Case Studies

Van Ert Electric Company

Performance-driven service meets distinguished diversity

Over the course of 50 years, Van Ert Electric Company (VEEC) has become an established leader in the electrical industry throughout the upper Midwest, and across the country for that matter. Since 1964, the Wisconsin-based firm has grown from a five-man team to more than 425 employees serving major industries from pulp and paper to power generation, infrastructure, ethanol and biomass markets to health care and much more.
Van Ert Electric, US Builders Review

Today, with a nationwide footprint, VEEC still remains family-owned with a commitment to providing safe, quality and cost-effective service in medium and low voltage power system design and installation, instrumentation and control, PLC programing, interior and exterior lighting, grounding, heat tracing, fire alarms and security, tele data and communications, as well as thermal imaging; the list goes on.

“We’re celebrating our 50-year anniversary in 2014,” shares Bob Van Ert, second-generation president of VEEC. “We’re more or less family-owned, but also have several key management people as shareholders, which I think is something that’s unique in this industry. We’re now in the second generation of family ownership going into the third; my son and daughter now work for VEEC.”

Mike graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at UW Platteville. “Mike worked summers during his college years and has been with us fulltime for over three years,” Bob details. “Jenni graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting at UW Stevens Point; she has been working with us for six years and became our accounting manager five years ago.”

A family foundation

Second-generation Bob was 13 years old when his father established VEEC out of his basement in 1964. “Eventually my father built an addition of an office and garage and moved the operations into the new facility and things started to take off,” he recalls. “We landed our first major projects at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point doing dorms and a classroom building.”

Bob helped his father through late grade school, high school and college years, working through summers and entered full-time in 1973. “After getting my engineering degree, I started working full-time,” he recounts. “We acquired a small company called Electrical Contracting in 1970 out of Wausau, Wis., and this allowed us to branch out. The only thing the owner wanted was to keep his people busy and for us to buy his building and equipment, so that’s what we did.”

In the 1970s, VEEC expanded to the Rhinelander area, delivering a large hospital project. In 1978, the company added a process and engineering controls division, which remains strong today. “This division allowed us to offer additional services to the utility markets, as well as pulp, paper and water and wastewater,” shares Bob. “From there, we just continued growing steadily. We expanded into the Fox Valley region in the 1980s and also diversified into the low voltage area, including voice, data and video security.”

Gaining ground at home and abroad

After several decades of steady growth, VEEC started delivering projects all across the country, following major customers and general contractors. “We’ve gone as far West as California and as East as Maine,” details Bob. “We’ve grown from a five-man company to 425 today, peaking at 800 employees at one point. We have four offices now, the newest in Eau Claire, Wis., and we do work all over the Midwest.”

More recently, VEEC has been to Italy, Mexico and Puerto Rico; the company now has a major ethanol plant in its sights in Alberta, Canada. “We’ve completed a few nice international projects for Kimberly-Clark and others in the pulp and paper industry, including Mexico,” adds Steve Harnitz, treasurer and part owner of VEEC.

Over the course of its 50-year history, VEEC has established a strong foothold in the industrial market. “About 75 percent of our work encompasses industrial-type projects and about another 25 percent is commercial and institutional work,” notes Bob.

For many years, the paper and fiber industry has represented the lionshare of VEEC’s business in support of major names, including: Kimberly-Clark, Procter and Gamble, Georgia Pacific, PCA, NewPage, Expera, Wausau Paper and Domtar. With locations across the U.S., such clients have beckoned VEEC from coast to coast for projects ranging from complete paper machine installations and rebuilds to stock prep and coater kitchens, waste water and water treatment plants, pulp and board mills, coal and gas fired power plants, hydroelectric and co-generation plants.

These contracts run the gamut from multiple-year maintenance to stand-alone GMP contracts worth millions. “In the past, the pulp and paper industry has been our mainstay, but that industry is aging and we’re diversifying into other sectors,” reveals Steve.

The renewable energy front

One of such arenas is the fossil-fuel alternative market. VEEC has taken a front seat in many ethanol, biofuel and biomass projects in which the company’s design-build capabilities have been a tremendous asset. “We delivered the nation’s first 50 million-gallon ethanol plant and VEEC was awarded the prestigious Build Wisconsin Award for electrical design and installation,” shares Steve.

