester in college in a pre-nursing program, she went off to Cheyenne to study equine business management; after she married, Hershey pursued a business degree with a focus in entrepreneurial studies.
“I had enjoyed through all my moves and throughout college being a sales associate at a western store and a large retail chain, and that experience learning from those stores taught me a lot about merchandising,” she said.
With two loans in hand, one through the Arnold Economic Development Corporation and another through the Custer County Development Corporation, and lots of family help, she opened the doors to the shop in Nov. 2011. A couple of years later, Hershey sought financing to expand the business inventory and the business’ offerings and services.
“I was scared, very nervous, mainly because I didn’t want to go into debt very much,” she admitted. “So I tried not to get very many loans, but that I wouldn’t have inventory stocked. Without going into debt it’s tough to expand.”
Hershey said it took a couple of years to understand the business enough gradually to change its offerings and “give a boost for this holiday season.”
“The first Christmas was great, but last year I sold a lot of what I had collected, so I really needed to get a fresh set of new inventory and home décor, and I had a few toys from the last few years, that I wanted to get fresh new things,” she said. “We’re a small town, so I can’t get a vast amount of items, maybe just ones and twos of things.” Still, an infusion of new inventory would boost sales, she explained, because advertising new items on the shelf in a store in a small town could draw customers back in.
Hershey discovered the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) while surfing the SBA’s web site, and applied for a microloan to finance purchase of new inventory, and renovations for the building’s lighting and insulation to cut energy costs. She’s already used the proceeds to insulate the store’s display window and the drafty store room.
The SBA Microloan Program is the largest federal program solely dedicated to supporting the credit needs of very small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs. Working through a network of community-based nonprofit intermediaries such as REAP, the program provides loans and technical assistance to start-up and emerging small businesses unable to secure credit from conventional banks.
In addition, Hershey got small business planning advice this fall from the REAP Women’s Business Center, which sponsored a five-week refresher class in business management.
And looking toward the future: “We’re always looking for unique items to have in the store,” Hershey said. “We also would really like to expand our wedding and floral service.” Future plans call for expanding delivery to outlying towns lacking a full-service florist shop.
“The sky is the limit here,” she said.