On June 23, aerial artist Nik Wallenda became the first man to traverse a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, some 1,500 dizzying feet above the Colorado River – without a safety tether. But not long before Wallenda sky-walked into history, a crew of eight riggers from O’Connell Electric personally made sure that his passage on the 2-inch wire rope would be safe.
Certainly, Wallenda and O’Connell Electric are no strangers to extreme heights and supreme safety. Wallenda, 34, is a seventh-generation descendant of The Great Wallendas, a family of circus performers and daredevils— many of whom specialized in high-wire feats. O’Connell Electric, based in Victor, New York, is a century-old company that initially laid the lines to deliver power to a sizable portion of the upper east coast.
Additionally, Wallenda and O’Connell Electric have a history working together: along with his most recent Grand Canyon crossing, the company also rigged his Niagara Falls skywalk last June. To ensure a safe crossing from the American side to the Canadian side, O’Connell Electric extended a wire approximately 1,800 feet across Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the three waterfalls that comprise the Falls. In fact, the same 2-inch wire rope was used for both crossings and now has plans to be ‘retired’ at Wallenda’s home in Florida.
“We knew he had confidence in us, asking us to come back and work with him a second time,” notes Randy Fletcher, O’Connell’s General Foreman for both the Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon projects. “He knew, based on last time, that if anything came up, we could handle it, and that we’d get the job done.”
To Hellhole Bend in a Safety Basket
Both the Niagara Falls and Grand Canyon endeavors were grand in scale, requiring rigorous attention to detail and countless safety checks to ensure the integrity of the wire and all of its components. And in both cases, Wallenda and the rigging crew faced one significant obstacle that was essentially beyond their control: weather conditions.
At Niagara, they had to contend with powerful spray from the Falls, which had the potential to create a damp, slippery wire. In the Grand Canyon’s ominously named Hellhole Bend, the dry air and dust presented similar slipping hazards; in addition, unpredictable updrafts and wind gusts reaching 48 miles per hour could upset Wallenda’s balance on the wire.
While Wallenda practiced and made preparations for his death-defying feat, O’Connell’s crew played out its all-important behind-the-scenes roles. For the company’s eight workers, the remote location of the wire’s starting point caused perhaps an even greater challenge than unfavorable weather conditions.
To access Hellhole Bend, located in Navajo territory, the crew and their equipment had to be flown by helicopter across the gorge, about 20 miles from Grand Canyon National Park. This required multiple helicopter trips, but only when conditions would allow.
“Crew deployment was much easier at Niagara Falls because you could just drive right up to the site with all your equipment,” Fletcher observes.
In fact, the helicopter could not accommodate the 8-ton tight-rope cable, manufactured by Wirerope Works in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The wire is comprised of six bundles of smaller steel wires wrapped around a wire core and is strong enough to bear the weight of a Boeing 747.
“Because we could only have the puller and tensioner on one side of the gorge, we had to rig up a special fiber line to a turning block to draw the cable across canyon,” he said. “That added to the complexity of the project.”
The team began work on June 17 and rigged the wire, measuring 1,400 feet from start to finish, on June 21.The wire, set at a tension of 62,000 pounds, has a breaking strength of 190 tons. The following day, they hung 20 pendulums, weighing 40 pounds each, along the wire at precise 60-foot intervals to prevent the wire from twisting beneath Wallenda’s feet. To accomplish this essential aspect of the project, crew members traveled to each point in safety baskets suspended from the wire.
Once their work was finished, they took turns in the safety baskets to “test the job” before they’d let Wallenda set foot on the wire.
“Everybody wanted to do it,” Fletcher recounts. “We had confidence in our work.”
Walking a Fine Line into History
Finally, the big day arrived. All eyes focused on record-setting Wallenda, who peered into the Grand Canyon poised to pursue his eighth world record. Unlike his Niagara crossing, for this skywalk he would honor the Wallenda family tradition of not wearing a harness or a tether and not using balance pole, his custom leather shoes made “with a lot of love” by his mother, Delilah, and the expertise of O’Connell Electric.
“I’ve trained all my life for this,” Wallenda explained to reporters just before embarking on his June 23 walk, which was televised live by the Discovery Channel.
Millions of viewers from 178 nations collectively held their breath as Wallenda slide-stepped one foot in front of the other, appearing calm and focused.
