17-years in business has taught Michele and Michael Reynolds one thing—small business isn’t easy. But 17 years of surviving their Newark, Del., electrical contracting firm’s ups and downs has also taught them that they are up for the challenge. So, when Michele earned a seat in the U.S. Small Business Administration/SCORE ‘We-Think’ Program – a 12-month think-tank-style business building class for female entrepreneurs whose businesses have a proven track record and growth potential – she eagerly signed on.
And that’s when Michele’s small business learning curve took her business in a whole new direction.
For Michele, her traditional electrical contracting firm, ‘Shelly Sons Electrical Contracting,’ had always marked the end of her entrepreneurial rainbow. But now, reeling in the Great Recession’s wake with nearly a dozen Shelly Sons’ jobs at stake, Michele would learn that Shelly Sons was, for her, just the beginning. Nearly two decades of Michele’s own electrical industry experience, some well-timed marketplace opportunities, and a little inspiration from her WeThink business coaches were about to not only turn Michele’s business plans upside down, but shape them into an entirely new business – Blue Hen Utility Service, Inc.
The Path to ‘Here’
In 1998, licensed electrician Michael Reynolds founded ‘Shelly Sons Electrical Contracting,’ focusing on residential, commercial, and industrial electrical work across the Mid-Atlantic region. Work was steady. Mike focused on hands-on electrical work. Michele handled the business’ administrative functions. With time, Shelly Sons grew to employ 12, and Michele’s role evolved into strategic leadership and primary ownership of the firm. By 2009, Shelly Sons was a registered Women’s Business Enterprise, taking on government contracts as well handling its private-sector-generated work. Long-term contracts buoyed the firm through the onset of 2009’s economic recession, but, by 2010 and 2011, Shelly Sons’ traditional revenue streams were running dry. Of course, Shelly Sons’ had in place diversified service offerings to help absorb the economic challenges, services including subcontracting high voltage work; cameras and surveillance systems; voice, data, fiber systems; building automated systems; and fire alarm systems.
Times were tough, but Shelly Sons’ ingenuity was seeing it through.
By 2013, Shelly Sons emerged with the rest of the small business community, battle-worn from the struggle to survive the Recession. That year, Delaware’s New Castle County Chamber of Commerce Emerging Enterprise Center Director, Frank DeSantis, introduced Michele to SBA’s ‘WeThink’ Program, to re-boot Shelly Sons to compete in the new, post-Recession economy. After 15 years of building Shelly Sons from the ground up, Michele knew that positive change was inevitable and if Shelly Sons was going to survive long-term she needed a new take on the firm. Once again, she was up for the challenge.
Michele was in.
Writing A New Chapter
Just one session into her ‘WeThink’ class, Michele was hooked. The ‘WeThink’ Program wasn’t just another lecture series about business principles; it was a practical, real-world, probe into each participant’s business – no-holds-barred analysis of what made each business tick, and what could make it soar. Class session by class session, trained business coaches led ‘WeThinkers’ on an unapologetically ruthless deconstruction and reconstruction of their business plans, held participants accountable for committed coursework and promising meaningful results. All the while, participants bonded, exchanging issues and advice, and became a de facto advisory board championing each other’s success.
When Michele entered ‘WeThink,’ Shelly Sons was at a crossroads. Under the Recession’s strain, it became clear that Shelly Sons’ survival was tenuously dependent on too few large customers; if any portion of those failed, Shelly Sons, too, could fold. Under ‘WeThink’s’ microscope, Michele understood her choice: accept Shelly Sons inevitable demise with its narrowly-focused traditional customer base, or fight for survival, which would mean fundamentally re-imagining the business altogether.
That’s when Michele’s ‘WeThink’ journey really began.
Getting Down to Business
Guided by ‘WeThink’ Program principles, Michele plunged into hours-long, one-on-one sessions with ‘WeThink’ Program founders, SBA’s Ellyn Herbert and SCORE Delaware President Antara Dutta – both trained business coaches – to determine whether Shelly Sons should, or even could, survive long term. Together, they identified Shelly Sons’ strengths and opportunities, weaknesses and threats. They cut through Shelly Sons’ outward skill sets to find its owners true, internal motivation – to positively impact the community. And, in the end, they found a whole new focus for Michele’s team by tying together that motivation, Shelly Sons’ skill sets, and a gaping need in the marketplace – one that had, as it turns out, had been there all along: self-performing high-medium voltage utility work.
