Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
With annual sales of more than $90 million…
With more than 500 employees…
With a fleet of more than 400 vehicles…
With clients that range from the North Carolina DOT to Mission Hospital, Duke Energy and the Biltmore Estate… MB Haynes Corporation ranks as one of the top companies in Western North Carolina.
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eople who work at Haynes see the company a bit differently. “It’s like a big Mom and Pop,” says Eddie Shuford, an electrician who has worked there for 25 years. “They keep us busy, and they treat us decent,” he says. Decent enough that his son, Brian, decided to follow in Eddie’s footsteps. Brian has been at Haynes for 15 years, and he’s now a foreman in the service department. The company lists 40 employees with at least one relative also working there.
In early June, Eddie was installing conduit, plugs, and lights for a communications company in West Asheville. He said two great uncles had worked at Haynes and one of his uncles is still with the company. He explained the attraction. “One thing I like about them is family comes first. If I’ve got issues with my family, I take my family first and they understand that.”
“I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”
• • •
Carolyn Adkins also can’t remember working anywhere else. Carolyn has worked at Haynes for 42 years, and now she’s facing retirement “if I don’t chicken out.” When she retires, she says, “I’m going to be losing my family. Because these people are my family.” That word comes up again and again in conversations with Haynes employees, from executive row to crews in the field.
In some cases, the word can sound like a verbal crutch, a handy way to describe a company that offers benefits and pleasant working conditions. But here it sounds like more than just a word. These people mean it. They feel their company is special because the company treats the people special.
Carolyn laughs at the notion of working elsewhere. “They would fire me the first week if I went anywhere else because I’m so spoiled.” She leans forward on a desk cluttered with stacks of paperwork and a small bowl of Life Savers as she tries to explain how she is spoiled. “They give you a job to do, and they don’t stand over you. They let you do the job, so you’re free.”
• • •
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HIS “BIG MOM AND POP” IS ACTUALLY A VERY BIG DAD AND TWO SONS. Ellis Cannady came to the company back in 1951 when it was a small electric contractor with 25 employees and an office on Woodfin Street in downtown Asheville. At the time, much of the rural region still had no electricity, and Haynes was busy wiring mountain communities to turn on the lights.
“We stumbled along and tried to find the right way to get there,” the elder Cannady says, sitting at his big desk in the corner office at Haynes headquarters in West Asheville. The desk shows several decades of use and fits in quite well with the paneled walls and the bulletin board that displays a rich array of newspaper cartoons. Cannady’s sons, Nathaniel III, (known as Buzzy) and Brett relax into a pair of couches across the room. The brothers began their Haynes careers in the mid-’70s, and each moved through the various departments of the company, which was still primarily an electrical contractor. Eventually Buzzy became CEO and Brett executive vice-president—and the company began to expand into areas far beyond light poles and circuit breakers.
It now has nine divisions serving clients in residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional settings.
A statue of a golfer sits on a table in a corner of Ellis’ office, and Buzzy, explains, “He was a good golfer. Still gets out for nine holes a couple of times a week.” At the age of 94. The elder Cannady’s recollection and focus are as strong as his golf game, and he continues with a short history of the company.
When Marion Haynes’ son died in 1965, “I bought the company. By that time I had about $40,000 worth of (stock) bonuses in my name. I bought what I could, financed the rest and paid that off in three years.”
During that time, Haynes bought another utility company, Skyline Electric. “We had a little piece of the business installing lines for Carolina Power and Light, but Skyline did most of the work, much more than we did. We bought their equipment, and we bought the company and paid it off in a couple of years.”
The three Cannadys agree that their growth was not the result of any long-range master plan. “A lot of the decisions were just an opportunity presenting itself, and we would decide to go after it,” Buzzy says. “I think one thing we really do a good job of is we listen to other people’s ideas. We bought into a lot of new things that worked well.”
[quote float=”right”]“I really am proud of what this company has become,” Buzzy says. “I think it has not been Brett and Dad and me alone, but we had a lot of good people around us.”[/quote]But not all of those opportunities turned out to be golden and some evolved into other businesses. In the ’70s they closed a motor shop that had struggled for years. In the ’80s a residential burglar and fire alarm business was sold, and in the early 2000s, an underground water and sewer utility business was closed. MB Haynes cut their losses, and those units are no longer a part of the company today. In 1982, “Bill Arledge walked in the front door and said do you want to start doing interconnect telephone systems,” Buzzy says. “He sold us the idea of going into the telephone business,” under the name: Telephone Systems of Asheville. His father picks up the story. “We bought into the telephone systems and every time you turned around you had to buy something more.” They sold the company to Arledge about ten years later, which operates successfully in Western North Carolina today under the name TSA Choice (editors note: read more about this separation and TSA Choice at capitalatplay.com).