Fletcher watched from a pyramid set up on one side of the gorge, where Wallenda would finish.
“It was unbelievable. Prior to the event, there was all kinds of chatter and excitement, but the second Nik stepped onto the wire, you could hear a pin drop,” he said.
WNEP16, a local Pennsylvania news station, quoted Wirerope Works Design Engineer, Kim Konyar, about their role in Wallenda’s walk, “The strength is in the rope, integrity is the rope. So we just sat back, white knuckled the walk and cheered him on.”
As Nik Wallenda progressed, 35-mile-per-hour wind gusts caused the pendulums to wobble and sway, which sent the wire into a momentary spasm. Wallenda settled himself into a kneeling position, saying into his headset: “I’m just waiting for the wire to stop bouncing.”
Such precautions are an integral part of his training. He regularly conducts rescue drills to simulate a mid-air emergency. In his pre-walk interview, Wallenda explained: “If there are any issues, I’ll go down to the safety of that wire. The wire is a safe haven. I’ll go down and hold that wire until a helicopter or safety basket comes to save me.”
Those safety baskets would be the very same ones Fletcher and his crew used while setting up the wire.
“It would only take a few minutes for us to get him,” Fletcher notes. “In the meantime, Nik has ways he can sit down and wrap himself around the wire until we rescue him.”
“I’m glad we didn’t have to, that’s for sure,” Fletcher adds with relief.
Fortunately, a real-life rescue wasn’t necessary. In under 23 minutes, Wallenda reached the rim of the canyon, jog-hopping the last several feet along the wire and into the history books.
When professional tightrope walker Nik Wallenda crossed Niagara Falls last June, his fans across the nation witnessed him striding fluidly from one side to the other. But Wallenda’s flawless feat wasn’t without its challenges. It was, in fact, largely due to committed companies working tirelessly behind the scenes for months prior to the international endeavor.
For O’Connell Electric, the contractor behind the cable installation, it was an opportunity to prove once again its competence and confidence in accepting unique assignments.
“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful [is that] whenever there’s an odd type of a project, we don’t shy away from [it],” said Victor Salerno, Chief Executive Officer, O’Connell Electric. “Jobs like this keep our workforce engaged and interested.”
In 1980, the contractor provided power for the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. For one of the venues, employees ran a power line to the summit of Whiteface Mountain, making use of a helicopter to complete the final segment. Since early 2000, O’Connell Electric has completed more than 15 wind farms primarily in New York state. “We were heavily into wind [power] before anyone else,” said Salerno, proud that the company is regularly ahead of the pack.
Wallenda hired O’Connell Electric to install and dismantle a 1,800-foot, 2-inch diameter wire cable across Horseshoe Falls, the largest of Niagara’s three falls, and the most powerful by height and flow rate in North America. It drops a “meager” 173 feet. Originally, Wallenda was going to begin his tightrope trek on the American side at Terrapin Point, but that changed once he personally checked out the site, said Power Group Manager Michael Parkes. Wallenda realized he would only be crossing the gorge, which others had done before. After further evaluation, they chose a spot closer to the Canadian waterfalls which allowed Wallenda to “walk through the mist and get a little wet,” Parkes said. “No one [had] ever physically walked over the falls,” he added – until Wallenda
O’Connell Electric is a full-service regional electrical, power line and communications contractor headquartered in Victor, N.Y. It was founded in 1911, and has grown into one of the largest electrical contractors in the United States. Wallenda selected O’Connell Electric upon the recommendation of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1249 in Syracuse, which knows it to be a stable and reliable company. Tom Parkes, O’Connell Electric’s chief operating officer, quickly won Wallenda’s full confidence to support his dangerous mission.
Staging the feat, however, wasn’t without its challenges. The cable weighs seven-and-a-half pounds per foot. “The tensions that were needed to bring the cable up so there [was minimal] sag were extremely high – a lot higher than anything that is typical in this industry,” Michael Parkes said. “It had to be tensioned at about 60,000 lbs. Normally, you’re looking at 5,000 lbs. or less.” Ultimately, there was about 35 feet of sag in the line over the entire length. Because the tensions were so high, the equipment required to perform the work needed to be much larger than the standard gear. According to Parkes, there are only a handful of pullers and tensioners in North America that are capable of doing the job, and it was a bit of a struggle just to locate an appropriate piece of equipment.
