#Success: How to Make it as a Signatory Contractor

 

In an homage to the iconic photo of ironworkers eating lunch high above New York City, contractor and former Saint John, New Brunswick, Local 502 member Mike Duncan assembled his team for a remake, posted on social media for Labour Day in Canada.

“It’s a fun way to collaborate and take a break, especially at the end of a long week,” Duncan said. “And it gets people’s attention. You never know where your next customer will come from.”

Embracing new ideas and camaraderie are at the heart of Duncan’s Electrical, the four-year-old business started by the former member of Saint John, New Brunswick, Local 502.

Duncan enjoyed the work he was doing in the industrial sector early in his career, but after a few years he wanted something different, where he’d have more variety and agency. So he started his own company, focusing mostly on smaller commercial, retail and high-end residential work.

“The one thing I always look back to and remember is that feeling of putting my coat and my hard hat on the same hook in the same lunch trailer for years and years, it didn’t sit well with me,” he told local publication Huddle.

Local 502 has supported him along the way.

“Starting a business takes a lot of work and we want them to be successful,” said Local 502 President David Stephen. “We want them to know that the union is here to help, that we’re all in this together.”

Local 502 helps Duncan, and other members-turned-contractors, by offering tools and space in its training center, resources new businesses might not have access to. The local also started “ConnectNB,” a website that pairs customers with union contractors.

The jobs are posted for everyone, but the smaller ones – like renovating a restaurant – are mostly passed over by larger companies.

“Mike really took advantage of it,” said Business Manager Jean Marc Ringuette. “And he took it a step further by building relationships and really making a name for himself in the arts community.”

Duncan, who usually employs between four and eight IBEW members, has worked all around Saint John, primarily on renovations and community projects like music festivals. Those projects allowed Duncan and his crew to establish themselves as not just skilled craftspeople but creative collaborators who can help the restauranteurs and designers bring their visions to life.

“The job definitely allows for creativity,” said employee and Local 502 member Mike McNamee. “We work with a lot of folks who know what they want, but not how to get it. They know food and whisky, not wiring. That’s where we come in.”

Whether it’s bending conduit to make sure it’s hidden in the corner or finding the perfect exit sign, they make sure every part is done right, Duncan said. It’s an aspect of the job that often goes unnoticed, yet one that Duncan especially relishes.

Duncan’s creativity is also apparent in his approach to social media.

With few contractors on Instagram, Duncan says the platform allows his brand to stand out. Images of beautiful lighting fixtures are posted alongside videos of the crew dancing onstage at a local theater and running a contest for a new company shirt and tagline (the winner, chosen by Instagram users: “switches be trippin’”).

“They’re always posting fun things and it’s been an effective, if unconventional, way to get their name out,” said Ross Galbraith, business manager of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Local 37 and Eighth District International Executive Council member.

Duncan says he’s used the Instagram photos when pitching clients and has promoted the businesses on social media, a gesture that goes a long way in a small community.

“We’re competing against older, more well-known companies a lot of the time,” Duncan said. “With social media we can show who we are and that we come with fresh ideas.”

Duncan’s experience is something that Ringuette and Stephen say they would like to see more of. By helping members like Duncan, the local gets more small signatory contractors and the members get the support they need to stay competitive.

“We’ve been encouraging our members to go into business for themselves and instead of moonlighting, invest the time and do it right, as a union contractor,” Stephen said.

Duncan credits the IBEW for not just teaching him electrical work, but how to communicate effectively and lead a team. Whether it was taking foreman roles or speaking up at a meeting, they helped him develop into a leader, he said.

“It gave me a good base,” Duncan said. “You don’t always get opportunities like that outside of a union.”

Interested in becoming a contractor? The IBEW offers a two-week course to help you get started. For more information go to ibew.org/education and check out the July edition of the Electrical Worker.