Electrical contracting firm forges relational culture
By Laurie Oswald Robinson
NEWTON, Kansas — Tim Sweigart rubbed his tired eyes while steering the semi towards his failing hog farm in rural Minnesota. While working as a trucker in the late 1980s, he often prayed for a new career path to meet his family’s needs. Reminiscing about those tough years, Sweigart, Kansas Electric’s CEO and owner, said his prayers were answered in 1989. That’s when his wife, Mary Jean, was accepted into Hesston College’s nursing program.
They headed south with four young kids, a dad without a job, and deep in farm debt. Despite the gnawing sense of worthlessness that often comes with financial failure, there was a glimmer of hope for the road ahead. “After launching out in blind faith, we faced a lot of unknowns,” he said. A semi-trailer provided by the trucking firm helped with the move. “Our belongings were in the front half, and 10 tons of frozen turkeys in the back.”
Once they settled into a run-down rental, Sweigart went knocking on doors for a job. Finally, in desperation, he stopped into Harms Electric, a small electrical contracting business with three employees. Fortunately for Sweigart, they had just acquired another small electrical contracting company and needed more help. Unfortunately, he had little electrical experience.
“Larry said he would try me out for two weeks,” he recalled. “If I passed the test while working under one of their toughest guys, then they would hire me for $6.50 an hour.” After working during the day and reading Wiring Simplified after the kids went to bed, Sweigart passed the test and was hired. “The starting wage wasn’t nearly enough to keep our family afloat, but it offered hope,” he said. “I was beginning to recognize new gifts in myself. It was refreshing.”
What Tim discovered in learning the trade was a knack for the trade and a gift for building and inspiring a team. He became Harms’ right-hand man, providing leadership to all the crews. Harms eventually invited Sweigart to buy the business. Reluctant at first, he eventually took the plunge in 2005. Sweigart’s son, Brent, also joined the team. They renamed the company Kansas Electric. After a few years, the business steadily grew as new opportunities emerged, primarily hotels, nursing homes, and many schools.
Kansas Electric outgrew its downtown premises and moved to a new, much larger shop on the outskirts of town. The company eventually focused on industrial customers, working on grain elevators, manufacturing plants, and food processing facilities. Kansas Electric is one of the largest industrial electrical contractors in its region. Their employees and enterprise customers are well nurtured and supported, say several employees. “My favorite part of working here is the relational culture we strive to build within our crews and with our customers,” said Shane Jeffery.
Jeffery is one of the company’s six project managers that oversee electrical crews. “We are encouraged all the time to grow personally and professionally and to make sure the needs of the people we supervise and serve are being met.” Jeffery, hired at Kansas Electric a decade ago as an apprentice, has experienced Sweigart’s affirming, relational mentorship. “As I was growing into more responsibility, he invited me to lunch with him along with some customers,” he said. “It’s where I witnessed how he made sure those relationships were strong, and ensured the customers had everything they needed.”
Garrett Butler began as an apprentice over 16 years ago. He now serves as the lead project manager. “Today, Tim trusts you to take care of your job and really values your gifts and lets you grow,” Butler said, “but he wasn’t always that way. He used to be much more controlling. He’d come on a job site and make snap decisions without getting your perspective. Now, he asks questions first and tries to understand the journey you took to get to where you are at.” This change in style didn’t come easy, Sweigart admits. It took a season of feeling empty and lost, even amid a successful balance sheet.
In 2014, his business consultant suggested that Sweigart seek help at an intensive psychological retreat in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In Scottsdale, he invested eight days with therapists exploring the most guarded places of the soul. He examined the emotional effects of growing up in inner-city Saginaw, Michigan as a white preacher’s kid in a Black neighborhood. The therapists also helped him discover the roots of anger which lingered throughout his life from unresolved emotional wounds. “It was the hardest week of my life,” Sweigart said. “I felt like a dissected frog.”