The Cannadys, father and sons, sit in Dad’s office to recount the growth of the company from a small-town electrical contractor to this regional conglomerate in the building and infrastructure industry. They speak with a quiet, almost subdued, pride in the growth of the company, quick to share the credit with their employees.
“I really am proud of what this company has become,” Buzzy says. “I think it has not been Brett and Dad and me alone, but we had a lot of good people around us.”
One of those good people is Tony Gentry, who has worked at Haynes for 30 years. Tony is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in industrial relations, but he began his career at Haynes as an apprentice electrician. “I actually took a cut in wages to come here. We were newly married and expecting a child, and that was a hard thing to do. But when I had an opportunity to come work for the largest and what I considered the best electrical contractor in Western North Carolina, I took it.”
From apprentice, Tony moved on to junior project manager, director of marketing, senior project manager, service department manager, and finally to his current position, president of Haynes Electric Utility Corp. Tony’s career validates his statement: “I’ll tell you what, there’s opportunity here if you want it. There’s lots of opportunity here. Lots.”
He leans forward, intent on making his point. “I’ve never gotten up in the morning and wanted another job. I’ve been offered other jobs but I’ve never entertained it. I’ve just felt content here.”
Tony’s office features several miniature NASCAR models and a display of family photos on the shelves and walls. He has two grown sons and proclaims that he has been married 34 years.
Tony shows a visitor around the company headquarters, pointing out various specialized vehicles in the fleet. “We have bucket trucks, digger-derricks, trenchers, bulldozers, backhoes, and a bunch of pickups.” To service all those vehicles a maintenance garage and a paint and body shop operate full-time.
At a far corner of the property, a cavernous building contains stacks of building supplies and brawny pieces of industrial equipment. A welder is working on a piece of iron pipe that will become part of the cooling system for Mission Hospital.
The Haynes layout covers more than 20 acres and the company has acquired more property just up Deaverview Road to build a new headquarters building. The current building has become something of a maze as expansion of the company has required additions to headquarters. “This building is old and dilapidated,” Brett says. “Hopefully in the next two or three years we’ll have an updated office.”
The age and condition of state of the main building offers a hint into the Cannadys’ business philosophy. “Dad’s always been real, real conservative with money,” Buzzy says. “The only things you bought were the things you really needed. I think a new headquarters building is overdue.”
Ellis says his frugality is the key to the success of the company. “I had always been frugal. If we made a little money, I put it aside. I didn’t have to take money out of the company. I accumulated everything I could, because if something went wrong I had something to fall back on.”
[quote float=”right”]They had 616 employees in 2008, but the economy forced them to cut the workforce below 400. Now, with the economy rebounding, the Haynes workforce has again passed the 500 mark.[/quote]Inevitably, something went wrong. The recession of 2008 hit Haynes just as it hit all the companies in the building and infrastructure industry. They had 616 employees in 2008, but the economy forced them to cut the workforce below 400.
The electrician Eddie Shuford says the company tried to keep the cuts to a minimum. “I’ve only been laid off one time,” Eddie says. “And that was because we rotated layoffs so they wouldn’t have to get rid of anyone. That was back when work slowed down. We all worked together to save each other.” Now, with the economy rebounding, the Haynes workforce has again passed the 500 mark.
“I think we’re in a position to do well if the economy gives us more opportunities,” Buzzy says, turning the focus of the conversation to the future. The three Cannadys speak of moving the company to another level, and Brett picks up that theme.
“I think if we go to another level there’s going to be a whole lot more work away from here. Right now most of our work is really close by, and if we go to another level we’ll have to open satellite offices in other regions and all that sort of thing. But we’re getting into bigger work, and all the tough years from ’08 to ’12 have weeded out a lot of our competitors.”
As the company, which was founded in 1921, edges toward the century mark, a third generation of the Cannady family has joined the corporate family. Brett’s son, Phillip, worked at the company during his college summers, and then came on full time four-and-a-half years ago. He is a project manager in the heating and cooling division. And Buzzy’s daughter Melissa began working at Haynes this June. To protect against any unforeseen developments, the older Cannadys instituted an employee stock ownership (ESPO) plan two years ago.
“The company is rewarding its employees,” says Tony Gentry. “It’s basically an exit strategy for the owners. They don’t want someone to buy the company, come in and fire people, and change the corporate culture.”
The Cannadys accept the term, exit strategy, but they stress that they are not preparing for any imminent exit. They agree that it would be more accurate to call the plan a “long-term” exit strategy.
“We’re not trying to get out,” Buzzy says. “Twenty years will go by just like that, and if we haven’t made some preparation of getting it to the next generation, it’s going to be a problem.
“The idea of a company “family” means having compassion for our people. But I’ll tell you, these guys that have been here 20 or 30 years, we’ve grown up together, so they really are family. If we ever sold to someone else, their fate is in the hands of a new owner. So this is really a good way to take care of a lot of people.”