Back In My Grandfather’s Day
Stecho has grown by returning to the company’s roots

By Exchange Magazine
The company founded in 1952 as Harold Stecho Electric no longer bears Harold’s first name – but his grandson, Steve Stecho, freely admits it still carries his vision. In fact, Steve and his partners at the company now simply known as Stecho Electric have grown the business significantly of late, by focusing on the same markets his grandfather emphasized.
Stecho Electric was founded by Harold, then owned and operated by Harold’s son, Wayne (Steve’s Dad), and is now a three-way partnership between Steve, his brother Mark Stecho, and a long-time employee, Scott Nelson.

Steve says that “Back in my grandfather’s day, we were into all the things being developed, as the community was growing.” In his father’s time, the company morphed into a primary focusing on electricity service maintenance – “That’s all we did.”

But today, Stecho has refocused on the larger picture, and – as is commemorated in the plaques and scrolls on the walls (and leaning against walls, awaiting mounting) of the offices and boardrooms – is involved in many of the significant commercial, industrial and institutional projects in the region and beyond. Steve smiles as he admits they have recaptured the vision of his grandfather.

He also laughs when asked about the cliché that it takes three generations to destroy a business – one to build, one to maintain, one to lose it. He is very aware of that danger, and he and his brother have focused on insuring that is not their story – and they are clearly succeeding.

An important element in their success is that they’re doing what they have always wanted to do. This is not a case of a family business being thrust upon an unwilling successor – Steve says, “I was involved at an early age in the construction industry, and I wanted to be an engineer.” He graduated from Fanshawe College as an engineer technologist, and had hoped to work for Ontario Hydro. That didn’t work out, so Wayne offered his son a job… sort of.

We can’t predict what the industry is going to look like in 10 years.
It would befoolish to think there isn’t some major disruptor on the horizon.

Steve worked for Stecho and completed his apprenticeship, and then Wayne told him he would have to go out and find his own clients and jobs. “It was a very smart thing my father did,” he says. “It forced me to create a business within Harold Stecho Electric.”

Steve has a lot of praise for his father, saying his admiration for his Dad has grown, in hindsight. “As a young fellow, growing the business, I didn’t really appreciate his contribution to the business. His mentoring was invaluable. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I owe a lot to him.”

The result was, when Wayne retired, in essence “the company was already mine,” and had been invented and reinvigorated as “a construction company.”

Steve joined Stecho in 1992. At that point, there were four employees. Today, as Stecho Electric plays key roles in important builds all over the region, the team numbers more than 50. Some of that team came to Stecho when the company acquired Victoria Electric, in 2010, a move that Steve describes as “the coming together of two long-term family businesses.”

And having 50-plus employees, suggests Steve, is just about right. Stecho has been developed to its ideal size, he believes, and the company’s focus will continue to be on top quality performance, not increased growth. Most of their work is in construction, construction, although Stecho still has some maintenance contracts and does work in multi-unit residential projects.

Steve and his partners are not looking to stretch their team numbers much further partly because they are committed to treating their employees like real people with families and meaningful lives outside work. He says that if a team member has a kid involved in an afternoon sporting event, that employee should be free to be there for his or her child.

He points to projects that necessitate weekend or late-night work, and says that every member of the team gets the option to work on those projects, or to choose something with hours in the normal workday. Younger, single staff members tend to opt for the outside-normal-hours work, as do some of the older, empty-nest generation. But when it comes time for bonuses from one of these off-hours projects, everyone in the company shares in the benefit, because those working “day shifts” are allowing the others to be free to complete the other jobs.

“We’ve had a hand in it”

If you took the time to research the projects nominated for Grand Valley Construction Association awards over the past decades, you would find the name “Stecho” everywhere – including on winning projects this year. Steve says that is mirrored in the cityscapes of the region. “When I drive around the city, there are very few areas we haven’t had a hand in.”

Stecho has been involved in many of the new high tech buildings, a trend that started with involvement in some of the Blackberry buildings.

Those buildings were a precursor to the incredible change that has swept through the construction industry in Waterloo Region.

