And in Conclusion… Entrepreneurism—and Business—As it Can and Should Be (Yet Again)

Several times this semester, as the author and manager of this class blog, I have found myself focusing on the theme of either “Entrepreneurism” or “Business” being conducted “As it Can and Should Be.”

The obvious inspiration for this recurrent focus is that the twenty one (21) guest speakers around which the Midwest Entrepreneurs class was based engage in business as business can and should be—but far too often is not—conducted. As the entrepreneurs informed the class consistently throughout the semester, “doing business as it can and should be” centers first and foremost on striving to continually meet the needs, wants, and expectations—and thus satisfy and please—customers. 

However, the inspiration for my coming back to this theme now, in the last class blog for the semester, is not only that “Entrepreneurism—and Business—As it Can and Should Be” is, as I see it, the most common—at least macro-level—theme emerging from this blog. It is also a very common theme emerging from the texts of the final student papers of the semester (which I sit here grading as I write this blog entry in bits and pieces/fits and starts).

The assignment for this final paper—blandly entitled Topical Paper II in the syllabus—is to expand on Topical Paper I, submitted early in the semester, by taking the chosen entrepreneurial topic and reflectively discussing:

“(a) what was confirmed about their prior beliefs on the topic, (b) what original beliefs were challenged or disconfirmed, and (c) what has been “newly learned” about the topic.”

In addition, the instructions for Topical Paper II call for students to “use specific examples, which, for instance, compare and contrast the topic in the context of usage of or importance to the success of two or three different entrepreneurs (speaking to the class this semester).”

It is not as often as I would like that I say to myself, in the midst of grading a final paper, that the students “really got it” and that it “appears that this class really achieved what it set out to achieve.” This Midwest Entrepreneurs class—due mainly to the fact that students learned from 21 real entrepreneurs sharing their experiences with them—appears to be a rare exception to the rule.

On this last paper, as had been the case on at least two previous assignments, there seems to be a greater than usual depth of understanding exhibited. Students seem also to enjoy what they are doing more than is commonly the case.

In addition, above and beyond the assignment itself and as evidenced in the high incidence of student references to both learning from real entrepreneurs and the notion of what we learned about this semester being “Entrepreneurism—and Business—As it Can and Should Be,” I truly believe—more so than with any other class I have taught (since beginning my teaching career in 1994)—that these Midwest Entrepreneurs students “really got it” and that the class “really achieved what it set out to achieve.”

Consider, in support of this assertion, the following quotations from the final student papers.

“There’s not another class here… that would give us the type of life lessons and the personal insight of real life entrepreneurs experiences.” (Kendall Cox)

“Through the entire semester of Midwest Entrepreneurs I have been privileged to learn the many insights to successful people. These life lessons are not taught in books, they are through the failures and successes of real people sharing their experiences.” (Emily Morland)

“This was definitely my favorite class at Monmouth College because it was listening to real life experiences of people who decided to run their businesses. It was a very unique class and gave me the essential aspects of risk and hard work of operating a business.” (Kevin Blair)

“Throughout this semester we have heard from many different voices from many different backgrounds. But though they were different, their ending morals didn’t deviate all that much… They see something being done and think, ‘I can do this better! I can bring the world more happiness more efficiently than this’… the one (issue) that stands out to me the most and has the biggest domino effect of them all would be the attitude towards one’s employees. This may not seem like a very important ingredient in the recipe for success but I feel that without a good employee base not only new businesses but also older bigger businesses would crumble… If I owned a business and my livelihood depended on the well-being of that business I feel like I would want to make my employees enjoy the thought of getting up to go to work in the morning.” (Trey Yocum)

“After soaking in an unbelievable amount of knowledge throughout this semester I have learned the importance of making a positive impact on your consumers by treating them with care and giving them the best possible service… Most importantly, I have learned the importance of marketing through customer service and care. I have learned how important it is to treat your customers with great care so that they come back and also bring other customers to you. This is a form of marketing that I did not even consider before taking this course and it all makes so much sense. This is something so simple, yet many business owners do not take pride in their service and care for some odd reason.” (Nick Humphrey)

After reading that last quote, I wrote the following note to myself: “Wow… I have a hard time getting this through to students in regular class no matter how hard I try… It seems to have been learned in this format well.”

And I could have used a dozen or more student quotes… But I trust you get the point…

The “actual practicing entrepreneur as guest speaker as the primary basis for student learning” format of the Midwest Entrepreneurs class this semester—a format developed by my co-instructor Dr. Mike Connell before I arrived here at Monmouth College—set the stage for a unique and highly effective learning experience for students (and myself). I am honored to have been a part of it.

