Behind the Build: Interview with John Brunia, President, Spectra Electrical Services

john brunia spectra electrical

This blog originally appeared on the PlanGrid Construction Productivity Blog. 

In this week’s Behind the Build, we speak with John Brunia, President of Spectra Electrical Services. John shares what he loves most about heading up the Tempe, Arizona based electrical subcontractor for the past 24 years, and how he stays an advocate for the industry. Read on to learn more about his story.

What makes Spectra Electrical Services special from other electrical subcontractors?

At the end of the day, what sets Spectra Electric Services apart is the relationships we have built with our Customers and business associates. While our Customers will surely remember us for the tangible items we build for them, we pride ourselves in the way we address and solve problems. If and when issues do arise on projects, we strive to think outside the box in order to present our Customers with solutions that put our their needs and best interests first.

What do you love most about the construction industry?

I love the variety of activities that the construction industry affords me to participate in. Overseeing all aspects of an electrical construction business affords me the opportunity to exercise and satisfy all aspects of my brain. Participating on Design Build / Design assist Teams allows for collaborative efforts with other construction industry experts to deliver the most challenging and rewarding of projects to a Customer, while remaining mindful of their wants and their needs, coupled with the technical, schedule and budget aspects of their project. On any given day, I am constantly having to shift modes from strategic thinking for the company to hiring to estimating to operations to marketing to accounting throughout the day, while meeting with the heads of those respective areas of the company.

While I enjoy every aspect of what I do, I’d have to say that the one aspect of my job that I truly enjoy the most is the people component of our industry. At the end of the day, construction is a people business and we would not be in business without our employees, without our Customers and without our business associates.

At this point in my career, I love to teach the next generation about the electrical construction industry.

Working with the next generation of managers, supervisors and electricians allows me to share my vision for how best to deliver the most innovative, cost-effective and budget-friendly projects and services to our Customers. And working with Customers to establish a long term and mutually beneficial relationships has always been something we strive to achieve, as it is paramount to our success.

You are also the Vice President of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) - Arizona Chapter. Could you share more about your involvement with the organization?

The National Electrical Contractors Association helps me connect with like-minded people in the electrical construction and service industry. It was an honor to be elected to the Board of Directors for the Arizona Chapter of NECA by my peers and I take that honor seriously to represent the other member contractors in the most professional and responsible manner. As a member of the Board of Directors, I enjoy being afforded a voice in the industry. Being on the local Arizona Chapter of NECA Board of Directors and as a member contractor, NECA provides myself and our management Team with many networking, educational and political events and initiatives on both a local and a national level covering all aspects of the electrical construction industry. However, serving on the local Arizona board helps me keep a pulse on what's going on in our state, both from a union electrical contracting standpoint and a general electrical industry standpoint.

Through NECA, I am able to contribute to various subcommittees. For instance, we recently had a meeting for the Labor Management Cooperation Committee (LMCC), which is a committee to meet between the labor and management side in order to discuss issues affecting or impacting our trade and the construction industry as a whole. Our company has attended NECA meetings for the last 18 years and I have been elected to the Board for the past 10 years. We all share a common concern for the skilled labor shortage in the construction, particularly for electricians, and we have been working together as a membership, along with the IBEW local in an effort to find solutions which will allow the industry to overcome the skilled labor shortage in both the short term and the long term for the next generation of contractors. Together, we strive to think outside the box and find solutions which will be of benefit to the electrical construction industry as a whole.

How do you ensure you are hiring and retaining the best people possible at Spectra?

My motto is, “manage the situation and lead the people.”

In other words, I don't want a bunch of drones or carbon copies of me. While we have established management systems and ways we do things, we want and encourage our employees to exercise their creative brains to analyze information, find solutions and make decisions. We don’t get mad if employees make mistakes or a poor decision from time to time. However, we do expect that they are able to learn from those mistakes and avoid them in the future. We might talk to understand their thought process, but I’m never going to get mad for them taking the initiative. However, there are hard and fast rules when it comes to the safe execution of work in the field, since we work in such a potentially dangerous industry.

When it comes to hiring office and supervisory personnel, I believe that I have developed a unique perspective on interviewing over the years. We don’t start with a fixed set of questions. Rather, we look to have more of an open discussion with prospective employees. We like to first assess that there is a fit from both perspectives. I’m never going to sell people to come work at Spectra. We want people to fit in more importantly, and we want our culture to be embraced. Even after the first 90 days of an employee working for us, we want feedback to be a two-way street. I always encourage my employees to bring issues and concerts up to me so we can learn how to improve as a company.