Another complication occurred when the pulling rope O’Connell purchased to pull Wallenda’s cable over the falls got knotted and caught in a pulling block. “We had to use a helicopter to fly that rope across to the other side and the helicopter actually ended up taking off a little faster than we had expected once it latched on,” Parkes said. “Fortunately, where it damaged the rope, we were able to cut that section out and re-splice it onto the other section. We ended up having barely enough rope to actually do the job. It was one of the biggest challenges, but we got through.”
Other obstacles that occurred during preparation included working with the U.S. and Canadian Customs and Border Protection to get clearance for O’Connell’s workforce and equipment. They needed both to be able to move back and forth between countries on a daily basis for the entire week of the event. “Once we found and got in touch with the right people, things went fine,” Tom Parkes said. And once the equipment was precisely positioned on either side of the falls, it needed to be secured. “It was a struggle coming up with a means to anchor,” Parkes said. “They didn’t want any disturbance to the land. Ultimately, they allowed [Wallenda] to drill micropiles into the ground.”
Two weeks prior to the event, O’Connell Electric’s insurance company suddenly backed out of the contract – its policies did not cover stunts, it said in a terse statement. “I guess this would be a stunt,” said Salerno, who was nervous about the project from the get-go. “We had to quickly find coverage elsewhere and it wasn’t easy.” On June 15, the event commenced at 10 p.m. for prime time coverage across the country. It took Wallenda just under 30 minutes to walk the 1,800-foot line. “You didn’t see any anxiety or nervousness from him,” said Parkes, who was there to watch Wallenda’s show. “He’s been doing it since he was a little kid. He said, ‘A lot of people think that the linemen who go up and work on energized power lines day in and day out are nuts. I’m just walking a wire, that’s what I do.’”
Shortly after Wallenda finished, he approached his electrical team about another gig in May 2013 – the Grand Canyon. “He was very pleased with our services and our capabilities,” Salerno said. For O’Connell Electric, meeting challenges head on is the norm. It thrives on unique projects.
Walter Parkes is a man who keeps his promises. In 1968, after he purchased O’Connell Electric from founder John “Jack” O’Connell, Jack asked only one favor: to preserve the company’s name. Parkes has honored that request for 45 years, upholding a reputation of integrity that has stood the test of time.
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).
History is being made in Niagara Falls as Nik Wallenda, a member of the famous Flying Wallenda family, prepares to walk 1800 feet across Horseshoe Falls on a 2-inch cable. Wallenda's walk is the first of its kind allowed in over 100 years and the first ever to go over a section of the Falls.
The 'tightrope' Wallenda will traverse has been painstakingly installed by O'Connell Electric of Victor, N.Y. When O'Connell Electric COO Tom Parkes first received the call from Nik Wallenda, he thought it might be a prank. However, after some convincing, Wallenda was able to lay out his proposal for O'Connell to consider. Although several electrical contractors were considered for this enormous task, O'Connell was selected due to their expertise and long professional experience installing high tension transmission and distribution utility lines, in some cases over many miles.
Installation of the cable required precise engineering and planning. In order to not interfere with the running of the Maid of the Mist, crews worked at night during the week preceding the walk. Because the cable Wallenda will walk weighs in at over 7 tons, a lighter leader rope had to be put in place with a helicopter first. With micropiles secured 65 feet underground on both the U.S. and Canadian sides, O'Connell's crew and equipment began the task of bringing across the actual cable before raising it to a tension of 60,000 pounds. When all was in place and inspected, linemen went out on the cable in baskets specifically designed for this project to attach stabilizers which will keep the cable from rolling and swaying. A handful of men can now say that they, too, were suspended over Niagara Falls. Final adjustments and inspections were made on Thursday, June 14, including a meeting with Wallenda in preparation for Friday's walk.
This type of venture is nothing new for O'Connell Electric. The company has established itself in the electrical construction industry by taking on high profile, high risk projects, including the monumental task of providing power for the 1980 Winter Olympics at White Face Mountain in Lake Placid.
O'Connell Electric is proud to be part of this historic event and looks forward to Nik Wallenda's successful and exciting walk across Niagara Falls.
WCNY's new Broadcast and Education Center will include both a new building and a renovation of the former Case Supply Building, a 56,000 square foot multi story building located in Syracuse's historic Near Westside.
