Don Aragón likes “oddball jobs” that allow the employees of his family’s business to brandish their skills in a variety of environments.
For more than three decades, Albuquerque-based VA Electric Inc. has tackled the electrical side of both public works and private projects across the state and beyond. Some jobs take their workers to challenging locations, such as across the Conchas Dam and below the Grand Canyon’s southern rim, says Aragón, the company’s president. Others warrant work on state-of-the-art facilities, like the new 275,000-square-foot Ben E. Keith food distribution center, which opened on Albuquerque’s West Side this spring.
But Aragón says all jobs provide an opportunity to showcase VA Electric’s work ethic, which was established by his father, Vicente Aragón.
Vicente Aragón founded the electrical contracting business in 1989 with his wife Katherine Aragón. The pair are now board members and their sons, Don and Vincent Aragón, currently lead the company.
“He expected a lot out of himself and everybody else he dealt with,” Don Aragón says of his father.
Those expectations ultimately led to a break with the electrical workers’ union in the mid-’90s, while Don Aragón was in the Marine Corps and Vicente Aragón was leading the company. It was a difficult transition. Lawyers were brought in. Employees were lost. Aragón says, to meet the contractual requirements of their in-progress projects, his father and his brother worked 10 to 12 hours a day for 47 days straight.
It was a defining moment in the life of the company, Aragón recalls.
While labor unions often tout their ability to negotiate better benefits and more favorable working conditions, Aragón said he believes their employees recognize that VA Electric has workers’ interests at heart.
“We see that what’s best for them, oftentimes, is best for us,” Aragón says.
Rather than a union, VA Electric is part of Independent Electrical Contractors, a national trade association that promotes the concepts of free enterprise and open competition in the industry.
Aragón says he appreciates the group’s belief in the idea that “if you work hard, you should be rewarded for that work.”
And if that hard work takes his employees out to Conchas Lake or down the Bright Angel Trail? Well, that’s just a picturesque perk.
What would you say VA Electric is known for?
“Well, I think we’re probably known as the electrical contractor that goes out to the unusual spot to do work. We’ve done a few projects in the Grand Canyon. We’ve done projects that are kind of unusual, I guess. We’ve been lucky enough, fortunate enough, to have business associates that invited us to projects where we could highlight our dedication and our determination to get the project done.”
What makes a family-owned business different from other businesses?
“Our parents put a lot at stake. Took a big gamble. Just like most people who start their own business, they took a gamble, and they put their neck out there. And so we have a very strong belief that we must protect that legacy. … I think a family business has that consideration. The other thing is that we also realize that there are employees that are not necessarily blood but are family. And they have those same values that we share. They’re absolutely part of that leadership component. We want them to be partners.”
How have changes in technology impacted VA Electric?
“The reality is the electrical industry, construction in general, has been developing. … The process and methodology for building is more eco-friendly, and the owners are willing to pay a little bit more of a premium to know that the environment’s taken care of. … Our biggest thing, from an electrician’s standpoint, has been about efficiency controls. In particular, lighting controls. Lighting control systems seem to evolve every year. Every time we get a new job there is a different type of lighting control system, and these are getting more and more capable. Which means they’re also more and more technical in how they work, but they’re basically pretty darn smart systems.”
Is it a challenge to keep your workforce abreast of the changes?
“We’re members of the Northern New Mexico Independent Electrical Contractors Association, which is also our apprenticeship program. … I have five (apprentices) enrolled in the program, and they’re not only trained on theory and basics of electrical installation, but they get training on all these new systems as well. At the same time, we are required – to maintain our licenses – to do 16 hours of continuing education. It is a constant learning cycle. I enjoy that. I enjoy learning about how we are evolving, and I think it also makes us competitive.”
Does VA Electric have a strategy for keeping talent once they get it?
“This is a family business, and the employees are part of the family. We want our employees to A) feel that way. Feel like they’re taken care of. B) Train them so that they can make decisions. Be safe. And they feel a better sense of accomplishment when they, when we, grow. When we grow with some training, and then actually be able to go out and use that training and ability to produce something new, I think for most people they find it very rewarding.”
Business Outlook’s In-Depth item features interviews with leaders of well-established New Mexico businesses about the practices that have allowed them to weather ups and downs. Send suggestions of locally owned businesses that have been in existence for at least a decade and that employ at least 20 people to firstname.lastname@example.org.