O’Connell Electric, established in 1911 during the infancy of the use of electrical power, is now one of the largest electrical contractors in the United States. It operates as a full-service regional electrical, power line and communications contractor headquartered in Victor, N.Y. It also has a presence in East Syracuse, N.Y. Managed by Operations Executive Don Coon, the office of about 125 employees is 100 percent locally staffed.
The year Parkes bought O’Connell Electric its revenues totaled $70,000. A year later, they exceeded $500,000. Another 12 months later, the company brought in $1.3 million. “Over the years, we’ve grown it to a $120 million company that is diversified in all segments of electrical construction,” said Tom Parkes, COO, and Walter Parkes’ son. The company provides comprehensive design-build, construction, service, maintenance and emergency response services. Specialized areas include technical, and renewable wind and solar energy as well as high voltage services in line work, substations, underground, overhead distribution and transmission. “We’ve come a long way,”said CEO Victor Salerno, who came on board in 1972.
In 1996, having gotten O’Connell Electric well established, Walter Parkes was able to fulfill a lifelong dream. His grandfather had founded another electrical firm, T.H. Green. It was once the area’s largest electrical contractor but the family lost it to a larger conglomerate during the Depression. Parkes bought the company back from Fischbach & Moore and merged it with O’Connell Electric. The acquisition added about 100 employees, $10 million to $15 million in revenue and a Buffalo office.
O’Connell is known regionally, nationally and now internationally for taking unique projects to successful completion. Most recently, it installed and dismantled the cable that carried tightrope walker Nic Wallenda over Niagara Falls. This may sound simple enough to a layman, but anyone in the industry can surely appreciate the complexities involved. In 1980, O’Connell was hired to provide the power for the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. – a $1.1 million breakthrough for the firm, opening the doors to multitudes of major projects that followed. “We like the challenge of complex jobs,” Salerno said. “We seek them out, things that aren’t necessarily the norm.”
The company has an extensive background in renewable energy, having contributed to 17 large-scale wind farm projects all over the Northeast including New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
O’Connell’s portfolio also boasts a $115 million EPC Rochester Transmission project for Rochester Gas & Electric, a $30 million electrical job at Upstate Correctional Facility in Franklin County, and another $10 million electrical job with St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center Facility Expansion for Phase 2A in Syracuse, N.Y.
The company is in the process of completing work at the Golisano Center for Sustainability at the Rochester Institute of Technology as well as a major upgrade to a 345KV-115KV bulk power substation for National Grid in Clay, N.Y.
O’Connell was recently awarded the Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and is also just beginning two significant projects in Syracuse. One is with Syracuse University’s School of Law and the other with a new terminal at Hancock Airport. “We’re very diversified in all segments of electric work: bridges, airports, transportation – we’re in everything except residential,” Parkes said.
Salerno feels that the company’s versatility and confidence in the projects it acquires stems from its longevity, exceptional employees, great working relations with the IBEW and the depth of its resources. “We have substantial financial resources. Our bond capacity is at $180 million,” Salerno said. “No electrical contractor in the local region has anywhere near that, which allows us to bid on some very large projects.” The company consistently ranks among the 50 largest electrical contractors in the nation.
The company has a legacy of strong leaders who have defined its character. The 11 core values it strives to incorporate in its daily conduct are safety, integrity, quality, dependability, customer service, community, employees, leadership & innovation, and versatility & adaptability. “Your reputation – integrity, quality, dependability – you don’t get that by having people wondering if you’re going to stand behind what you do,” Salerno said. “We really guard our reputation very closely. It’s our most precious asset.”
As might be expected, O’Connell has a stellar reputation for safety. This is a must in a field where a dangerous working environment is the norm. “If you don’t practice safety in this business, you’re gone,” Salerno said. O’Connell Electric is comprised of about 500 individuals. “We strive to do the best possible job in safety. It’s a challenge and we put a huge amount of effort into it. We want all of our employees to go home at night, back to their families. That’s No. 1.” Parkes added: “I believe we’re looked at very favorably for our safety initiatives – we have a full time safety committee, we have three safety people working for us. We take it very seriously.”
O’Connell Electric also believes in giving back to the community. The executive team advocates for employees to become actively involved in local charities and happily acknowledges it takes little encouragement. “It’s amazing how many people are willing to help, to get involved,” Parkes said. “I can’t say enough about all our employees.”
In 1995, Walter Parkes and his late wife Carmina established the Mary M. Parkes Center for Asthma, Allergy and Pulmonary Care. The center was built in honor of their daughter, who died at age 32 as a result of a severe asthma episode. Affiliated with the University of Rochester Medical Center, Mary Parkes was the first state-of-the-art asthma facility to be located in the Northeast. The company provides regular support to the center through volunteerism, financial support and the donation of construction services. “Walt is very philanthropic. [The Parkes family] wanted to take that tragedy and try to help future generations by starting that center,” Salerno said. “It’s grown substantially.” This fall, the center raised $166,000 in research funds at its annual golf tournament sponsored by the Rochester Builders Exchange.
The Walter and Carmina Parkes Family Foundation was established to provide supplemental aid to charitable organizations throughout the communities where O’Connell employees work and live. “It was set up mainly so the money goes directly where we want,” said Parkes. The list includes organizations in both Syracuse and Rochester such as Habitat for Humanity, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and nonprofits that support battered women. “We try to do the best we can,” Salerno said.
Aside from contributing as a part of the O’Connell philanthropic effort, Salerno supports his Alma Mater, St. John Fisher College. This year, he made the largest donation to date by an alumnus of $2 million. The money will go toward the New School of Business, which will house the Victor E. Salerno Center for American Enterprise. “We’re very proud of that,” Salerno said. “We like to see if we can impact New York State from a positive standpoint to help spur business, better medical care and better education.”
Last year, O’Connell Electric turned 100 years old and celebrated its remarkable longevity at an event held at the Genesee Valley Club in Rochester. Looking toward the future, Salerno’s goal is to take the company to $250 million in sales – a number he believes can be achieved. “We work hard. We have great people and we’re successful.” Salerno said. “Now we’re in a position where we can take on most anything.”
As an industry leader, O’Connell is active in a variety of associations and organizations, including National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA); TEGG Corporation; Doble Engineering; Associated General Contractors (AGC); National Fire Protection Association (NFPA); Builders Exchange of Rochester, Syracuse Builders Exchange and Northern New York Builders Exchange; Building Industry Consulting Service International (BICSI) and Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA).