Case Studies

Tom Circello – Lighting Maintenance Inc (LMI)

Company owner gets creative to grow electrical contracting business

Everywhere Tom Circello goes—high school graduations, job fairs, even junior high and grade schools—he talks to youngsters about joining the trades. Many people who are good with their hands know it at an early age, he reasons, and he wants to get to those people before they make up their minds to follow another path.

And his efforts have borne fruit: In May, Circello started three new employees at his 20-person company, Lighting Maintenance, headquartered in Eldridge, Iowa. One of them had interned with the company—an electrical contractor that specializes in outdoor projects, aerial work and sirens—while he was still in high school.

“That was us doing that on our own, the interning, and I think it’s going to become a new way to find talent in the trades,” Circello says. “Typically, that [interning] hasn’t happened in building construction trades, so we had to kind of think outside the box.”

Creative thinking is certainly going to be necessary for Circello, his business partner and their wives (who serve as HR manager and office manager, respectively, at the company). Roughly one-third of the members in the local chapter of their union, the National Electrical Contractors’ Association, are 55 or older and will be retiring within the next seven years.

Circello says they’ve had “a great relationship” with NECA. Sometimes he’ll call up the union to get some names, then bring those people in to interview.

“I talk to those guys daily for input on stuff,” he says. “It’s a joint venture. They recognize the same things that I see.”

Bringing grain storage into the 21st century

The top priority for Circello right now, besides recruitment, is tackling projects at the River Valley Co-Op grain storage facilities in Olin, Iowa, and Sunbury, Iowa. He’s up against summer deadlines for that work.

Lighting Maintenance is wiring a new grain storage and unloading system in those locations. The company is also installing automation at the River Valley outpost. That entails putting in motors, conveyor systems and so forth—complex work, especially because the structures spread across the three locations are about 100 feet by 300 feet.

“It’s all automated now; you know, they hit a button, and it ties it into a computer system, and it unloads automatically,” he says of the work at the River Valley location. “It’s filling up grain trucks automatically. They pull them in, hit a button, and then off you go.”

The project, Circello adds, shows the longevity of Lighting Maintenance’s relationships and the quality of his and his colleagues’ work. They finished wiring another large grain storage facility for River Valley last year. And they’ve been working with that company for 10 years.  

Improving healthcare facilities

Lighting Maintenance has also been working on improvements at the Mercy Medical Center in Clinton, Iowa. Over the past seven years, Circello’s company has done an emergency department remodel, a dialysis remodel, a wound care remodel, a pharmacy remodel, and a CT scan remodel. The company worked on power, lighting, fire alarms and data.

“All those are expanded departments with brand-new technology,” Circello says. “It’s the latest and greatest in healthcare—all those are critical things. Mercy’s investing in the community.”

Circello and his team are currently working on a boiler room generator replacement. But they also do design and build work for the hospital. For example, Mercy is demolishing its south campus hospital, and Lighting Maintenance is handling all the utilities on the new freestanding building that’s going up in its place.

Slow and steady for lasting growth

Circello launched Lighting Maintenance in 1988 after working as an electrician from 1976 to 1987. He had done a year of college at Purdue University, decided his path lay elsewhere, returned home and signed up for the IBEW Local #145 apprenticeship program.

He’s never looked back, and now, as a master electrician and business owner, he’s growing Lighting Maintenance the same way he built his career: slowly, on solid foundations and from the ground up. Rather than setting specific growth targets, he favors an organic growth strategy.

“It’s just this natural growth from hiring people, training them, and then they stay,” Circello says. “It isn’t like we’ve got this business model to go out and add 10 percent next year, or five percent next year and five percent the next year. It’s just been slow and steady, and it’s been a very controlled, easy-to-manage way to do it.”

Today, Circello handles all the bids and billing, among other responsibilities. His wife does the payroll and union reporting. His partner, who started in the business 27 years ago as an apprentice, now serves as a managing partner and helps steer the business. And his partner’s wife serves as the office manager, overseeing the permits and a recent safety push that saw the company get ISN RAVS certified. The safety certification (which stands for “Review and Verification Services”) means the workforce compliance safety experts at ISN have checked the company’s safety manual, safety protocols, safety programs and insurance to verify that they meet state standards.

At the end of the day, it’s all about teamwork at Lighting Maintenance. Whether that involves the collaboration of the friends and family who work for the company, its partnership with the local union, or its ties to the community, which run deep, Circello and his team take a cooperative, hands-on approach.

“Lighting Maintenance prides itself on its relationships with customers and providing them with a consultative approach to all their commercial, industrial and agricultural electrical needs,” he says.

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VII 2023 Edition here.

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