N.W. Electric wins AFN small business award
Denny McConnell cares about Kotzebue. He cares about the people, and his life in the Northwest Arctic Borough. And so, 10 years ago, when McConnell was looking for work, he was committed to staying in the area to be close to his family and friends, and the land he loves.
That's when, instead of moving to Anchorage, he started his own business. McConnell had worked for years as a refrigeration technician and electrician on the North Slope and so starting Northwest Refrigeration & Electric was an obvious choice. The company is now called N.W. Electric.
"I was born and raised here and I didn't want to travel or move away from my friends and family so I took a chance," said McConnell, 50, from Kotzebue. "We started out small and it's grown from there."
The business already existed when McConnell signed on then, but his business partner moved and McConnell was left on his own to run the small electrical contracting business.
In 2005, McConnell's company became incorporated and currently McConnell has 11 electricians on staff, seven of which are local. He owns the business with his wife Cathy and business partner Charlie Lee though McConnell, the president, is the "majority share holder."
A couple weeks ago at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference, McConnell and N.W. Electric won the AFN President's Small Business Award for its great service and commitment to the community.
It was an honor to be nominated, and a surprise to win, said McConnell.
For his dedication and business savvy, McConnell received $1,000 (sponsored by Wells Fargo) and an ivory and baleen knife carved by Inupiaq artist Jon Ipalook.
These days, N.W. Electric is taking on large-scale projects that include re-wiring buildings to get them up to code, or starting from scratch with additions and new homes.
"We've a couple of schools, we do a lot of work with the local Native organizations in this area ... the housing authority; we work on both residential and commercial," said McConnell. "We've got a couple of huge projects, so that's kept us busy."
Huge projects like an addition on the Alaska Technical Center in Kotzebue and a renovation and addition at the school in Kobuk.
"And of course we just finished new homes and remodels in our villages."
Over the last few years especially, McConnell is seeing more competition when jobs come up. More and more businesses from Anchorage are interested in coming the Bush for work, but, added McConnell, he's got the home-turf advantage.
These days, a dozen companies, many from outside the Northwest Arctic Borough region, are vying for work when it comes up, as opposed to just a few hopeful bidders a couple years ago.
But N.W. Electric stays busy, McConnell assured.
"It definitely helps to have some local hands. It's so expensive to build up here ...it's a benefit to hire local."
And when the guys at N.W. Electric aren't as busy, they fill their days with volunteer projects. Most recently, McConnell and his crew did some re-wiring on a local church and, he said, they do a lot of work at elders' houses at no charge.
"We want to help as many people as we can. People see us as a company that has grown or people know me and my family ... We must be doing a good job because they call us back," McConnell said, adding that his business is an active sponsor for local sports teams, snowmachine races and dog sled races.
"We care about this area so we help out any way we can, especially the elders — we want to bring their houses up to code to help them save on fuel costs and energy costs."
With the cost of living reaching an all-time high, especially in the Arctic, McConnell is relearning certain facets of his trade. Installing solar panels, wind generators and LED lighting are the big changes McConnell is seeing in his area. McConnell is also becoming more familiar with state and federal energy grants that help locals improve their homes to save money on energy costs.
"It's been a big learning curve for us," McConnell said. "We've got to learn all this new technology, too."
But with help of other local builders, contractors and specialists, McConnell said, there are enough locals to collaborate on projects like solar-panel installation to get the job done right.
Alternative and renewable energy are gaining popularity quickly in the Arctic and though initial costs are quite expensive, in the long run , it just makes sense, said McConnell.
"We're a small, little company and our biggest challenge now is (keeping up with) technology," he said.
But even though it's been a hurdle, McConnell acknowledged that his business is adaptable and ready for the future.
"There are a lot of different road barriers we come across here, but we're getting it done."