Demolition and construction started in the fall of 2011, with the work scheduled to be completed by October 2012. King & King Architects of Syracuse is the lead architect.
The $20 million “green” facility features two buildings; the television studios on one side, and the radio studio on the other, separated by an open to the public courtyard that will serve as an open door to the Center. With a state of the art learning facility for students, a wireless café, and more room for audiences to watch television and radio shows being produced, WCNY will connect to its viewers and listeners by welcoming them through that door and into the community’s new home.
The Broadcast and Education Center will include Joint Master Control, a technical and content management hub that will serve all nine PBS stations in New York. With one location storing and broadcasting PBS’ quality entertainment for every station throughout the state, the nine stations will save a combined $20 million over the first 10 years.
In addition to the savings produced by Joint Master Control, WCNY will also realize energy savings because the Broadcast and Education Center will be a LEED Platinum building. That’s the highest ranking awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system.
O’Connell Electric was awarded the full electrical construction package for Rochester Institute of Technology’s new Golisano Institute for Sustainability which will include solar, wind, and fuel cell installations.
Rochester Institute of Technology broke ground recently on their state-of-the-art “green” facility for its Golisano Institute for Sustainability. The building will serve as a center for sustainability research, technology transfer, education and outreach and will provide a showcase for green construction and design.
The new building is designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, which sets goals for waste and energy minimization and reuse in building construction and operation. The campus already features one LEED Platinum and one LEED Gold facility.
The facility will house multiple labs, classrooms and conference rooms dedicated to RIT’s leading graduate programs in sustainable business practices focused in material flow, energy utilization and technology and policy. It will also serve as a “living laboratory” to test these practices and will utilize state of the art building technologies and an advanced facility monitoring system to illustrate performance. The story of its design and systems will also be told throughout the facility, making each space a learning space.
The facility construction and design team is led by LeChase Construction and SWBR Architects with additional support from FXFowle Architects, Stantec Civil Engineering Consultants and M/E Engineering.
O’Connell Electric was recently awarded the substation construction portion of the Marble River Wind Park through Delaney Construction. Our role includes construction of both the New York Power Authority substation as well as the adjoining wind park substation.
The project, in the towns of Clinton and Ellenburg in Clinton County, New York, along the St. Lawrence Seaway, will incorporate 72 Vestas 3-megawatt turbines, each 492 feet high, the largest ever installed in New York State. The project originally called for 109-2.1 megawatt turbines. This larger model turbine is designed to achieve greater efficiencies of production by using new gearbox and control designs, and by increased height and blade swept area to maximize generation potential at low and medium wind speed sites.
The project is owned by Horizon Wind Energy and EDP Renewables, a subsidiary of Energias de Portugal. Horizon is developing a number of other sites in New York that may be suitable for wind generation facilities. When this project is completed, Clinton County will host the most wind generating installed capacity in New York with over 500 megawatts installed.
O’Connell Electric presented its turnkey electrical solutions for wind farm construction, testing, commissioning, and maintenance at WindPower 2009 in Chicago this past May.
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Wind Power 2009 is the largest collection of wind professionals in one place anywhere in the world. Growing along with the expanding wind energy industry, which installed 8300 MW in the United States during 2008, WindPower 2009 offers more than 50 educational sessions and three preconference seminars including our new Wind Power Supply Chain Workshop. It provides the latest information on wind energy technology, industry trends and policies plus unparalleled networking opportunities for wind professionals.
Wind Power 2009 blew in like a storm with over 23,000 Attendees and 1,280 Exhibitors. Crowds of attendees were seen on every aisle from front to back and the far sides of the exhibition hall. The hall was buzzing with contract deals, business ventures and potential business partnerships and vendor relationships.
Companies market themselves to attendees representing all facets of the wind energy industry including:
—Project developers and operators
—Academic institutes and non-profit organizations
—Construction and transportation companies
—Component and accessory equipment suppliers
—Financial and investment institutions
—Construction and transportation companies
It was an unusual marriage between a field contractor and an accountant that propelled O’Connell Electric Co. Inc. into becoming one of the largest private employers in Rochester.
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.”
The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Business heard testimony from Tim Ehmann, an electrical contractor specializing in solar installation and member of the National Electrical Contractors Association. (NECA), on the importance of including energy efficient building projects in proposed economic stimulus legislation.