As a Union contractor, our IBEW electricians are the best-trained electricians in the electrical construction industry. Being party to various collective bargaining agreements with the IBEW allows us to draw upon the IBEW as manpower needs arise, knowing that we will be putting the safest, the most knowledgeable and the most technically sound electricians available in the industry to work on our Customers’ projects.

How has technology changed the way you've worked in construction?

When I started work in the construction industry many years ago, we were just beginning to issue pagers to people. Shortly after, we moved to cell phones. When we first started introducing technology to the industry, communication was relatively simple. Everyone had a cell phone and could contact one another to get a quick answer, thereby enhancing productivity. However, over the years it started getting a bit more complicated.

There came the point when there was too much information overflow, too much processing and too much information readily available. Technologically, we have evolved from having just one device (pager) to having multiple devices at one time providing various information availability and now coming full circle to the all in one smartphone/tablet. Yet the combination of the multiple devices into one continues to provide the same level of distraction from productivity due to the multiple apps and cloud-based programs required to perform our work. It requires effort and strategy to make technology an effective productivity tool rather than a productivity detractor.

As a leader, I have to push for the right technology that can help our company accomplish its productivity and effective communication goals.

Why was your company drawn to using PlanGrid?

We have found PlanGrid to be one of the rare tools that’s just so intuitive. It doesn’t take an extensive amount of training to get people up and running. It can immediately be used if it’s put out in the field.

To successfully roll out technology, we need it to be accessible for multiple generations of workers. So, if we're talking about a 23-year-old, who has been in the trade since they were 17 and now they've earned the right to be a supervisor on a small job, we know they will probably be able to adopt the tech pretty quickly. Alternatively, it also needs to be easy enough for a seasoned veteran who might not have grown up with or kept up with the latest tech advance and running large projects to figure out. In today’s day and age, arguably everyone has a smartphone and has used an app or two in their daily lives. Since PlanGrid is an app based program, it is intuitive enough to “learn on the job” once the tool is made available to an individual. Training requirements can be as minimal or as extensive as the individual using it and we as an organization encourage our users to share with other users the tricks, shortcuts and other benefits that they are able to learn and utilize while using PlanGrid on their projects.

How did you get your team to embrace new technology, like PlanGrid?

We rolled out PlanGrid to our whole company around 18 months ago. It took a bit of a jovial push, rather than an ultimatum. First, we met with all of our supervisors, and we handed them brand new iPads with everything uploaded. We asked them to embrace the technology because it’s part of the next generation of the construction industry. I knew that once we left them to their own devices, and they started to dig into the technology and talk amongst themselves, that it would take off.

We also assigned a staff member, a promising young employee, to be the dedicated contact for all of the company’s PlanGrid users in the office and in the field. Since the administrators typically perform their duties with PlanGrid on a desktop and the users with an iPad, with the differences in appearances and some functions between the two platforms, we found it was very useful to have one person that could be available to answer any questions and decipher the differences between the two for all users. To foster and encourage the field to actually use PlanGrid, we needed to find a way to ensure that we removed any obstacles or excuses that might encourage a user to leave the iPad (and thus the PlanGrid app) in their truck or in the gang box. We directed the lead of our Technological rollout team to jump through any hoops needed if and when the field asked for something. While I didn’t want them to drop everything at the moment, I wanted to empower them to act as fast as possible in order to keep the field moving in the moment. If someone is frozen from moving forward in the field, unfreezing the issue as soon as possible ensures they keep using the technology. While this young staff member came in with relatively no construction experience, they were willing and eager to lead the rollout, as well as to help all the users through any issue they encountered. The approach, coupled with a willing and capable champion, enables us to say we made the transition successfully and now utilize PlanGrid on 100% of our projects for document control (and more). Two years later, that same individual is now a project manager for our company.

What advice would you leave with the next generation of builders?

Take care of yourself!

Embrace the stress, changes and challenges which you will inevitably be presented within the construction industry–jump in with two feet.

The stress, change and challenge of the construction industry isn’t going away anytime soon–but you can always find a new way to look at it. There are always new ways you can find to manage your day and decide which situations are actual emergencies over just fire drills. Over time, as you grow in your career, you’ll learn how to delegate more responsibility, but it will evolve into a new type of stress you’ll also need to learn how to manage.