Since Walter Parkes hired Victor Salerno as controller in 1971, annual revenues at the firm have gone from less than $2 million to more than $110 million last year. The key to that success, people close to the firm say, is the candor and focus both men share.
“There was a no-holds-barred relationship,” says attorney Joseph Turri of Harris Beach PLLC, who began working with O’Connell Electric some 30 years ago. “It was almost like a marriage between a man and a woman who left nothing unsaid.”
Parkes is chairman of the 500-person company, and since 2006 Salerno, 64, has been CEO.
“I was moved to vice president and then executive vice president and then CEO. Who knows what Walt saw in me,” Salerno recalls. “He was a gunslinger back then.”
Parkes is a great manager and mentor, Salerno says.
“We’ve had a good relationship. We could have some spirited debates, but at the end of the day it worked out well,” Salerno says. “We didn’t always agree, but between my views and his, we ended up doing the right thing.”
In the business sense, doing the right thing meant strategic, diversified expansion and a willingness to do whatever it takes to do the job right.
In 2003, the firm began adding onto its renewable-energies division with the acquisition of a wind farm business in Syracuse; last year the firm added Rochester Solar Technologies LLC.
Rochester Solar for the first time added residential customers to O’Connell’s client roster.
Already, O’Connell has completed more than 100 installations and recently received its largest contract to date, a $300,000 solar installation for a local tax-exempt organization that Salerno declined to name.
“We are doing a lot of solar residential right now. Tons of it,” Salerno says. “There are tremendous rebates through NYSERDA. Many people believe it’s the right thing to do, and they’re willing to pay a little extra. There is a payback on it for utility rebates.”
The division is an example of O’Connell’s larger strategy of sticking to niche markets where the competition is slim and the potential is wide.
“If we’re not the largest (solar) installer in the state, we will be. And we’re going to be one of the largest in the country,” Salerno says. “It’s a service that a lot of people are looking at, and since oil prices went through the roof and gasoline prices followed, I hope a lot of people have learned a good lesson.”
The rising fuel prices put pressure on consumers and business owners alike, he added. With a fleet of 400 vehicles, O’Connell had to rework routes and invest in alternative-energy automobiles to cope.
“It was a disruption to us,” Salerno says, but the company does not anticipate cutbacks. Its financial footing is excellent, he says, and profits are stronger than ever.
“We try to take advantage of the opportunities,” he says. “Our year end in February, we’re going to have our best year in sales and profits ever – and the company has been around since 1911.
“With the new (U.S.) president and most elected officials talking about infrastructure and renewable energy – that’s what we do here. We’re in the sweet spot,” Salerno says.
Housing its expansion is the next issue for O’Connell.
The company is based on 7.5 acres in Victor, where the firm has built three additions since moving there from Mt. Hope Avenue in the 1970s.
“Eight years ago was the last one. We put a two-story addition on the back, and we’re full again now. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I don’t want to put on another addition if I can help it. Let’s say, we’re getting by for now, but we’re awfully close to being maxed out.” Salerno says.
At any given time, the firm has 50 to 70 staffers in Victor, working at the company’s repair garage or in the firm’s administrative offices. Including its offices in Buffalo and Syracuse and employees in the field, the firm’s staffing levels peaked this summer at 575 and since have settled at 500, in response to project cycles in the industry.
To maintain focus, Salerno meets weekly with project managers from all three locations to keep business divisions in line and working in concert. The range of O’Connell’s work across its divisions is vast but specialized.
Business stretches across multiple categories and subdivisions but most basically includes electrical construction, service, communications, renewable energies and the company’s line division.
The line division, for example, maintains and builds electrical transmission and distribution lines—underground and aboveground. The firm frequently is called to provide emergency storm restoration work.
Juggling the demands at O’Connell is not Salerno’s only concern. Locally, he is well-known for his community activism, in which people say he exercises a knack for coordinating groups to achieve common goals.
He is a member of the board of trustees at St. John Fisher College and the Rochester Museum & Science Center, the latter of which he is helping to steer toward relationships with nearby non-profits to one another’s benefit.
