Ward hopes to spark new life in his old business
David Ward’s “retirement” was short-lived.
This spring, Ward bought ABC Electric, the business he had sold just two years earlier to Davenport-based Tri-City Electric Co., after seeing that its future looked uncertain. He said he felt it was up to him to give the company he co-founded a jump start.
“After all the years that I spent here at ABC Electric, I certainly didn’t want to see it being sold to someone else or the possibility of it closing,” Ward said. “I just felt that it was time for me to step back in and see if I could throw some life back into the company.”
Ward, 67, said the business, now renamed ABC Electrical Contractors LLC, “is feeling more stable every day,” with his office staff working hard to make the transition go smoothly. Ward’s loyalty to the Clive business runs deep as a result of devoting his entire adult life to making it thrive.
In 1959, Ward and fellow electrician Ed Irving started ABC Electric Inc. in Irving’s garage, using $1,000 that Ward had saved working over the summer. Ward was only 20 years old at the time, and decided to start the business instead of returning for his second year at Hastings College in Hastings, Neb., where he was taking pre-engineering coursework and playing football on a scholarship.
“Ed and I had worked as a team for another company when we got to talking about doing our own thing,” Ward said. “We decided to buy an old truck for $250 and spent the rest of my money on tools and equipment and that’s how we started.”
Ward and Irving hired their first employee in 1964 and expanded their business from there. In 1970, Ward bought out Irving and continued to run ABC Electric until January 2003, when he sold it to Tri-City Electric, which is ranked among the nation’s top 100 electrical contractors.
“The only reason I decided to sell it was that I had been in the business for 43 years at the time and thought it was time to relax,” Ward said.
Even after Ward sold ABC Electric, he stayed under the new ownership as the business development manager. Through his continued involvement in the company, he could tell that Tri-City Electric was having trouble reaching its business goals.
“I had a feeling that things were not going as well as they had anticipated,” Ward said. “They had put a lot of time and effort into the company, and it just didn’t grow as well as they had anticipated. They were in hopes to grow larger and be more effective here in the city with larger contracts, but it just didn’t seem to work for them.”
Tri-City’s difficulties in expanding ABC Electric’s business weren’t anticipated by Ward, who said he had been impressed by the company’s accomplishments during its 100-plus years in business and the technical resources it could bring to Des Moines.
One challenge that had not been taken into account during the buyout, Ward said, was the construction industry’s sensitivity to the change in ownership.
“As large as Des Moines is, it’s still a tight-knit town in the construction field, and I feel that the contractors in the city were a little reluctant to do business with the new owners,” Ward said.
Tri-City Electric representatives approached Ward in March, asking if he would be interested in repurchasing ABC Electric. After some soul-searching, Ward decided he would do it, and he reassumed leadership of the company May 5.
ABC Electrical Contractors today is a leaner company than it was when Ward sold it two years ago. Instead of about 125 contractors and 15 full-time office staff, the company now has about 75 contractors and 10 people working in the office.
“Our intention is to not be quite as big of a company as we were in 2003,” Ward said. “We want to be a medium-sized company as opposed to a large company so that we can really focus on customer satisfaction and keep our employees happy.”
Ward also wants to increase the amount of residential work his company does; it had concentrated on commercial work in the past. But other than that, he plans to stick with the same goal he started the company with 46 years ago.
“Obviously, our goals are to make money, and that’s how we started n 1959,” he said. “We want to maintain a well-recognized, successful Des Moines company.”
The current construction boom in Greater Des Moines has Ward optimistic about ABC Electric Contractors’ future. It has already been selected as the electrical contractor for Bob Knapp’s condominium project in the Equitable Building. And last week, Ward was awaiting a decision on what he called another major local project.
Ward said he’s surprised at the warm reception he has received from old customers, employees, former employees and a few competitors since he resumed ownership of the business. “They’re happy to see that it’s back to the way it was,” he said.
Also, Ward said, a sense of normality has also returned to his own life by buying back the business.
“I guess I found out what my hobby was, and it was working,” he said. “After all those years of running my own company, I didn’t hunt, fish or play golf. I enjoyed working then, and that’s still true today.”