From its start, Shelly Sons sub-contracted its customers’ high-medium voltage electrical work to other firms, firms with the technical training and equipment to handle that highly-specialized work. Through that high-medium voltage sub-contracting experience, Michele learned a single fact that would change everything for her business – there were no Delaware utility service firms geared to self-perform high-medium voltage work. When storms or other issues breached power lines in the First State, all of the repair work was contracted to out-of-state firms. A Delaware-based utility service company could have a faster response time to address power outages than those more remote out-of-state firms, keeping First State communities and businesses up-and-running when power crisis strikes.
But, thanks to Shelly Sons’ ‘WeThink’-fueled re-boot, all of that was about to change.
Now it was clear: with some ‘WeThink’-inspired business plan restructuring, Shelly Sons could be strong again, and, in turn, support Michele’s foray into high voltage utility work in the First State. With some strategic WeThink-inspired cash flow tweaks, Shelly Sons once again generated reliable revenue. Now Michele could turn her attention to an entirely new venture: creating an entirely new utility services company to self-perform the high-voltage utility work that Delaware so sorely needed.
Once again, Michele was in.
Planning the Work and Working the Plan
To bring her high voltage plans to fruition, Michele needed a sharp team that was up to the challenge. Her husband and long-time business partner Michael Reynolds would bring his field operations expertise to the team. Then, Michele and Mike would reach out to longtime construction executive Ted Kelly to develop corporate marketing strategies, business development initiatives, and operational procedures. Once Michele had the management team in place, she turned her attention to developing Blue Hen Utility Services’ business plan. Together with ‘WeThink,’ Michele’s newly-minted ‘Blue Hen’ team drafted a business plan to take the high-medium voltage service industry by storm. Armed with that plan, the Blue Hen Team promptly secured the necessary financing from a local lender to purchase trucks, tools, and equipment to perform medium-high voltage work. Next, the team added an electrical distribution-trained work crew – the most critical component of the business. And, with that, ‘Blue Hen Utility Services, Inc.’ was conceived, and Michele was named WeThink’s 2014 ‘WeThink Superstar.’
Today, both Shelly Sons and Blue Hen Utility Services, Inc. are going strong, thanks to Michele’s re-focused, re-inspired leadership and the firms’ ever-expanding team – a true workplace family. Shelly Sons continues to serve the customers that have always relied on it – traditional residential, commercial and industrial clients across the Mid-Atlantic region. For Blue Hen, private sector high-medium voltage demand is growing steadily, and public sector high-medium voltage contracts are certainly within reach. With time, Michele looks to “pay her success forward,” mentoring other female entrepreneurs who, like herself, own businesses in male dominated fields. For Michele, persistence and “doing what makes you happy” are the keys to success, in business and in life. And, if Michele’s ‘WeThink’ experience proves anything, it may just be that resiliency goes a long way toward finding both.
This article does not constitute or imply an endorsement by SBA of any opinions, products or services of any private individual or entity.
The SBA is an independent federal agency, created in 1953, to assist small businesses to start, grow, and prosper. The SBA provides financial assistance by: (1) making loans to help families and businesses recover from national disasters and (2) providing loan guarantees to commercial financial institutions for working capital (7(a) loans), buildings/land/equipment (504 loans through the Certified Development Corporations), and for exports. Through our resource partners, the SBA also offers a variety of business development programs and services such as training, government contracting and export assistance. SBA resource partners include Small Businesses Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers, and SCORE (Counselors to America’s Small Businesses). For information on all of SBA’s programs and services, visit the SBA’s web site at http://www.sba.gov or call (302)573-6294.
Blue Hen Utility Services Inc., headquartered in Newark Del. is a full-service high-medium voltage utility services firm. Blue Hen Utility Service’s goal is to be the contractor of choice of its customers, employer of choice of our employees, and the model of excellence for its industry. For additional information on Blue Hen Utility Services, visit its website: www.bhusinc.com.