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September 2004
Wired for Success
By Casey Jacobus

   Port City Electric Company, one of the region’s oldest and largest electrical contractors and a major contributor to the fast-paced construction industry of the Carolinas, started from very humble beginnings. The name itself harkens back to a time when Duke Power first created Lake Norman by damming the Catawba River, and Mooresville positioned itself as the “Port City.”  The town has since abandoned that identity for “Race City USA,” but Port City Electric has remained true to its foundation and grown far beyond the borders of its birthplace.

   It was in 1967 that Gene Wilhelm, a Mooresville electrician, borrowed $300 to start Port City Electric Company (PCE). At first PCE did any kind of work that could be found, from wiring hot water heaters to installing electric lights in parking lots; once Wilhelm even had to borrow money from an employee to meet the company’s payroll. But PCE survived the early days and the business thrived and grew, thanks to Wilhelm’s belief in going the extra mile for the customer.

   “My father built this company on doing the ‘right thing,’” says Mike Wilhelm, president of Port City Electric. “He always said, ‘Do the right thing and worry about the cost later.’ That is a philosophy we still believe in today.”

   With 300-plus employees at offices in Mooresville and Raleigh as well as Charleston, S.C., PCE has positioned itself as the premier electrical contractor in the region. The company specializes in the installation and service of electrical distribution, fire alarm, security, and emergency power systems. With superb “design build” and “fast track” capabilities, PCE consistently ranks among the top electrical contractors in the country. The company focuses on several vertical markets including commercial, health care, industrial, institutional, and education. Recently PCE ranked 50th on Southeast Construction’s top Specialty Contractors list. The company was recently selected to be the electrical contractor on the new Charlotte Bobcats Arena in downtown Charlotte.


Laying the Foundation

   PCE’s first major contract was for the Boy Scouts of America building in Charlotte – at $12,000 it was a modest start for a company that now enjoys revenues of $25 to $35 million per year. In 1980, Jim Mathews of Binghamton, New York, purchased the company, operating as a silent partner, with Gene Wilhelm remaining as president. It was at this time that PCE saw its most rapid growth.

   The electrical contractor was just hitting its stride when IBM began construction in Charlotte’s Research Park. PCE was awarded the contract, and within a matter of months the company grew from 65 to 165 employees and annual sales jumped from $5 million to $16 million.

   During the Southeast construction boom of the ’80s, PCE became a major player in many of the Carolina’s largest development projects, building a reputation based on the company’s core principles of quality workmanship, on-time completion, and customer satisfaction. Over the course of its 37-year history, PCE has worked on many of the area’s most important projects including: sporting complexes – The Charlotte Coliseum, Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Knights Stadium, and the Baker Sports Complex at Davidson College; health care projects – Carolina Medical Center, Presbyterian Hospital Matthews, the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center, Western Wake Hospital, the Duke University Hospital Expansion, and Gaston Memorial Hospital; office buildings – Gateway Center, Duke Power Customer Service Center, MCI Administrative Building, IBM Complex, One Wachovia Center (then One First Union Corporate Center), Microsoft Charlotte, and Wake County Public Safety Center; and educational sites - Mt. Pleasant High School, Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute, Appalachian State University Library, and the UNCC Humanities Center.

   In 1998 the company was sold again, this time to Constar International, a provider of electrical and telecommunications infrastructure headquartered in Norwood, Mass. While Port City Electric is one of three Constar divisions, it operates quite independently. Last year Gene Wilhelm retired, turning the presidency over to his son Mike, who had been serving as executive vice president. This June, the company added Randy Wright to its management team as COO.

   The two men at the helm of Port City Electric today followed different paths to get there, but together they bring a wide range of expertise and talent to the company. Mike Wilhelm, 47, was there from the very beginning. His grandparents worked in the textile mills in Mooresville where he grew up and he started working at Port City Electric when he was eleven years old, digging ditches and cleaning out the warehouse. Graduating from Catawba College in 1981, the younger Wilhelm has held several positions within the organization from estimating to project management. He holds both an unlimited electrical license as well as a general contractors license.

