Reinventing the Electrical Contracting Industry

Northline Utilities
Written by Mark Golombek

Northline Utilities delivers a complete electric utility solution. The Au Sable Forks, New York based company provides construction services as well as project management, construction management, and safety training services and, through its Northeast Live Line Division, develops both technical and “soft-skill” training for the utility industry that is relevant, advances cutting edge technology and is cost-effective.
The company prides itself on the team’s ability to take on high-profile, challenging projects involving several stakeholders, stringent schedule and progress reporting requirements, and multi-subcontractor coordination. These jobs include everything from wind farm EPC contracts, large and small transmission and distribution line projects to utility substation construction, expansion and modifications.

Always up for the challenge, the team is eager to accomplish industry firsts. For instance, using state of the art AMPJACKTM technology, Northline Utilities executed the first ever 15ft live raise on a double circuit lattice tower, energized at 230kV on one side and 115kV on the other. The client needed more ground clearance to maintain safe operation on their power lines and the AMPJACKTM tower raising solution proved more manageable and cost effective than the use of cranes or other equipment typically employed for such tasks.

Customer Satisfaction
Understanding the customer’s underlying needs has been crucial to the company’s success. “It is very important when we go into a project that we understand what the client wants out of that project,” says President Jamie Atkins. Sometimes, the client does not even realize what the underlying goal really is; in that case, it is up to the team to analyze the situation and determine the best course of action. “To quote Henry Ford, when he asked his customers what they wanted they said ‘faster horses.’ A lot of times we have to be innovative and dig a little bit below the surface to understand what the client really needs out of a project. Then we try to focus on those things to deliver projects that they are going to be truly satisfied with.”

Indeed, understanding what the client really wants is key to earning customer satisfaction. “Understanding our clients’ business drivers is more important than our ability to deliver the service a lot of times. We can train ourselves in a different construction type, but having a really thorough understanding of what our clients are trying to accomplish is much more important.”

Northline Utilities chooses to take on a relatively small number of customers in order to give each the personalized service that they deserve. “Our focus now is on a smaller number of customers and on providing a wider array of services to those customers,” Mr. Atkins shares. These customers are based in the northeast, primarily in and around New York state and New England. “We understand the business drivers and we understand the geographical challenges and regulatory challenges of those customers, so we [have become] much more regionally based.”

Of course, safety is key to any electrical industry project. “The work that we do has heights, it has mechanical energy, high tension, and electrical hazards associated with it,” Mr. Atkins points out. “Our entire industry for the last decade has been on a workplace safety improvement initiative.” Increasing electrical safety awareness, strictly adhering to electrical safety guidelines, and using the proper tools and technology are all important goals for any company working within the sector.

Northline Utilities makes safety its top priority. From the day the company was founded in 2005, the team knew that “the safety of our employees and the public needed to define every work decision,” Mr. Atkins remembers. “Our approach is to create a culture that desires to look out for hazards and risks, mitigate those hazards and eliminate those risks.” This means getting workers actively involved in the company’s safety efforts because people make the real difference, “not tools or equipment or procedures. Our approach is very much about hearts and minds and creating a culture that seeks a very high performance level of workplace safety.”

The emphasis on safety begins the instant a new hire walks through the door. One of the first things that a new employee does is to complete Northline Utilities’ customized online safety orientation. This specially customized program enables management to monitor and control the orientation process and ensure complete compliance in real time.

In addition, the company utilizes dedicated Safety Stewards who monitor each worksite and assist the crew in maintaining safety procedures. These Safety Stewards take care of safety inspections, equipment inspections, and pre-job briefings. Pre-job briefings deal with the work procedures that should be carried out each day, carefully covering the hazards involved and detailing the procedures that the crew should follow in order to eliminate or control those hazards.

Northline’s Safety Stewards work with the company’s Safety Committee, which includes every level of field and management personnel. While the Safety Committee does not create or enforce safety rules, they motivate employees and help sustain the pervasive safety culture that is so important to Northline Utilities.

Even the best safety culture cannot mitigate every hazard no matter how dedicated, so Northline Utilities keeps careful tabs on the team’s safety efforts to ensure compliance from every individual. A live online tracking system performs, distributes, and reviews jobsite audits, site safety meetings, and inspections. The leading edge system gives management the ability to maintain real time access to job site performance and documentation. All data can then be consolidated and analyzed in reports that clearly demonstrate trends.

These reports give the team a chance to implement Job Site Improvements (JSI). JSIs prevent accidents before they happen by tweaking a worksite to increase safety and efficiency. Sometimes, these changes can be quite minor, yet go a remarkably long way toward improving safety.

Northline Utilities’ safety efforts and safety culture have been recognized by its insurance company as well as by the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA). “NECA has been a major support to Northline Utilities – and to the industry in general – in ways that include but are not limited to safety. The National Electrical Contractors Association has been a big part of all of our business throughout our history,” Mr. Atkins remarks. “We spend a lot of time improving our industry through our participation in NECA.”

As the leading industry association, NECA “gives us a platform and a voice.” The organization also keeps the industry educated. “NECA has been a great way for us to learn more about what is going on in the industry. As a small company we don’t always have the resources to participate in a lot of industry level boards and panels, but NECA gives us access to that information and [allows us to] collaborate with our peers.”

Northline Utilities draws on NECA’s support to provide an apprenticeship program. Mr. Atkins is testament to the effectiveness of these types of training programs; he is the third generation in his family to graduate from one. The electrical industry is complex and fraught with hazards, making thorough, on the job training essential to the industry. Apprenticeship programs also help keep talented individuals within the industry, mitigating labor shortages.

Looking ahead, the team is committed to maintaining the company’s values and culture in order to obtain enduring success. “What is most important to us is the legacy of the company and that it continues,” Mr. Atkins summarizes. “That is more important than growth.” Since its founding in 2005, the company has been sharply focused on “reinventing the electrical contracting industry,” particularly when it comes to customer satisfaction. After ten years in business, the team has proven that they can accomplish that mission – and continue to maintain their high standards for many more decades to come.



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