As with most plants, VEEC was contracted to engineer, procure and construct (EPC) the entire facility from an electrical standpoint. “In an EPC contact, we are the electrical engineers, equipment purchasing agents and installers, and in this case, our innovations essentially eliminated conduit, allowing the customer to relocate devices and motors as needed,” adds Steve. “This project was a benchmark for others, and after it, we went on to build several more plants. A few years ago, the bottom of the market fell out, because the price of corn skyrocketed, but now that it’s stabilized, we’re seeing more new plants on the horizon.”

Steve points to VEEC’s diversity to weather any market crash. “Today, we’re in a good position in the ethanol market, because other companies have failed and there’s not many left with the EPC ability,” he explains. “When the market fell out, we had other avenues to generate work.”

Booming biomass and biofuels

Another avenue on the renewable energy side VEEC has started to gain ground in is the biomass market. “Europe has a thirst for biofuels, because they’ve instituted laws that say x-amount of energy must be derived from renewable fuels,” explains Steve. “Drax is an example of an energy provider in the European market. They are focused on manufacturing wood pellets to supplement their coal consumption. For this they have contracted with U.S. wood pellet providers and have begun to build their own plants in the southeast where logistically, it makes sense to ship to Europe.”

Another application and example of a biomass fuel plant is the wood byproducts and wood-fired 50 megawatt WE Energies cogeneration unit VEEC just completed. “WE Energies sells the waste steam produced to Domtar, which is more efficient than just generating electricity,” says Bob. “This plant came online just before the first of the year.”

Any number of industries

While the renewable energies sector has opened many doors for VEEC to diversify, Bob says four out of the top five company’s major projects remain in traditional power. “We delivered a plant for Inland Empire Energy Center in Romoland, Calif.,” he shares. “That’s the largest project we’ve completed to-date. There’s also Basin Electric’s Deer Creek Station near Elkton, S.D., and the Weston Power Plant just south of Wausau, Wis., as well as an AQCS for WE Energies in South Oak Creek, Wis.”

Bob goes on to note that the company has also done a fair share of work for the Department of Transportation, everything from traffic signals to lighting. “Also, airport work from runway and taxiway lighting, precision approach path indicators and terminal buildings,” Steve elaborates.

And VEEC’s signature diversity doesn’t stop there; the company also has a wealth of health care work under its belt. VEEC has been the choice provider for numerous hospitals, clinics and labs for emergency and critical power systems, standby generation, MRI units, cath lab installations, CT scanners, X-ray machines, linear accelerator units, hyperbaric chambers, nurse call systems, infant abduction systems and voice and data.

“At St. Elizabeth Hospital, we completed various phases of electrical power distribution, nurse call, voice and data, fire alarm, security and access controls worth over $2 million,” adds Bob.

While the company has done well, VEEC is always looking to better itself. “We’re always in the midst of expanding our divisions, whether that’s on a regional or national basis,” follows Steve. “Right now we’re expanding our HVAC division regionally throughout Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Iowa, doing everything from high-rises to hospitals and school systems. We also have a new cell tower power group that’s rapidly expanding into the larger Midwest region, including Indiana, Dakotas and beyond.”

The ties that bind

Name the industry, name the electrical needs and VEEC does it, but powering such an extensive operation requires the support of trusty industry connections, such as the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), of which VEEC is a proud Wisconsin chapter member.

Bob, who is currently serving as his chapter’s president, says VEEC’s relationship with NECA is one that has been passed down through generations. “My father served on the board and the company has been a NECA member since 1966,” he shares.

NECA Wisconsin has been a trusted resource since the chapter was chartered Nov. 1, 1962. The chapter was formed when the Eau Claire chapter and Madison chapter relinquished their charters and combined with numerous independent contractors from Janesville, Racine, Green Bay and Manitowoc, Wis.

“Two years after becoming a contractor, VEEC became a NECA member and we’ve been one ever since,” adds Bob. “As president, I attend quarterly meetings where we review finances and budgets and also look into future trainings. Overall it’s a positive influence and way to connect with our industry peers.”

NECA participation is certainly a tradition Bob intends to pass on to both Mike and Jenni, as both attend technical and management NECA seminars and workshops.

From long-term relationships with industry organizations, such as NECA, to a range of repeat customers, Van Ert Electric Company has built a well-respected record for performance-driven solutions backed by broad diversity.

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