Don Aragon: We Run a Meritocracy Here

Grand Canyon Havasupai Gardens HVAC improvements project 


Don Aragón, president, VA Electric, in Albuquerque, NM, has been working for his family company since leaving the U.S. Marines in 2000. VA Electric was started by his parents, Vicente and Katherine Aragón in 1989, and currently is run by Don and his brother Vincent. With Don’s son Rey, that’s three generations of Aragóns leading the charge. 

“Like many, our company has experienced the ups and downs of being a small business, but we have learned so much over the years to keep VA Electric competitive,” Don says. “I think Dad is proud of what he built. He always said he wanted something to leave behind for his family, and he has done that. He gets to see the legacy he started as it continues to grow.” 


Finding His Team 

Don is well aware that his company’s success is dependent upon employees who do quality work day in and day out. Recruitment and retention efforts always are in play at VA Electric.

Don Aragón

“We look for people that want to be part of something bigger than themselves and we look for different skillsets, different experiences,” Don notes. “When I’m interviewing and the person tells me that in 10 years they hope to have their own company, I see that as a positive. That person has drive, will work hard to learn and excel, and VA Electric gains the benefits of that effort for eight or nine years.” 

He feels one of his company’s strengths is leadership’s willingness to look beyond industry experience and focus on capabilities and what individuals can bring to the team. 

“A perfect example of this strategy working is Caitlyn Blake who came to VA Electric five years ago to interview for an administrative assistant position,” Don explains. “She was working at a daycare center at the time, and her only electrical ‘experience’ was that her father is an electrician. But we saw amazing organizational abilities and a willingness to learn about everything we had going on here. She quickly moved from admin payroll clerk to human relations to office manager to project manager because she always did more to help VA Electric succeed.” 

As most new hires come to VA Electric as recommendations from people they know, Don stresses the importance of always putting the company name out there — whether that’s talking about your company at community events, sponsoring a youth sports team, or participating in related industry committees. Don mentions a recent VA Electric hire, Wilbur, that happened because of Don’s involvement with a local industry group. 

“Wilbur was working at the same company as the husband of one of the women on the LEEDS committee,” Don explains. “The husband says Wilbur was working incredibly hard but just wasn’t getting the opportunities he should. Turns out, Wilbur has electrical experience working with a telephone company before moving here from Columbia. We’re hoping he can find a career here at VA Electric.” 

Katherine, Vincent, and Vicente Aragón (left to right)

When Rey was in high school, it was easier to find ways to talk with that young, target demographic about the trades. They had an ‘audience’ of likely candidates and, in fact, one of Rey’s classmates, Robert Blanton, also joined VA Electric right out of high school and did the IEC Apprenticeship Program with Rey. Without that direct family connection, Don finds other ways to interest young people in the electrical trade. 

“I’ve been in retail stores where I see clerks working really, really hard,” Don says. “I tell them I own VA Electric, and ask if they’ve ever considered a job in construction.” 

While that approach hasn’t yielded an applicant — yet — it does plant a seed in that young person’s mind. And that seed may be passed along. Another successful strategy for VA Electric has been its work with temp agencies which Don feels have done a great job at recruiting and hiring people.  

“I was hesitant to use temp agencies at first, wrongly thinking that their work ethic or skills may be lacking or they were the guys that no company wanted,” Don admits. “There are a lot of really good guys working temp. Many of them just look at work differently; they want a different experience. For example, there was one guy who needed to work just two weeks out of the month as he was sharing parent care with his siblings. He was an excellent electrician but couldn’t give a company his commitment to full-time work.” 

Don indicates he’s worked with agencies on three occasions in the last couple of years to buy out and bring an agency ‘superstar’ to VA Electric. 

“It seems a bit expensive as you are paying a premium with the agency,” he says. “But what you’re getting out of it is an extended probationary period, a fine worker, and you’re not burning any bridges with the temp agency.” 


Retaining His Team 

Fully understanding that a quality team is what makes VA Electric successful, company leadership is committed to ensuring that all employees know their value to the organization. Don communicates to them that hard work pays off, and he believes that has the biggest impact on their desire to continue working with the company. 

Grand Canyon Havasupai Garden pumps and systems project

“We run a meritocracy here,” Don says. “From their first day, employees know doing things right, doing things well, doing things fast contributes to the company’s success and it leads to their personal success. Those with no experience are hired as laborers with the goal of then getting into the IEC Apprenticeship Program. I tell them up front — if you’re the last one hired but the one that all the foremen are asking to be on their job, guess what? When the next seat becomes available in the Apprenticeship Program, you’ll be the one to get it. It’s not based on longevity but on merit.” 

Don admits he is not always the best at telling people they’re doing a great job, but he’s trying harder as he knows that a thank you is so very important. He personally sends handwritten notes to employees. 

“I say thanks and also I acknowledge what they did that caught my eye,” Don explains. “I let them know I was on their jobsite and noticed how effectively they were doing a task. I think that means a bit more.” 

Being open to new ways of doing things is another way VA Electric improves employee retention, as is having an open door to the owners.  

“We make sure our people understand that if they have a concern or a new idea, Vincent and I are here to listen,” Don says. “Being accessible shows our people that we value their input and always are ready to listen.”  


Remember: Be Known 

“For people who own or run an electrical contracting company, finding the time to get out there and market their company is tough,” says Don. “But you have to be a cheerleader for your company. You have to expand your network. You have to be known by all the general contractors. I once had a meeting with the VP of one of the biggest general contracting companies for a project. After the interview, he said to me, ‘You know what? Whether or not we do this job with you, we are going to do work together in the future.’ And, now nearly 10 years later, I sometimes feel like a subsidiary of that company.”