How Weifield Group Wins

It would be easy to describe Denver, Colorado’s Weifield Group as a successful business. In just over 20 years, they’ve
grown from a small local electrical contractor into one of Denver’s largest corporations. But like all successful companies, Weifield’s story is one of people—in this case, exceptional people.

Starting Out

Pete Farreny always knew he would start a business. From selling candy bars in the halls of his high school for “extra cash” to pulling weekend shifts at his father’s welding business, he was never afraid of hard work. Looking for opportunities after high school, he enrolled in an electrical apprenticeship program, where in addition to learning the trade, he developed a friendship with fellow apprentice, James Selecky. Journeyman certificates in hand, they decided to leave their New Jersey childhood and associated distractions behind. They headed west.

In Denver, Pete began a new life with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, no car, and plenty of confidence. The city had a different vibe than the hustle and bustle of northern New Jersey. The scale of the Rocky Mountain skyline inspired a more relaxed work/life balance. Pete’s Type A drive allowed him to find side projects while he was employed as a journeyman electrician. As those projects grew in scale, he found himself teaming up with James to get the work done. Confident in their abilities to find projects during the late ‘90s telecommunications boom, they left their day jobs and founded Peak Electrical Construction.

One of their first projects was a series of fiber optic booster sites. They met with the general contractor who explained the project was over budget and behind schedule. They determined they could complete a site every two days with three electricians. In reality, they finished two sites a day and finished 14 sites in a week. This success led to another project, and then another, until they landed the wiring of a new 10-story building. Over-delivering exceptional work became their marketing plan. Finishing one project would inevitably lead to another, but late in the year 2000, with a thud, the bottom fell out of the building market. The 2001 recession turned off the faucet of money funding new tech projects. Pete and James knew it was time to do something different. In the middle of a challenging recession, they began imagining something bigger.

A Non-Electrician Enters the Story

Karla Nugent was raised by a strong mother. Rosemarie Craig instructed her daughter on the value of hard work and the opportunities available to women who ignored gender barriers. Karla graduated from Colorado State University with drive and confidence, finding work in various corporate sector jobs. In 1999, she landed a position at Inflow, a Denver-based data center start-up. The US economy was exploding with dot.coms, all of which needed infrastructure to operate their platforms. Karla joined Inflow’s Automation Team where she focused on operational efficiency.

Karla loved the creativity her new role demanded. “We were Inflow’s SWAT team,” she explained. “When there was a problem with a new data center or recent business acquisition, we would go in and figure things out.” The work required critical thinking, business acumen and innovation, along with long hours. “Everyone worked hard at Inflow; we loved the work; we loved the company.” Karla credited Inflow’s people-focused culture for their ability to recruit excellent talent and keep them motivated. Inflow experienced the typical rapid growth of the early tech years, and grew to include 18 data centers across the country serving clients like Google and HP. There seemed to be no limit, and then, with a pop, the tech bubble burst.

It was around this time that Karla and James became acquaintances. They would meet up at a Denver restaurant to talk about business challenges. James Selecky brought his business partner, Pete Farreny. Together they discussed the state of the industry. Pete and James complained about the lack of support the union was providing for finding new projects. Karla discussed the bad signals coming from Inflow—lost contracts and layoffs. As the conversation progressed, it became clear to Pete that Karla was interested in the contracting business. The conversation evolved into how to grow a non-union business, and they drew up a plan for this new company.

Pete and James dissolved their union contracting business, Peak Electrical Construction. Karla left Inflow. James introduced the group to Seth Anderson, a project manager he worked with at a previous employer. “Seth knew how to put numbers behind a project,” Karla explained. In Pete’s basement, they founded Weifield—a name that came to Karla in a dream as she found her way through a field to a better opportunity.

A New Beginning

Karla, through her experiences with Inflow, recognized that great service was only helpful if there were contracts. So while her expertise was in operations, she began focusing on business development. This posed a challenge, as most of her relationships were in the data center space, and those businesses were still contracting. She began reaching out to new contacts—building contractors primarily—offering to buy a cup of coffee for their thoughts. After a few of these meetings, Karla recognized the trade was changing. Buildings—and the associated electrical work—were getting more complex. Electrical contracting was becoming more technical and consultative. Finding better opportunities required swimming upstream and moving beyond the typical general contractor relationships.

Karla began meeting with the engineering firms and architects tasked with building LEED and, later, Net Zero buildings. With her knowledge on process, education in construction, and passion for innovation, Karla pivoted Weifield away from a contractor brand and toward a design partner. This approach landed Weifield some larger projects. Pete and James knew how to staff them; Seth knew how to bid them. It didn’t take long for the four partners to move out of Pete’s basement and begin taking paychecks. People were now offering to buy Karla a cup of coffee to gain her perspective on new projects.

As the US economy exited the 2001 recession, Weifield’s growth began to accelerate. The partners organized the company into three distinct departments. Get Work focused on marketing, sales, and pre-construction planning. Perform Work got sold projects staffed and completed. And finally, Support Work handled the accounting and HR needs. Karla used her experience at Inflow to build an employee-centric culture, scaling Pete and James’ passion for getting projects done right and on budget.

Weifield Group developed a core values statement for employees to follow. PACT stands for People, Advance Process, Community, and Trusting Relationships. It might be easy to dismiss this as a feel good statement for the conference room wall, but employees at Weifield live these values. “We want our people to stay forever,” Karla explained. “Watching them develop with the company is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.” Weifield employees serve on Council—a monthly internal meeting with representatives from every department—where they discuss ideas, problems, and opportunities for improvement. Everyone working at Weifield has the opportunity to improve themselves and the company they work for.

Community became a core focus of Weifield and a key driver of their success. When the business first launched, they were an unknown quantity in the Denver area. Their data center business wasn’t exactly local. From the beginning, Karla looked for opportunities to improve and support the local community. From hosting events between area non-profits and Denver business community leaders, to the development of an apprenticeship program with at risk youth and adult programs, Karla has helped grow a community of difference makers. Her work helped Weifield win numerous philanthropy honors and awards, and the respect of Denver’s business community.

Today, Weifield has grown to $150 million in annual revenues and employs over 600 people. They’ve recently expanded their geographic footprint into Tennessee and Texas, with plans to hire 200 additional electricians. And while some might see continued growth as a foregone conclusion, Karla continues to advance Weifield’s culture. A current project addresses workforce flexibility—a hot topic for the endemic COVID world businesses must function in. After a productive brainstorming session with some of her employees, she has commissioned a white paper on “a four-day work week—bringing flexibility to the construction industry.” Will this reduce accidents and increase employee retention rates? Karla doesn’t want to get behind on this issue, once again demonstrating her “swim against the current” attitude.

One thing we noticed about Karla is her use of “we statements” when discussing Weifield’s success. She’s right. The organizational efficiency of the four founders has been key—each working to their strengths and acknowledging their weaknesses. One could ask if this success would have been possible without the perspective of a non-electrician. Someone who could bring the best of tech start-up culture into a traditional blue-collar business model. It seems luck isn’t something Karla counts on. The founders’ commitment to workforce development, excellent work product, and support for the community differentiates Weifield. Success has been intentional from the beginning.

Pete Farreny served on IEC’s National Board as a Mountain West Regional Director.