   Randy Wright, 51, grew up in Muncie, Indiana, and graduated from Ball State University in 1976 with a degree in finance and management. Aside from a few years spent at the Dallas Theological School, he has been involved in the electrical industry, most recently as president of Pollock Summit Electric Company in Houston, Texas, before moving to Mooresville a few months ago.

   “Mike and Randy bring a wealth of experience and stability to the company,” explains Dave Ruggerio, PCE director of business development. “They both share a deep desire to build on the solid reputation that Port City has held for over three decades.”


Valuing Employees

   PCE’s reputation for quality work could not be achieved without attracting and keeping the best possible talent. The company encourages loyalty and individual growth by offering comprehensive training, top pay and excellent benefits. Within this framework there are also ample opportunities for advancement.

   “The majority of people working at our company headquarters started out in the field,” states Wilhelm. “There are no limits as to what people can achieve here,” he says. “People can grow professionally, have a good career, and have fun doing it.”

   Port City invests in its employees by paying 100 percent of a four-year apprenticeship program that results in a journeymen’s license. This program is offered through the Construction Education Foundation of the Carolinas. PCE foremen participate in the STEP program (Supervisory Training Electrical Professionals) to discuss issues and solve job-related problems. The company also offers continuing education on electrical code  ‰ and craft training at its Mooresville location. A testament to Port City’s allegiance to its employees is that 35 percent have been with the company for over 20 years. Several have been with the company since its inception.

   Recruiting and hiring the best people is an ongoing concern at PCE, made more difficult by the fact that there aren’t as many young people going into the construction trades as there used to be. The average age of a construction worker is now pushing 45. Many younger people are discouraged by the perception that it is a dangerous and dirty business.

   “We need to change that perception,” says Wilhelm. “Electrical contracting is a great business to be in. An accomplished foreman can make up to $70,000 a year; top project managers can earn up to $100,000.”

   Dedication to employee safety is another cornerstone of the PCE operation, which is evident from the fact that the company employs a full-time safety manager, a rarity in the industry. Before new employees start in the field, they must go through an orientation process to review basic safety procedures. Once assigned to a crew, new associates are paired with experienced electricians for training. Foremen conduct reoccurring safety meetings with their crews and submit weekly job site safety inspection reports. Foremen are also required to complete CPR and First Aid training, which is provided through the company.

   “We aim to be the safest, best trained, most productive company in the region,” says Wright. “Port City Electric has always had an excellent reputation as a company that cares about its employees.”

   “The safety of our employees is our biggest concern,” affirms Wilhelm. “We are committed to education and training on safety and it will remain a key focus of our company.”


Winning on Performance

   Both Wilhelm and Wright believe that Port City Electric’s future depends on its longtime commitment to its customers. As they look five to ten years down the road, they feel that the company’s longevity will be driven by its solid history of completing quality work on time. They see it as an important building block for the company’s future success.

   During the time Port City Electric has been in business, Wilhelm says he has seen the industry change from being performance driven to price driven. The immediate effect has been an increase in competition and a drag on profits. Because of this more competitive market, many electrical contractors have come and gone but Port City Electric’s reputation as a quality partner has provided them with a multitude of clients, many whom the company has worked with for over 20 years.

   “Despite the demand to be more profitable, PCE is still distinguished by the core commitments that my father set out thirty plus years ago,” Mike Wilhelm says. “We’ve maintained consistent quality over time and that’s still important to a lot of people, regardless of price.”

   “The Carolina construction market is starting to heat up again,” says Wright. “Our goal is to win on performance. If we increase our productivity and maintain reasonable overhead, we’ll continue to grow and thrive.”

   Loyal to the region that continues to be rich in opportunities, PCE supports many local charities by contributing both time and money to worthy causes including the United Way, Habitat for Humanity, Rotary Club, Lions Club, the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, and many local area churches.

   “We remain committed to our employees, our community, and our customers,” remarks Wilhelm. “I am optimistic that our company will continue to meet the needs of all three as we move forward in our quest for excellence.

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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