It is one of his talents, says Turri of Harris Beach. “It also has worked for him at O’Connell Electric, achieving synergies and consensus and moving forward.” The balancing act he does and the commitment he displays impresses RMSC president Kate Bennett.
“I find that he has a knack for keeping his eye on what’s important,” she says. “His focus is extraordinary. For example, he and I touch base frequently, but we always have a conversation at the end of the week that wraps up our work and tees us up for what we’re going to accomplish the next week.
“He cares deeply and wants us and the other organizations that he’s involved with to be successful,” Bennett adds. “I think it’s a combination of caring and willing to roll up his sleeves and get the job done.”
For his contribution to St. John Fisher, Salerno’s alma mater, the Bittner School of Business recently awarded him the Dean’s Medal for Outstanding Service.
Salerno was especially thrilled that his parents, now in their 90s, were able to attend.
Just out of college, and newly married, Salerno and his wife, Eileen, moved into his parents’ house in East Irondequoit, not far from where his parents still live.
Just after his return from their honeymoon, Salerno discovered he had been drafted for the Vietnam War. Ultimately, an existing ulcer from childhood saved him from the draft.
While he waited for a decision to be rendered he started a short stint at Xerox Corp.
A few months later, Salerno and his wife moved out on their own and he began his accounting career at CPA firm Haskins & Sells (now Deloitte & Touche LLC). He worked there until he joined O’Connell almost six years later.
Salerno has spent close to 40 years at O’Connell, a family firm where, instead of simply following orders, Salerno was willing to speak out about his ideas.
And the Parkes family liked that, Turri says. In addition to Walter, his children Susan McNally and Thomas Parkes also lead the firm.
“Tom Parkes is our chief operating office. He’s been with us for a long time, and he’ll be CEO when I retire—which won’t be just yet,” Salerno says.
Through the years, Turri says he has he has grown close to the Salerno and the Parkes families.
“(The Parkeses) appreciate frankness, and it’s one of the reasons why this family corporation has succeeded where so many others fail,” Turri says.
The goal is to maintain the company’s reputation, which Salerno says everyone at the company strives to do.
“A company’s reputation is one of the things you must cherish and guard,” he says. “When you’re on top, and we’re one of the top 50 contractors in the country, you’ve got everybody taking shots at you. People love to tear down successful people.”
“Honest” and “ethical” are two of the adjectives William Goodrich uses to describe Salerno, whom he says is loyal and committed at work and play.
“We have been working together (in this industry) for many years and we have also sat on a few boards together, including the Builder’s Exchange and the United Way annual campaign committee,” says Goodrich, president and CEO of LeChase Construction Services LLC.
“He is conscientious and giving by nature–always looking out for the people around him,” Goodrich says of Salerno.
One regret Salerno has is that he did not start volunteering sooner in his career.
“I know I have a lot on the table,” he says. “But that’s one thing I really recommend to young people. Of course, you have to get your career on track, but we always have time to (get involved in) at least one thing. It exposes you to new ideas, new people. You find out as you get older, a lot of things are driven by relationships. It’s critical to people’s success.”
In addition to his community role, Salerno has an active personal life. He loves fishing and boating at the family’s cottage on Canandaigua Lake. And he says he begun to dabble in golf.
Working out an hour a day, three days a week in his home gym is one way Salerno says he maintains the energy to do all he does.
For the last 20 years, he has been working out religiously, he says, though it is but one of his favorite activities.
The Pittsford resident loves spending time with his daughter’s three children and occasionally even manages to make it to their after-school activities.
Salerno also has a son, an attorney at an international law firm in New York City. Whenever he can, Salerno and his wife go down to visit.
“We also enjoy working around the house. We just bought a new house last year. It wasn’t my idea, it was my wife’s, but we’ll be able to entertain there,” Salerno says. “We had 30 people over for Thanksgiving.”
He hopes too he can play host to more professional events at home. As it is, he spends most nights of the week out at various business-related functions.
“This week I was out Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. Everything is business since I’ve always got my ear to the ground on something. But it’s important. You’re meeting people and nurturing relationships, and that’s part of the job as CEO,” Salerno says.
“You don’t work and then go home. But I enjoy it immensely.”