However, he also found new awareness and appreciation for the places of peace and refuge in life, especially as a teenager, when he had a profound spiritual encounter with Jesus. This intensive process helped Sweigart to look at life through a different lens. He started to remove the blinders that had formed a negative worldview.
Before this transformative encounter, he expected others to perform at unrealistic levels rather than draw them into their passion and best selves. He also started to embrace more positive self-esteem, which had an enormous spiritual and emotional impact. It didn’t take long for a new vision and purpose to emerge at Kansas Electric. “If our focus is on building the bottom line along with profit and power, the product is going to be self-centered every time,” he said. “But if the focus is on serving the needs of others to help develop them, it can make a transformational difference both in our workplace and among our customers.”
Sweigart believes his current perspective is founded in his faith, which leads him to look out for others’ interests. This ‘servant leadership’ mindset has turned many first-time customers into multiyear relationships. It also keeps employees satisfied and engaged year after year. “I often tell our employees, if we aren’t positively impacting people’s lives in small ways every day, we have failed,” he said. “Our mission is to enhance the quality of lives of those we serve every day. Being electricians is only the vehicle that we use to accomplish this mission.”
Sweigart is impacting not only the lives of his colleagues at Kansas Electric, but in other places as well. He donates supplies to local Habitat for Humanity building projects every year and is passionate about helping mentor pastors who are open to developing leadership skills. He loves encouraging small business owners worldwide through his involvement with Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA).
Sweigart’s executive assistant, Tori Hilton, expressed it best. After working as a restaurant manager at Texas Roadhouse, Hilton was hired in November 2021. “During the interview, I wasn’t asked about what I could do, but about who I am as a person,” Hilton said. “That signaled to me immediately that this place was different. If I ever moved for some reason, I would always come back and visit these people because of who they are and who they’ve helped me to become,” she said.
Turning a pandemic shutdown into community service
Shane Jeffery was skeptical when he first heard about Kansas Electric crews packing 500,000 meals for food banks during the 2020 COVID-19 downturn. What could his boss, Tim Sweigart, be thinking? How would it work to have guys hired to do electrical wiring stuffing bags with dried oatmeal or Minestrone soup?
Later, Jeffery realized there was a meaning beyond the creative “madness” of the man who runs a big business with a big heart. Sweigart’s big heart turned out to have a big impact. During eight days in October 2020, when his service crew employees were low on work due to pandemic slowdown, Sweigart’s decision to think outside the box kept his team on the payroll. In partnership with The Outreach Program, his employees helped supply food pantries across the country with food for families struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.
“The Outreach Program was having a hard time finding organizations willing to pack meals,” Sweigart said. “I viewed this as a great way to keep my people productive, which was an answer to my prayers for meaningful work for our crews.” His idea was a hard sell in the reality of pandemic fears. “I began calling dozens of organizations seeking volunteers, but one by one, they turned me down, feeling it was too risky,” he said. “But I kept at it, and eventually, we had enough takers to make this viable.”
More than a thousand volunteers came from all over the community: Wichita State University dental hygiene students, a variety of faith groups such as Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and all varieties of Mennonites. Members of Hesston College and Bethel College sports teams also joined. For eight days, his staff and other volunteers packed box after box of dried mixes of apple oatmeal, soups, rice and beans.
They donned masks, practiced social distancing, and worked with oldies music blaring over the loudspeaker. “You should have seen some of the more conservative folks dancing!” Sweigart said, a huge grin spreading across his face. Sweigart still smiles about that event as he remembers with joy how the bright light of generosity provided hope during a very dark time.
“Generosity is a state of mind,” he said. “You can train your heart to get into the habit to ‘see a need then fill a need’. Instead of expecting someone else will do it, just do it if you can. … We could have focused on how terrible it was that we were all struggling with COVID. Instead, we chose to serve others, which blessed those who participated. As a result, I often get asked by folks in the community when will we do it again.”
Sweigart deeply believes that when one is blessed with resources, they are called to bless others. “Resources are not an end in themselves,” he said. “They are meant to profit others.”