Tim Ehmann, O'Connell Electric of Victor NY testifies on behalf of NECA at the House Small Business Committee hearing on the Economic Stimulus Package. Ehmann was invited to speak on NECA's behalf at the committee's hearing on “The State of the Small Business Economy and Identifying Policies to Promote an Economic Recovery.” His testimony focused on two elements that NECA and NECA members believe should be included in upcoming economic stimulus legislation: incentives for renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind; and specific incentives that will help provide opportunities for America’s small businesses.
“Much of President elect Obama’s $1 trillion stimulus plan emphasizes significant investment in transportation and infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and dams,” said Lake Coulson, NECA’s executive director, government affairs. “While these traditional building projects will help spur economic growth and create jobs, they overlook the need to improve our schools, hospitals, and public facilities by investing in green energy construction.”
NECA adopted an energy independence policy in October 2008 that encourages investment in renewable and alternative energy product, modernizing and securing the national electric grid, and improving the energy efficiency of all buildings.
NECA member Tim Ehmann (2nd from right) participates in witness panel before House Small Business Committee. At the hearing, Ehmann answered the committee's questions about the need for investment in energy efficient buildings, including schools and government facilities; renewable energy technologies; and broadband expansion. He also spoke on the urgent need to repeal the three percent withholding tax in order to get new construction projects moving.
"There’s no denying that much of our national electrical infrastructure needs serious attention, and that it’s work that creates jobs," Ehmann said. “With the economic stimulus package, we also have the opportunity to invest in alternative energies and energy-efficient buildings that will help create jobs, conserve fuel, and cut our energy costs.” Ehmann pointed out to the committee that national investment in green building and energy conservation was necessary to make a real difference in the economy and environment. He urged the committee to make building construction part of the economic stimulus package and to extend federal incentives for renewable energy sources.
“I have witnessed first-hand the effects of what happens to jobs, to business growth and to the economy when these incentives are suspended or reduced,” Ehmann said in his testimony. “If the cost of market entry is not addressed and the investments are not made to incentivize the renewable energy markets, I assure you that the electrical contracting industry, as well as numerous other industries, will become stagnant or contract, which means job loss and reduced business revenues.
Ranking Member Graves (R-MO) and Chairwoman Velasquez (D-NY) question NECA's witness at the HSBC hearing." It is absolutely critical to fund and expand federal programs for renewable energies market: they are the vehicle to creating economic stimulus and provide our nation with the chance to build a new energy economy,” Ehmann said. “These extensions would provide the necessary predictability in a marketplace that often suffers from projects delayed or put on hold because of the temporary nature of renewable energy tax incentives,” Ehmann said in his testimony.
In addition to handling traditional electrical construction work as senior project manager for O’Connell Electric Co., Ehmann is a certified installer of photovoltaic panels for Rochester Solar Technologies, the alternative energy division of O’Connell Electric. He currently serves on NECA’s Energy Solutions Task Force.
Lourdes Hospital is embarking on a $70 million, three year construction project to update and expand the hospital. After three years of planning and designing, Lourdes master facility project—now called Mission 2012: Building Tomorrow’s Healthcare Today will bring new technology to Lourdes and provide patients with a more streamlined system of obtaining outpatient services. The project consists of multiple construction phases, beginning in March 2009 with the estimated completion in October 2012.
The project will include:
• Expansion and modernization of the Emergency Department
• Addition of a new open MRI
• Addition of two new surgical suites
• FEMA approved and funded flood wall
• Construction of a new Ambulatory Care Building that will house Lourdes’ Gastroenterology (GI) Suite, a registration area, an outpatient blood draw lab area, a pre-admission testing area and Lourdes Rehabilitation Department
• A new two-story main entrance connecting the new Ambulatory Care Building and the existing hospital
• Expansion, redesign and modernization of the Radiology Department
• A multi-story parking garage will be the final phase beginning in 2012
Work on the project formally began on April 1st.
What makes a company last? Leaders of some of the region’s most enduring businesses say longevity is not primarily the product of circumstances, strategy or business acumen.
Instead, it comes mainly from attitude and focus. Leaders of the businesses that repeatedly have earned a place on Rochester’s Top 50 say they do it by maintaining a steady focus day after day. Unrelenting attention on the customer is primordial.
