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James Eley remembers tagging along with his stepfather, a residential electrician by trade, when he was about 12 years old in the early 1970s in Philadelphia.
“Reluctantly, at the time,” Eley chuckled as he sat at the front of a mahogany conference table in a temporary office space near Penn Treaty Park. His regular office was under construction and not suitable for guests.
But then, as he got older, he began to understand the value of such work.
“When I was 18, I started to like it,” Eley, who donned a tweed jacket with a mauve paisley collar, said. “By the time I was 28, I started my first business.”
Now Eley has been an electrician for 40 years for both residential and commercial properties. And he’s still pushing forward his business, despite several “rebirths” after weathering economic recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now in his late 60s, he’s focused on preparing his company to be in a better position to potentially secure contracts with the federal government for commercial electrical construction and maintenance.
“I’m still learning the system and how they procure work, but it would be for all commercial buildings in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware,” he said.
He’s a certified minority-owned, veteran-owned small business — for which there are single source contracts and affirmative action processes — at the federal, state and often local level for government agency contracts.
Eley is now able to move forward on that goal after getting a $5,000 microgrant, which includes business support from the Urban League of Philadelphia and Elevate Together.
There were 20 small businesses across the city who were awarded $100,000 at a Northeast Philly Office Max in September 2023.
It’s the third year in a row that Elevate Together, which is funded by the Office Depot Foundation, has donated the money to the Urban League and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Grantees ranged from restaurant owners to wine makers. Each business owner was matched with a U.S. Small Business Administration mentor to improve their company strategy. In some ways, the grant award was a source of inspiration, Eley said.
“I had stopped networking for a while, now I’m going out again and meeting people. That’s how things happen,” he said.
As a self-taught commercial electrician, he would spend countless hours studying building blueprints, driving by construction sites to learn because traditional vocational apprenticeships were often closed to him due to racism in the building trades industry, he said.
“If I get an answer that I don’t think is right, I pursue it until I actually find out it’s right,” he said about responses that would sometimes lead him astray in his goals. “That’s how I built my business from the ground up. I have no money from my family. No one in my family was in business either. No loans in the beginning. But I had a desire. And I learned this the hard way because I had no one to tell me all of that.”
Over the years, he took breaks from running the electrical business, which has waxed and waned in size. He once worked for a big university in the city, which he left to work for himself again after winning an enticing project bid worth about $300,000.
“Everyone said I was crazy,” Eley said about his coworkers at the time. “You don’t leave a good job like this for one project and I said, ‘Well watch and see what happens.’”
After that project about a decade ago, he became affiliated with the major local electrical union but that can also be a burden because it requires a lot of up front money to succeed, he said. Overall, grit was a key factor to his longevity in the business, he said.
Access to capital to grow the business has been a consistent challenge.
That’s because contractors are awarded projects and expected to pay for all the employees, materials and any costs up front, then are reimbursed — sometimes 90 days later rather than the standard 30 to 60 days. And if a business doesn’t have enough cash on hand to float its operations for that long, it can fail.
“I learned and made my mistakes, I made plenty of mistakes,” Eley said. “But you learn from your failures too if you don’t give up.”
Despite his steady drive, he’s at an interesting juncture now. He’s ready and willing to keep moving forward but he doesn’t have anyone interested in joining him on the ride — yet.
“What I would like is if I could find a younger person who shares my visions but doesn’t know how to get there,” he said.
He’s unsure if there’s anyone in his network interested in pursuing the electrical trade as a small business owner. His children have already taken different career pathways: One of his daughters is an attorney, a second daughter works in insurance and a third daughter lives a few states away in South Carolina.
And his son — who does work in the trades — is a foreman for a major electrical company.