From reading these last papers—and reflecting back on the semester as a whole—students obviously learned a lot about their topics. More importantly, they learned a lot about not only entrepreneurship but a lot about business; not just business, but business as it can and should be.

The main reason for this extraordinary amount of relevant learning was that they learned it not from a book or from an instructor, but rather from real practitioners of the focal subject matter of the class.

As a result, I cannot thank our 21 guest speakers enough for what they have contributed to this wonderful learning experience! All I can say to them, in parting, is: Thank you and I hope to see you again in the Spring of 2014 (the next time the Midwest Entrepreneurs class is scheduled to be offered).

Thanks also to the Midwest Entrepreneurs students; without you, none of this happens. And congratulations to those of you graduating later this week!

Best regards,

Prof. Gabel

Confidence Delivered: The Entrepreneurial Saga of Dan Palmer and Tri-City Electric

When you visit the Tri-City Electric webpage––it is impossible to miss the trademarked slogan Confidence Delivered that is boldly featured in the middle of the page. It is also hard to miss the following statement.

“When you choose an electrical contractor in Iowa or Illinois, you want confidence they’ll get the job done right. At Tri-City Electric Co., that’s exactly what you’ll get. Every person, every process and every effort at Tri-City Electric Co. is focused on giving you the most important thing of all: CONFIDENCE DELIVERED.”

As should be obvious by now, Tri-City Electric, an electrical contractor based in Davenport, Iowa, is all about delivering confidence; about doing the job right, satisfying the customer, and earning the customer’s trust and confidence.

What most visitors to the Tri-City webpage will not likely realize is the remarkable entrepreneurial saga behind the company (which explains how it has come to deliver confidence so extraordinarily well). This saga was the topic of Midwest Entrepreneurs class yesterday. It was told to us by the company’s CEO, Mr. Dan Palmer.

Tri-City Electric was founded by the Palmer family in 1895 and experienced moderate early growth on the tails of the “electrical revolution” spawned by the invention and commercialization of the light bulb. The company remained relatively small—on purpose—until Dan Palmer bought it from his father in 1985 (after serving as company President since 1979). At that time, the company had annual sales of about $3.5 million and employed 25 persons; 20 electricians and five office workers.

Today, Tri-City Electric has annual sales of around $80 million and employs over 500 persons; 450 electricians and 70 office workers. Under Dan Palmer’s guidance, the company has done work in 42 states and 5 countries outside the United States and is one of the top 100 electrical contractors in the nation. Roughly 99% of the company’s business is in the B2B marketplace (i.e., designing, installing and maintaining electrical systems for other businesses [as opposed to residential work, which accounts for the other 1%]).

Most exemplary of the extent to which Tri-City Electric “delivers confidence” is the fact that its work outside the region—particularly in foreign nations—is done on behalf of major customers such as Caterpillar, John Deere, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Family Dollar. These corporations hire Tri-City to work on major electrical and cabling projects not only across the U.S. but all over the world (e.g., Brazil and China). These firms could easily hire local electricians in these areas and get the work done for a much lower price. But they choose to hire Davenport-based Tri-City because they want the jobs done absolutely right and they have utmost trust and confidence in Tri-City to do just that.

So, we now know both the humble beginnings of Tri-City Electric and what is has become under the direction of Dan Palmer. But how did it get there?

As Mr. Palmer told the class yesterday, his initial strategy was to essentially professionalize the firm in a variety of key ways which, in turn, facilitated profitable growth.

The first thing he did after buying the company in 1985 was to replace the existing bookkeeper—an external service provider—with an in-house Certified Public Accountant (CPA). This move allowed Palmer to accurately understand the exact costs involved in performing its various often intricate and complex services. This is of critical importance because if costs are not accurately understood, pricing becomes very difficult (and it becomes surprisingly easy to set your prices below your costs, which, as you can guess, is not sound business practice).

For the same essential purpose, the second major strategic action that Dan Palmer undertook after taking the reins of Tri-City Electric was to hire additional estimators. These are the people who estimate the costs of jobs that the company is to quote or bid on. As Palmer informed Midwest Entrepreneurs students yesterday, estimators look at a job and literally count every light, electrical outlet, cable, and other electronic component that is required, estimate the amount of hours it will take electricians to do the work, and then arrive at a total for the bid. This work must be exact; if it is not, it is almost impossible for services firms bidding on jobs to be both competitive and profitable.

