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Tennessee Electric Company branching out across country to maintain jobs here at home

Sharon Hayes • Dec 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

It’s operated in Kingsport for years without much notice or fanfare, providing highly skilled jobs at various industrial sites across the region.

Now, you’ll find employees of Tennessee Electric Company working across the country — from installing cable on industrial projects in the Southeast, to wiring wind farms in the Midwest.

President and Chief Executive Officer Greg R. Boehling, who bought the company in 2007 with his business partner, Robert Jordan, said he began looking for jobs outside the region to sustain the company and its employees during the difficult economic downturn.

“When the economy began to tank and local work began to dry up, it was real important that we pick up some of these other jobs,” Boehling said. “This clearly has been a challenging time, but because of what we’ve been doing in these other areas, it’s helped us weather the storm pretty well.”

Tennessee Electric Company was founded in 1947 as a three-person operation headquartered in Kingsport. In 1957, the company was acquired by John F. Miller, who incorporated the business in 1961.

Through the years, Tennessee Electric grew into a large operation, dispatching employees on various jobs in Northeast Tennessee and in the coalfields of Southwestern Virginia and Southeast Kentucky.

In 1988, the company entered into a maintenance contract with Eastman Chemical Co., and today, Tennessee Electric provides construction and maintenance support at Eastman. Its work at the Kingsport-based chemical plant is headed by Frank Merrill, site manager.

Merrill said Tennessee Electric has won Eastman’s Supplier Excellence Award every year since 1995.

“Fourteen straight years,” he said.

In 1998, Tennessee Electric received the Tennessee Quality Commitment Award in recognition of its work.

When Boehling and Jordan acquired the company in 2007, its work was mainly concentrated in this region. But that work began to dwindle as the recession took hold of the nation’s economy.

Boehling decided to seek projects outside the region.

“My focus has been to make the company even better than it was and grow it to ensure its long-term success and to provide opportunity and stability for our people,” he said.

Since then, Tennessee Electric employees have traveled from Kingsport to work on projects in various parts of the country, including Richmond, Va., and Charleston, S.C.

In early 2008 the company learned that contractors were having difficulty getting electrical work completed on wind farms out west.

“We contacted them and figured out that we had the skill sets to do what it takes — right here in Kingsport — to get the job done,” Boehling said.

The company was able to secure contracts to wire wind turbines across the Texas panhandle and Missouri.

Most recently, Tennessee Electric was contracted to provide wiring work on wind energy projects in Greensburg, Kansas — a town that was essentially destroyed a few years ago by a tornado, and is now being rebuilt with “green” projects in mind. The wind farms being constructed today will supply the town’s electricity needs tomorrow.

“It’s an interesting project for us,” Boehling said.

And it’s hard and dangerous work, Merrill said, noting that Tennessee Electric employees climb towers 250 feet in the air to install wiring.

“It’s dangerous work, but it’s a great opportunity for these guys to do some traveling that they may not otherwise get to do,” he said.

The company has created a separate wind energy division headed by Aaron Jordan, director of operations.

Boehling said the company is continuing to seek additional wind energy projects as well as other work across the country.

“By doing work in these other locations and picking up this wind energy division and the other work we do in industrial settings outside of town, it’s helped us preserve a lot of jobs that we otherwise wouldn’t have because work in the Tri-Cities region has declined,” Boehling said.

Today, Tennessee Electric is a full-service electrical contractor operating primarily in the Southern, Eastern and Midwestern United States. The company specializes in installing and maintaining both high and low voltage systems that are common in complex industrial and commercial facilities.

Tennessee Electric employs about 180 people locally and another 35 people who are temporarily assigned to projects in other areas of the country.

Still, the company has had some layoffs. Employment at its peak last year was about 230.

“But we still have over 200 people, and in this economy, that says a lot about the company’s ability to diversify and branch out and be able to go where the projects are,” said Jordan.

Tennessee Electric is developing a reputation in the industry for having the highly skilled employees to get tough jobs done. The company is known for its training, and serves as a testing accreditation center through the National Center for Construction Education Research, certifying its employees and those who work for other companies as highly trained craftsmen.

Tennessee Electric employees are multi-skilled electricians who work in various specialties, such as PLCs, distributed control systems, instrumentation, fiber optics, and high voltage systems.

The average employee has more than 16 years of experience in the construction industry.

And safety is a top company priority. Tennessee Electric has never experienced an Occupational Safety & Health Administration lost-time accident in its history, and recently surpassed 6 million manhours of work without a lost-time injury — a record that sets it apart from many electrical contractors in the nation, Boehling said.

“Tennessee Electric has one of the longest running electrical contractor’s licenses in the state of Tennessee,” he said. “And our safety performance is virtually unmatched in the construction industry.”

The company is recognized nationally for its work in the engineering field. In the Oct. 12 issue of Engineering News Record, Tennessee Electric was ranked in the top 600 of the nation’s specialty contractors. And the company is ranked among the top 10 electrical companies whose revenues are primarily derived from the heavy industrial sectors.

As for the future, Boehling said the company will continue to call Kingsport home, while seeking work outside the area to help it continue to grow.

Boehling said Tennessee Electric has three key responsibilities: to take care of its people; to provide quality work for its customers; and to be involved in the community. Boehling chaired the Kingsport United Way campaign this year, and his company helped lead the way in donations — raising more money this year than last year, with fewer people.

“The people here and the work ethic here is second to none,” Boehling said.

For more information on Tennessee Electric, visit the company’s Web site at www.tnelco.com, or call (423) 247-4141. Tennessee Electric is headquartered at 1700 John B. Dennis Highway.

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