An Interview with Ray Bruegman, President of Miller Electric Company
By Jay Martin & Vince Bellino, Creighton University MBA students
When you consider some of the premiere organizations in the Omaha area that Miller Electric has worked with; Mutual of Omaha, the Omaha World Herald, The University of Nebraska Medical Center, it’s no mystery why this company has been in business for the last 100 years. In 1912, founder Henry Miller started the company out of his garage, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the growing need for electricity. Today, Miller Electric remains at the forefront of modern electrical technology as they solidify their position in the Omaha Community. President Ray Bruegman has been with the company for 27 years and points to their emphasis on building relationships with customers as a major key to their success. Recently, we had an opportunity to sit down with Bruegman to hear his thoughts on ethics. Bruegman grew up on a farm outside of Bloomfield, Nebraska. Experiencing an ethical dilemma in his younger years, he found himself getting more work done on his car than he could afford. But having desire to do the right thing, he worked hard and eventually paid local mechanic what he owed. Bruegman began working for Miller Electric in August of 1985 as a project manager and estimator. In 2008, he became President of the company.
What do you like most about your work? Least?
“I like the technical aspects of the business. I like solving problems, I like learning new things, I’ll spend days researching different problems to try to help with resolutions. Sometimes the return on investment is not there, but it goes a long way in building customer relationships, and after all, that is what Miller is all about. This philosophy has paid dividends in every downturn in the economy.” What I like least is “Employee discipline problems. In the aspects of people that have brought issues to me early, those are great things and we’ve always worked through them...we’ve had people with personal issues at home that have stepped up to the plate early and we can pull them aside, (try to) lessen their workload...try to get rid of that liability on their shoulders, (tell them) ‘look you’re going to have a job, we can keep you here, we can keep the payments going, we can keep the checks coming in, but we can’t have you doing things that might jeopardize the overall health of the business.’ The worst case scenario, people who won’t be up front with you, they wait until the end, have missed work, or have done something to jeopardize the business. We have a (disciplinary process) and we’ll go through that process and nothing ever comes out until it’s too late.”
Very generally, when you think of “ethics” what does it mean to you?
“I believe it is your moral compass. Some point North, some South and some in between. I also believe that as you age, certain things in your life guide and change your moral principles. You have to decide what’ s important to you and what’s not important to you. Character, accountability, honesty, respect, trust; all of those things are big to me. As a person, I want to be treated fairly and with honesty and respect. I believe everyone does. I believe it is cyclical too, if you treat others honestly and fairly, you are more likely to get that same treatment back. W e were very lucky to inherit a family run business that took this simple approach and built a culture of ethical values for the company. It’s a culture we still share today. I truly believe ethics starts at the top, and for the most part the individual who starts the business sets its guiding principles.”
Have you always done business in Omaha? If not, where else have you done business?
Yes, and we have done work in 36 states and Canada, but we usually try to stay within 100 miles of home. Through our work in other parts of the country, we were able to develop some long-term relationships with other electrical contractors. As a result of these relationships, we developed a small (8) peer group of companies that share our same values and standards.
Do the moral values in The Ethical Legacy project typify the Omaha business community?
“Yes...Omaha is an outstanding place to work and a great place to be. You have some of the larger Fortune 500 companies here...accountability comes into a lot of those organizations, community responsibility, everybody puts their little weight out there. We have a little marketing arm that says we’re supposed to be telling everybody what we’re doing and how we’re doing it (supporting the community). I’m not a big fan of putting my name out there because we donated to something or did something, it’s not that important, and I think a lot of organizations in Omaha, even though they have community responsibility, don’t utilize that as a pressure point for something.
Articulate a value or two in a short description of be telling a short story.
“A few years back, we had a customer that was experiencing power quality issues. We had originally wired the building they were in, and although they were not one of our long term clients, they came back to us to find out why and what was causing the issue. After many weeks of chasing ‘ghosts’, we discovered a circulating ground current was causing premature failure of the electronics and in a couple of cases, an outage to the building. The ground current was a result of an improperly bonded switchboard. The switchboard had been modified by us during the original construction job five years earlier.”
“We had probably about ten grand invested in the thing at that point in time. We knew the fix was going to be probably another $10,000. The bigger picture was, what are they going to say? They lost all these electronics and had outages for business interruptions and it wasn’t an easy task. It was thought out pretty hard. I found over my lifetime it’s easier to admit fault than it is to try and hide it. The lies come back and bite you eventually because you can’t remember all of them that you’ve said, but the truth is pretty easy to handle. Finally, I had my PM go out there to say ‘look, we screwed this up, we’re willing to fix it, we’re not going to charge you for the work we have invested in the whole thing, plus, we’ll schedule the outage and get this thing fixed the way it should have been done the first time,’ which we did and everything was fine. The customer was fine, they were happy, everything was working great and they haven’t had a problem since.”
Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle—who was involved, where, what did you do and why?
“Miller Electric received a phone call from a motorist who was verbally abused by one of our employees; he drove a company van as a technician in our service department. After investigating the incident, we found the motorist had earlier cut our driver off which nearly made him lose control. He immediately became enraged and followed the motorist to a parking lot and approached the motorist in a hostile way and verbally assaulted her. Our driver admitted the story was true, but he saw no fault in his actions. He was immediately fired. While admitting the truth is a step in the right direction, he did not see the fault in his action, and the incident could have resulted in much greater liability such as loss of life.”