A strong team and good financial footing empower companies to enter new businesses when opportunities arise. Those qualities have been pivotal to ongoing growth at O’Connell Electric Co., one of Ontario County’s largest employers.
The company ranked 14th when it first appeared on the list of private companies in 1997, with 275 employees and $29.8 million in annual revenues. This year, the firm ranks eighth and boasts 464 employees and $111.5 million in revenues.
A strong, established framework has given O’Connell the chance to develop new areas of expertise and capitalize on trends before they reach their full swing.
“We purchased the assets of a company that was one of the first in wind power,” O’Connell CEO Victor Salerno says. “That’s substantial right now and probably represents a quarter to one-third of our new backlog. There is a huge amount of electric for those projects.
“We’re dedicated to what we do,” he adds, “We’re not distracted by other things like some companies. They lose focus. And we build the company from a financial standpoint so that we find when we get involved in projects like these (they) aren’t run of the mill.”
O’Connell Electric also is investing in solar equipment. The company is selling one to three (installation) jobs a week for that business, Salerno said.
“That’s how things have changed from five or six years ago,” he notes. “You never would have thought this would be the case. We’re focused on electrical, construction and communications, and as these new things evolve, we have a team that’s able to execute.”
Salerno is quick to say the company is not overconfident. In his view, attitude and character are essential to longevity.
“Nothing is perfect: We don’t want to say that,” he says. “We’re just in a very good position because of the hard work and (having) laid the groundwork over the decades. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“We ran into a buzz saw in the early ’80s,” he continues, “and we still remember it. We learned a lot of lessons from it, and humility is one of them.”
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Rail accounts for 19% of all statewide freight flows in Alabama. The Norfolk Southern Railway is a major U.S. freight railroad company that operates 21,500 route miles of track across 22 eastern states including more than 50% of Alabama’s Class I track.
In tandem with priorities and goals outlined in the Alabama Department of Transportation’s “Alabama Rail Plan”, Norfolk Southern’s modernization and expansion initiatives targeted three vertical lift bridges in Alabama and the Norfolk Southern Lake Pontchartrain Rolling Bascule Bridge in Louisiana, the longest rail bridge in the country at 5.8 miles, for upgrade, rehabilitation, and remote control operation. These four bridges are not only critical to Norfolk Southern’s transportation grid, they are integral to the management of Alabama’s nearly 1500 mile system of navigable inland waterways, part of a network connecting 24 states.
O’Connell Electric is one of a select few electrical contractors in the country qualified to bid on this type of work. Norfolk Southern awarded our Transportation Division contracts totaling $5.9 million to rehabilitate the electrical and operating systems of the four bridges—rail and waterway—and upgrade them for remote control operation from a central site. O’Connell coordinated and supervised all machinery replacements for the bridges including new motors, brakes, span locks, and switches as well as installation of new generator platforms and numerous structural repairs.
Innovative project management and construction measures were key to O’Connell’s success and efficiency across the four remote bridge sites. A combination of well-planned prefabrication measures and deployment of custom fabrication trailers fully outfitted with tools and office communications greatly reduced lost job site time. O’Connell ingenuity was responsible for onsite rigging and hoisting systems as well as machinery and equipment replacement practices that eliminated the need for employing barges and cranes or for necessitating marine and rail traffic interruptions. In one instance we were able to place a 4000-pound 125KW generator through a machine room floor hatch more than 100 feet off the ground and rig it over the top of existing equipment within a one-hour rail traffic window.
When centralization of bridge remote operational systems was changed from Norfolk Southern’s Birmingham control center to the Decatur, Alabama, Norfolk Southern Tennessee River Bridge site, O’Connell designed and implemented all necessary modifications and additions for the site including new buildings and building amenities, service and power generation systems, and expanded electrical and communications infrastructures. Working closely with our IT subcontractor, O’Connell developed data logging systems across the four bridge network with remote access capabilities, via Norfolk Southern’s intranet, allowing instant review of all bridge operational data for diagnosing potential faults and to determine override measures in emergency situations.
Norfolk Southern’s Signals and Communications divisions contracted with O’Connell later in the project to design and construct a series of new signal and communications buildings, electrical and data wiring, and camera, intercom, and antennae systems.
All work for the four bridge project was completed on time and without disruption to marine or rail traffic. O’Connell has also worked on Norfolk Southern projects in Ohio and Chicago.