At about this time, Tri-City began to bid on—and win—larger and larger contracts/jobs. To support this growth, Palmer’s third major strategic action was to hire more purchasing agents (to order the components for the jobs).

Also around this time, and absolutely key to the company’s sustained growth and success, Palmer hired what he described as a “full marketing team” to manage Tri-City Electric’s image and otherwise manage the emergent—and by then more professional and “big-time”—Tri-City brand. The marketing team’s major specific contribution was to formulate and implement what we marketing academicians call an integrated marketing communications (IMC) plan. The idea behind IMC is that it is far more beneficial to—and cost-effective for—the marketer to integrate and coordinate all of its various communications with customers and other stakeholders so that a consistent message is being sent out (as opposed to disorganized and piecemeal communications). IMC for Tri-City has involved promotion and display of the company’s redesigned logo and the aforementioned Confidence Delivered slogan via various sponsorships (e.g., the John Deere Classic golf tournament), advertising, and, importantly, the company’s highly visible trucks and semi-trailers.

While these specific strategic actions were highly instrumental in the growth of Tri-City Electric, Dan Palmer discussed several broader keys to his success. First and foremost among these was “surrounding yourself with good people in the field (i.e., electricians) who can be trusted.” As Palmer told the class that “these people represent the company” and essentially ARE the company in the eyes of customers. I asked Mr. Palmer about turnover at this point—a key issue/cost for service firms such as Tri-City—and he quickly responded that there is “very little” turnover among electricians at Tri-City and that, in fact, “people want to work for us.” This is critical: If electricians are the face of the company to customers, you want to keep the face consistent. Tri-City does this by hiring and working hard to retain the most qualified and competent electricians in the business. Palmer also discussed in this context the importance of Tri-City’s receptionist, who he referred to as the company’s “director of first impressions.”

Another “broader issue” addressed in yesterday’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class involves the market niche that Tri-City has come to occupy. Dan Palmer explained here that “our niche is anything competitors are not doing well.” He went on to explain that this has meant, in practice, that Tri-City has established itself as being able to effectively and efficiently handle the “big jobs” that most of its regional competitors cannot (e.g., the new Business and Science building on the Monmouth College campus as well as the new Iowa State Penitentiary being built in Fort Madison, IA). Tri-City’s competitive advantage here is facilitated by the previously discussed growth-minded strategic initiatives spearheaded by Dan Palmer after buying the company in 1985.

Mr. Palmer also mentioned the challenge of working with labor unions; something that is of major importance to few if any of our other guest speakers this semester. The challenge for Tri-City Electric manifests itself mainly in the contexts of “having to negotiate everything” and in additional costs incurred. Palmer shared with the class the example of the cost of doing business in the Chicago area. While heavier unionization is but one of the factors driving up the cost of doing business in Chicago, Palmer stated that his total cost to employ an electrician is typically around $54 per hour while it is roughly $105 per hour in Chicago.

Finally, Dan Palmer discussed what has motivated him to be so successful. His discussion here centered around several people from his past who essentially told him that he would be anything but successful. Palmer, like several other entrepreneurs speaking to the class this semester, responded to this doubt and criticism by saying, “Just watch me.” He was motivated to show his doubters—including the mother of a former girlfriend and a former (now defunct) competitor—wrong and he has done just that at the helm of his family’s thriving business.

Dan Palmer left us yesterday with a discussion of Tri-City’s future. He explained that he has come to realize that the company is no longer a traditional electrical contractor. Instead, he used the term electrical integrator to exemplify the fact that more and more of the firm’s projects involve—and will increasingly involve—as he put, “pulling all of the electrical systems of our clients together.” He cited here examples of doing more security and data cabling work.

Clearly, Dan Palmer is not stuck in the past (on continuing to do only what has made the company a success). He realizes that adaptation is always necessary for growth and that, as several of our other guest speakers have emphasized this semester, you have to be ready for opportunity when it comes your way.

Dan Palmer has been phenomenally successful in growing the company to what it is today; one of the top 100 electrical contractors in the United States. I suspect that he is destined to be highly successful in making Tri-City Electric one of the top 50 electrical integrators in the country in the next 5 or so years.

Thank you Mr. Palmer for visiting the Midwest Entrepreneurs class! It was yet another great learning experience for the students (and me).   

As those of you in the class know, Mr. Palmer was our last guest speaker of the semester. Look for a “wrap-up/review” blog entry from me in the coming days.


Prof. Gabel