At a time when many specialty contractors are desperate for workers, Nickle Electrical Cos. is leaning on old-fashioned loyalty to staff its projects. Over the years, the 36-year-old firm has attracted a deep bench of workers who have built long careers at the Newark, Del.-based electrical contracting firm. With a high level of employee retention, the firm was well positioned to weather the early uncertainties of the pandemic and emerge in a strong position, company officials say. That stability has led the company to be a go-to specialty firm for many large contractors in its market.

The firm returned to pre-pandemic levels last year with $40 million in regional revenue, up from $36.7 million the prior year. That 9% increase helped move the firm up three spots on ENR MidAtlantic Specialty Contractor rankings, to No. 13. Given its steady track record, ENR MidAtlantic has named Nickle Electrical Cos. its 2022 Specialty Contractor of the Year.

“In an era when people are throwing money around like a freaking arcade game, we do a damn good job at retaining our employees and truly growing organically,” says Jeromy Newton, vice president of operations and co-owner of Nickle. “At times, I feel like we spend more time on our employees than we do on our customers, but they’re our greatest asset.”

virtual design

Nickle has significantly increased its virtual design and construction capabilities in recent years.
Photos courtesy Nickle Electrical Cos.

New Recruits

A big part of Nickle’s strategy is recruiting prospects early. The firm has maintained relationships with local vocational-technical schools for more than three decades. That investment attracted hundreds of co-ops and apprentices, many of whom are still employed with the company today. Newton says that 60% of Nickle’s field employees started as apprentices and have been with the company for more than five years. Recently, Nickle expanded its co-op program to include not just electricians, but office staff. All combined, Nickle brought on its largest co-op group yet in 2022.

Ashley Womer, a third-year apprentice at Nickle, started with the company when she was attending St. Georges Technical High School in Middletown, Del. One of her first projects was on a laboratory for pharmaceutical company Incyte. The opportunity to work on a large, complex project is part of what hooked Womer on pursuing the trades and working for Nickle. “I was 17 at the time, and all I could think was ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I get to do this for a living,’ ” she recalls.

Womer says the range of skills that can be learned on the job at Nickle is part of its draw. If she wants to learn specific skills, the opportunities are there. She says that when she’s ready to learn about fire alarm systems, for example, “all I have to do is talk to my project manager” to be placed with a fire alarm specialist.

new headquarters

This year, Nickle moved into a new headquarters, which significantly increased its prefabrication space.
Photos courtesy Nickle Electrical Cos.

Clear Career Path

New employees can also see the paths that many in the management ranks have taken. Kevin Woodland started at Nickle as a journeyman 17 years ago. He worked his way to a leadman position, then became a foreman. Five years ago, he moved into a project manager role. “What stuck with me when I started was that there was a lot of room for growth, a lot of opportunities,” Woodland says. “I saw a lot of people moving up. I had a young family, and I wanted to do the best I could for them.”

Part of that growth was provided through the company’s robust mentor program. Woodland recalls being assigned to two different foremen as mentors, each with their own management style. “Not only did I learn the job, I learned what I thought could be applicable to my managerial style,” he says. “I figured out what would work and what wouldn’t work for me, and I blended that into my own style.”

Today, Woodland serves on the firm’s mentor committee, where he helps employees find opportunities and assists in identifying employees who could be future leaders. “We pair them up with a mentor and set goals,” he says. “Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Some people just want to stay on their tools, which is good because we need those people, too.”

Newton also remains active in the recruiting and mentoring program that helped him rise from a service manager 14 years ago to vice president. “I’m probably more involved than I should be,” he says, “but it’s because I love the talent that comes in the door and I want to make sure that we’re bringing the right people in—not only for our success, but also their success.”

Ashley Womer

Ashley Womer, a third-year apprentice, joined Nickle while in high school and knew right away it was where she wanted to make a living.
Photos courtesy Nickle Electrical Cos.

Getting Noticed

A solid roster of talent also attracts clients. Andy Cheezum, vice president at Willow Construction, recalls that the company worked with Nickle sporadically until a 2005 church project in Lewes, Del., caught his attention. “It was a complicated project, and I remember they had a really good foreman on that job,” he says. “That’s when we really got to know them and their capabilities. They’ve been our preferred commercial electrical contractor ever since.”

Willow has since used the company on projects ranging from health care to manufacturing. “They have a pretty deep bench,” he says. “We know that if circumstances change on a project, they can put a lot of resources on that job.”

Rich Tighe, project manager at Whiting-Turner, also sees Nickle as a contractor that “can support just about anything we do out of our Delaware office.” Tighe managed the recent Incyte lab project and recalls that he was “impressed with the project manager and the labor they put on the job.”

One recent benefit that Tighe noted is Nickle’s growing capabilities in prefabrication. This year, the company relocated its headquarters in Newark, Del., and nearly doubled its available space, helping the company expand its virtual design construction and prefabrication department. “Everyone is trying to be more competitive in prefabrication, but Nickle is top-notch in regards to prefabrication compared to most of the other electrical contractors in the area,” Tighe says.

Incycte headquarters

For the Incycte headquarters project in Wilmington, Del., Nickle assisted in designing the lighting controls.
Photos courtesy Nickle Electrical Cos.

Neal Donaldson, Nickle’s chief financial officer and co-owner, helps lead the company’s innovation efforts, and, although he generally takes a conservative approach in business, he sees prefabrication, VDC and other IT efforts as critical investments, noting that the CAD department has increased from one person to eight in six years. “That’s a big deal,” he says. “We’re definitely reaping benefits now, but over the next 10 years we’re going to be very good at it.”

Still, Nickle has remained largely conservative in terms of expanding the business. Donaldson says he expects the firm to continue growing at a measured pace, on average increasing revenue by a few million dollars per year. It’s a continuation of the firm’s approach throughout its history.

Nickle’s Key Projects Include:

Incyte Headquarters

Wilmington, Del.

The 150,000-sq-ft building consists of a four-story lobby, offices, a kitchen, lunch areas, green roof, pickleball court, putting green and a parking garage. Nickle’s $9.2-million contract included all electrical components for the building and the parking garage. Team members also assisted in designing the lighting controls.

University of Delaware Whitney Athletic Center

Newark, Del.

Nickle’s $6.9-million contract provided new service to a renovation of University of Delaware’s athletic field. The renovation includes a press box, locker rooms, a large gym, office space, kitchen and food court, VIP seating, study rooms and more.

Beebe South Coastal Campus Emergency Department and Cancer Center

Frankford, Del.

Beebe’s South Coastal Campus is a new 41,000-sq-ft, single-story health care facility dedicated as an emergency department and cancer center. In its $3.8-million contract, Nickle provided the entire electrical system for the building, including a 2,000-amp main service.

Founded by Paul Nickle in 1986, the firm was acquired by current owners Steve and Debbie Dignan in 1991. The company gradually expanded into a multimillion-dollar business that now performs commercial, industrial, residential and service work throughout Delaware, southeast Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia. In 2016, the company started a succession plan that would transfer ownership of the company from the Dignans to Newton and Donaldson.

Looking ahead, Donaldson says he expects to continue the firm’s gradual growth pattern. Although he says the company would consider acquisition opportunities, it would only pursue ones that enabled Nickle to expand into new geographic areas.

Newton shares that view, always keeping an eye toward the possible impact on employees. “We prefer a conservative, organic growth,” he says. “We slowly take on more work, slowly take in more employees and slowly get better. We take pride in that.” Newton adds, “I don’t care if we make $20 million or $100 million, we need to be profitable. There are 200 families that we need to feed every week. That’s important to us.”