PPC Partners’ long tradition of finding new and better ways of doing things, of “shaking up the status quo,” can be traced back to the mid-1940’s. Back then, Julius Pieper (JP), an up-and-coming electrician, followed a work ethic that had him showing up early to work, staying late, and going back to jobs on his own time to correct any problems.
At that time, the cost of a gallon of gas was 15 cents, the transistor radio was just being invented, and union electricians didn’t work outside prescribed hours. JP had to pay the union a percentage of his wages as a temporary employee, yet he was effectively refused a union card. JP was Pieper persistent about this. His employer was asked to lay him off.
With a family to support, JP took a job at Milprint as a maintenance man. In 1947, with the encouragement of his entrepreneurial-minded wife Rose, JP brought to life the first vestiges of Pieper Electric by working after hours helping homeowners and others who needed their wiring repaired—or altered to accommodate modern appliances.
He pulled the back seat out of their family car, a Packard. It was his vision that having all the material and tools on hand, in the vehicle, would help create a viable business. Pieper Electric’s first headquarters was an office and storage/greenhouse out behind the Pieper family home, a former farmhouse on the corner of 76th and Appleton in Milwaukee.
Thanks to JP’s strong sense of quality and integrity, the Pieper reputation grew. It wasn’t long before he was widely recommended by appliance dealers, remodeling contractors and even the power company.
JP hired his first employees during the late 1940’s, choosing them on the basis of promise and potential, and then training them himself. After going into business for himself, he again attempted to join the union and the National Electrical Contractor’s Association, but was not accepted. Later, as his business grew, he was offered a union card if he would give up the business. Being the gentleman that he was, he said no, that he was going to continue. He and a group of other contractors joined a manufacturer’s union called the Allied Independent Union. Later there was some picketing, a court action and eventually a settlement, and Pieper Electric became an IBEW union contractor and NECA member on 1/01/52.
In 1958, Pieper Electric moved to a modest building at 4236 N. 76th Street in Milwaukee, behind a dentist’s office. The building’s rear apartment, garage and basement served as offices and storage.
In 1959, JP’s oldest son, Richard, took on extra responsibilities, hoping to enable his hardworking father to take a vacation. “What I didn’t know at the time was that he didn’t need a vacation,” Richard recalls. “He loved his work so much, it was as though he was always on vacation.”
Richard Pieper stayed on, and the next year he purchased the firm. At that time, it had three to six employees doing $250,000 worth of business per year.
As the younger Pieper set about organizing and building the business, he recognized a lack in the marketplace. “I realized the good customers of electrical contractors never received a ‘Thank you’ for their business, and they were never asked what they needed. What’s more, there were no corporate identity marketing or public relations efforts. The mentality of developing your organization, aggressively serving your customers and general good business management wasn’t around back then.” Pieper enlisted the help of a two-man advertising firm and soon the iconic “Pieperman” was born. Trucks painted with the superhero image could be spotted around town, and unique advertising campaigns and mailers gave the firm visibility.
Pieper also felt passionate about looking to the principles of his faith to guide his business practices, particularly the wisdom of the Old Testament and Jesus’ example— some call it ‘The Golden Rule.’ With these principles, he firmly believed he could build a business with superior performance.
In 1962, the company headquarters moved to 5070 N. 35th Street in Milwaukee. It was around this time that Pieper Electric started line construction, and opened several more Wisconsin branches. In the latter part of the decade, the firm expanded to other areas and founded its first branch outside the region.
The early 1970’s was a time of technological innovation and advancement, across the world and certainly at Pieper. The firm was the first among its competitors to begin using electronic automation punch card technologies to track its sales and payroll. They were also the first to put radios in their trucks, creating a modern dispatching system.
This was also a time of cutting back, of discarding the business elements that weren’t working and struggling to get the right elements into place.
Much of that struggle had to do with the fact that this had become a complex business made up of line work, construction, service and manufacturing. Unfortunately, the proper management information systems were not in place. “We simply didn’t have access to the information we needed to run a diverse, decentralized business in multiple locations,” recalls Richard Pieper. “If you don’t have current, dependable information about your finances, resources and skills, you can’t meet the needs of a growing company.” The human assets of the company and the firm’s overall capacity were also notably flat during this time.
From 1972-1976, Richard Pieper searched tirelessly for a controller who could create appropriate information management systems. “I kept hiring and firing controllers until one was recommended to me who was a genius, and he and I were exactly on the same page.” The controller, Ron Bierbaum, instituted a system that finally got the right information to the right people, so that they knew how they were doing. Data was broken down by companies, branches, and even by departments within those branches. Individual department heads and managers were empowered to control resource allocation, and had accountability for quality and profitability.
The fact that the company experienced only two years of loss is remarkable, considering that the business was built and operated under severe marketplace constraints, most notably a climate of cronyism, bid fixing and price fixing.
JP and Richard Pieper themselves weren’t aware they were operating in such unfavorable conditions until sweeping industry indictments came down in the late 1970’s, exposing the host of unfair business practices the firm was up against.
“We still have the same information gathering structure to this day, though it’s highly automated. Everybody knows where they stand, and everybody has authority to do what they want to do, as long as it’s within the mission of the company, our business processes, and the plans they have committed to,” says Pieper.
Renowned business thinker Peter Drucker once praised the firm as being “managed with homeostatic control,” meaning it’s managed at the event level; the person who does the work has the authority to make the decisions, and takes accountability and credit for those decisions.
The late 1970’s also marked a foray into franchising, which didn’t work out—it didn’t make up for the need to develop people, as Pieper recalls. Later in the decade, PPC also began merit shop operations in another region.
In spite of all the rethinking and reshuffling, the years 1976-77 were the only ones in the recorded history of the company that they lost money.
These constraints, however, had forced the company to maintain high standards alongside an unusually low overhead for all those years. The resourcefulness and responsibility required to survive in this atmosphere became a valuable strength.
In fact, the following two decades were marked by increasing growth and profitability and positioning for long-range stability and new market developments. On 1/1/06, the reins were transferred to the new CEO, Ronnie T. Hinson.
PPC Partners remains a highly decentralized company. What’s more, the guiding values remain firmly in place. This ‘Golden Rule’ outlook guides relationships with customers and employees, too. This is exemplified by the firm’s emphasis on continuing education, as well as the ‘Stories from the Field’ series of interviews, which honor the character and words of the men and women of PPC. Quality and safety continue to be exceedingly high as well: PPC Partners’ 2007 safety statistics soared 300% above the industry average.
“We happen to be in the electrical service business, but we are really in the business of growing organizations, and especially growing people—growing the human capacity to live a good and rich life,” observes Pieper.