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Kanawha Electric changes and thrives

By Megan Workman
Kenny Kemp
Tyler Ratliff (left), Doug Burford and Billy Townsend analyze an electric motor that Ratliff and Townsend are repairing. Kanawha Electric repairs about 600 motors, generators and pumps each month in its Campbells Creek shop.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha Electric & Machine Co. and the Hoover Dam both opened to the public in 1937.This month, the Charleston-based electrical and mechanical repair shop submitted the lowest bid to repair electrical components that will be used to support hydroelectric power production at the national tourist attraction.If Kanawha Electric is selected, components that are more than 30 years old and weigh up to seven tons each will be shipped to the Mountain State for inspection and repairs, said Larry Ward, vice president of Kanawha Electric."We are the low bidder for the Hoover Dam repairs, and it's because of this machine," Ward said, pointing to a 25-foot lathe milling machine -- circa World War II -- that can hold generators spanning 60 inches in diameter.While most of the company's machines haven't changed since WWII, Kanawha Electric has. The company's most dramatic switch occurred in 2003 when Ward started with Kanawha Electric. Ward and CEO Tom Sheppard "completely turned the business model upside down," Ward said.Sheppard owned Tug River Armature and Machine Co. (Tramco Services), a company that repairs motors, generators and pumps mainly for the coal mining industry. In 2001, Sheppard bought Kanawha Electric on Campbells Creek Drive as an asset to Tramco, and the two businesses have worked together ever since, Ward said.As Sheppard saw the traditional coalfield industries moving further away, Ward said, he had to figure out how to keep Tramco going. So, in 2003, Sheppard said the company had to "change the color of the ink," Ward said.Ward set up the company's website, and as they say, the rest is history.A customer base that didn't extend beyond a four-county area in the state had expanded nationwide. E-commerce changed the way Kanawha Electric markets its services and products.A business that focused only on motor repairs since its opening 75 years ago now works with multiple markets, including the chemical, industrial and mining markets. In the past few years, Kanawha Electric has pursued projects with the government, too -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Navy and the National Guard are a few of its federal customers. "We have expanded our marketplace by going after different markets, like the government. We're diversifying so that the company's business plan doesn't focus solely on one market," said Steve Kappa, government programs manager for Kanawha Electric. "Instead of serving sandwiches, we now offer a buffet. We've expanded by tenfold the number of products and services we offer."Kanawha Electric now operates as a full-service maintenance and repair shop for all types of motors, pumps and generators, Kappa said."Motor doctors" are on standby 24/7 in case of an emergency repair, Kappa said. If a motor located inside a coal mine fails in the middle of the night, for example, a motor doctor will drive to the mine and bring the failed motor back to the shop for repairs, he said.The products they offer today are much more complex than they used to be, Ward said. Throughout the two shop buildings (one "clean," one "dirty"), employees use their hands to work with AC/DC electric motors and coils, brakes, bearings, generators, light towers and transformers.Workers spray generators with water, use finely crushed glass to clean motors in the blasting room, then put the products in a burnout oven so they can then hand-strip the copper. Once the workers determine the cause of failure, the motor or generator is sent to the assembly part of the shop.
Hiring employees with these multiple skills became the next challenge in changing the company's business model, Ward said.When Ward came to Kanawha Electric in 2003, there were only five employees, he said. Today there are 49. The shops were much less procedural driven then -- a machinist worked on a machine and a winder wound, he said, and that had to change."The next big hat trick was, 'where do we find people who are capable of filling this need?' What we needed were people who had the ability for cross training. We had to hire people who were multi-skilled to make the company more versatile and sustainable," Ward said. "In this day and age, manual machinists are a dying breed."The management style had to change, Ward said. When the employees wrote their own business model, Ward said that made all the difference."It was amazing how much more efficient it was when they wrote the rules. They're held accountable for the rules they wrote," Ward said. "More innovations came from the floor and that was key."Doug Burford, 69, has seen and been a part of Kanawha Electric's transformation. Burford worked as a floor sweeper at Kanawha Electric in 1963. Forty-nine years later, the shop foreman has held just about every position, he said.
Burford -- whose son and grandson also work at the shop -- said he watched as the company's main market -- the chemical industry -- slowly left the area, including FMC Corp. in Nitro and Union Carbide. The company also relied on the coal industry for business for a long time, he said.It's his knowledge and familiarity with the hands-on work that the younger employees admire in Burford, Ward said.One week after Andrew Skala, 23, graduated from Bluefield State College earlier this month with a major in electrical engineering, he had a job with Kanawha Electric.Skala is already working with Burford in the shop."When I graduated, most kids were looking for jobs behind desks and on a computer, and I didn't want that. I have to do things with my hands, and Kanawha Electric is one of the few companies in this industry where I can still do that," Skala said.Ward said he isn't surprised Kanawha Electric is still a successful business after 75 years, and he credits much of the company's survival to its employees. Kanawha Electric has operated more than 14 years without a reportable Occupational Safety and Health Administration accident.Although many people aren't aware of what it is exactly Kanawha Electric does on a day-by-day basis, Ward said they take notice the instant the electricity stops flowing. For example, Kanawha Electric is a subcontractor for repairs of the electric motors at the state Capitol complex."Nobody questions how they got from the lobby to the fifth floor after they push that button and the elevator comes. But when the motor goes out and the elevator doesn't work, then they care," Ward said. "It says we're doing our job well if people don't question it. If you can do anything for 75 years and nobody is complaining, then you're doing something right."To learn more about Kanawha Electric and to read the numerous certifications the company has, visit Megan Workman at or 304-348-5113.
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