Of course, an electrical contractor must deal with the increasing focus on energy efficiency – and Stecho has been involved in this in many projects, including the new Evolv1, the trend-setting carbon neutral office facility being built by Cora in the David Johnston Research and Technology Park.

The construction of “smart buildings” has changed a great deal in the construction industry, although Steve notes that for an electrical contractor, the basics stay the same, because they are not involved in the software development.

“It was a very smart thing my father did. It forced me to create a business within Harold Stecho Electric.”

That doesn’t mean things have not changed, however. Stecho has just carried out an LED retrofitting program in about a dozen Region of Waterloo facilities, and has also had the electrical contract on the new Metrolinx building.

Perhaps an equally significant change involves the initial approach to construction project. The process has become more collaborative, with contractors and subcontractors involved in the planning stages.

Typically in the past, an electrical contractor would be hired to do installation, only, after the work of architects, designers and general contractors had laid out very precise plans. Today, everyone gets involved as a much earlier stage, and Stecho will often be called in as a consultant during the design process, involved in design assessment and project management.

This fits Steve’s vision for Stecho. He says that a key strength of his company is “our ability to partner on projects, always looking to the best interests of the client and of the project.”

Steve believes this focus on collaboration is producing better buildings – and better relationships across the segments of the construction industry.

Relationships are important

Perhaps it’s because of these relationships that Steve agreed to get involved as an executive member – and now, the new President – of the Grand Valley Construction Association. “I thought this was an excellent opportunity for me to give back and to get involved in the construction community. And it’s been fantastic, already. I like the people I deal with. It has helped me to grow, and has given me insight” into challenges faced by the industry, including ever-changing legislation, lobbying, and issues around apprenticeship – a never-ending source of concern in the construction industry in Ontario.

Regarding recruitment of young people into the construction trades, Steve admits there can be challenges – but insists that the rewards for newcomers will be substantial.

He says, “it’s tough to compete, because the trades are different from high tech. We need you there at 7 a.m. and we need you all day.” He thinks the industry needs “to offer different perks,” but also points out that young people should realize the pay is “very competitive.” He returns to the Stecho policy of “family first”, and suggests that offering that kind of flexibility to new recruits could be a significant drawing card for the construction industry, noting that high tech companies may be fine with employees wandering in in mid-morning, but often expect their evening hours to be spent on the job.

So recruitment of talent is key. Contractors like Stecho are eager to attract new employees, either out of high school (they will work with the employee through the five-year apprenticeship program) or with college training. He believes high school grads, who are typically directed toward university, should also consider college, especially if they have high mechanical aptitude. But he worries that the changes in high school that have eliminated shops, for example, mitigate against young people being interested in the trades. He hopes that co-op programs for high school kids may help bridge that gap.

And speaking of apprenticeship, Stecho notes that a regulation remains in place in Ontario requiring companies to have three journeymen to every one apprentice. That ratio, he insists, is too high. Some provinces have a 2-1 ratio, some even have 1-1. The Ontario regulation is currently under review, and he’s lobbying for a change to 2-1, which would allow companies to apprentice more young tradespeople.

“We all have roles”

At Stecho, Steve’s official position is President, but he sees his job description in fairly simple terms: “I show up for work, every day. I go out and talk to builders and get new business.”

That’s his role. “I tell people we all have roles in the company. They can’t be out there unless I get new business, but I can’t be in here unless they are out there… it’s symbiotic.”

Steve says that business has been “pretty consistent” for the company. But he can’t take that for granted, because “we have lots of competition in this area, which is a little micro-climate” of construction. “We have a lot of small, competent contractors – electrical, general, mechanical.”

Sixty-six years after it was founded, Stecho Electric has indeed returned to its roots. But at the same time, it is an utterly different business, working in the high-tech and innovative construction environment of today.

And Steve Stecho believes that we ain’t seen nothing, yet. “We can’t predict what the industry is going to look like in 10 years,” he says. “It would be foolish to think there isn’t some major disruptor” on the horizon.

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ISSN 0824-45
Copyright, 2018.