Flip a light switch in any of the newer school buildings in Northwest Ohio and odds are you have Woolace Electric of Stryker to thank for the fact that it works.
“For the last 15 years we’ve done a lot of schools because they were building a lot of schools at that time,” said Butch Woolace, owner. “At one time – and it’s because they started in Northwest Ohio –seven or eight years ago, we had done more Ohio school facilities jobs than any other electrical contractor in the state. We started with Continental Schools and we still do a lot of school work.”
Woolace Electric began in 1962 as O. C. Woolace Electric or Olin C. Woolace Electric. “There was a place in Stryker called Surplus Materials that sold Army surplus wire and cable out from World War II. Dad worked there for 17 years and worked his way up. He was in the shipping then went to sales and then actually was plant manager there,” Butch said. “Surplus Materials sold out to A. Schulman. Dad had an 8th grade education and one of their stipulations was that you had to have a high school diploma. It didn’t matter what position he was in, he was just out of a job.”
“There’s 160 acres here and we had always helped my uncle farm it,” Butch said. “We moved down here when Dad was 57 and he couldn’t find a job, period. It was tough to find a job in the ‘60s when you’re that age. It would be tough right now to find a job at that age. My parents were relatively old when they had us so when my dad was 57, my sister was a sophomore and I graduated in ’69 so he had young kids. He had a problem!”
When Surplus Materials closed and went to Schulman’s, Olin started having farmers come to him asking if he knew where they could get the supplies formerly sold at Surplus Materials. “At that time there weren’t any Menards or Lowes or Wolohan’s or anything like that,” Butch said. “Surplus Material was owned by Essex Wire. They had a place in Chicago that sold scrap wire and since he knew those people they agreed to sell him some of those things. We’d go to Chicago, get a pickup load of wire and then that was us kids’ job after school, to recoil the wire and then he’d sell it out.”
“At the same time, there was always someone coming in and saying, ‘Hey, Olie, I’m having trouble hooking up this three-way switch. Can you show me how?’ Or there might be an older farmer who wouldn’t know how to hook something up so he’d be willing to go out and do that,” Butch said. “His idea was just to sell them out like he’d done before. He really didn’t want to get into the other.”
Butch, too, had other plans for his life when he graduated from high school. He worked for two years as a radio announcer for WBNO and thought that was his calling. “I still helped Dad some on the side,” Butch said. “Dad decided to build the house over here that my daughter lives in now and the people who built it were a couple of carpenters out of West Unity. I helped wire that house and at that time they said they were having trouble finding somebody to wire houses. They were building 12 or 15 houses a year and asked if I’d be willing to do some of that. My intent was to still work at the radio station – I was still working there at the time.”
The first house Butch wired was for Dick Hartman in West Unity. “I don’t know why he ever took a chance on a kid 20 years old but it’s still standing, believe it or not,” Butch laughed. “As far as the residential, it just went from there. I followed Grime & Colon around and wired their houses.”
Meanwhile, the business continued to grow, adding first Butch’s brother-in-law who later left the company to work at the hospital, then adding two of the neighbor boys and their brother-in-law to the work crew. Of their first four hires, all four still work at Woolace Electric, most working for the company for over 25 years.
Woolace’s first commercial job was a 24-unit apartment complex in Defiance. “From there it’s all kind of been by word of mouth. The contractors that we worked with on that job told us, ‘We know of this job or that job’ and it just kind of grew from there through some general contractors in Defiance,” Butch said.
Much of Butch’s training was on the job. “I’ve done some classes at Four County Adult Education and at Northwest State,” he said. “A lot of mine was as Dad would say, ‘by the school of hard knocks.’ I had gotten to know an electrical inspector real well and he told me he thought I should go get my inspectors license. I went and got that and it got me very interested in the National Electric Code. We’re a merit shop; we’re non-union. We’ve got our own four-year apprenticeship program here so anybody that starts to work for us, one of the requirements is they go through the four-year apprentice program. When they start working here we tell them that, yes, they can work here but they need more education, so we send them through the apprenticeship program and we send them out to Northwest State to take any other classes they might need that have to do with electrical.”
“I think we’ve all done a disservice to the young people by telling everybody that the only way you’re going to be able to provide for your family is to go to college and get a four year degree,” Butch said. “I’m a big fan of higher education. I’m all for college and the four-year degree but there’s also tremendous opportunity for people who may not fit into that mold. We’ve got such an opportunity in this area with Four County and Northwest State. I firmly believe that you can make a nice, family wage and not necessarily come out of school with a 60 or 70 thousand dollar debt. Guidance counselors and teachers as a whole have felt that college is the only way to go and they don’t look anywhere else.”
“The building trades as a whole are hurting! I’m not just talking electrical, either. Mechanical, plumbing, carpentry are all hurting for good, quality young people,” Butch said. “I feel that Four County Joint Vocational School has taken a bum rap. The attitude seems to be ‘if you’re a trouble maker or you’re too dumb to do anything else, go out there.’ We’ve done Vantage Joint Vocational School the last two years and the attitude in that area seems altogether different. “
“I have a meeting with Tim Meister coming up and one of the things I want to talk to him about is 20 years ago we used to get kids from Four County who would come here every spring looking for a job. In the last five years, I’ll bet we haven’t had two. One of my questions for Mr. Meister will be, ‘Are you producing electricians and, if you are, what are you doing with them?’ We’re not the only ones in the same boat. This past year we had 31 guys in the field of our own and we had 20 temporary people besides that.”
Butch feels that the success of Woolace Electric didn’t happen because of anything his family did. To him, it’s more about the workers who do an amazing job for them and the companies who have been willing to take a chance on hiring the business. “Our largest job to date has been the Bryan Hospital and both the general contractor out of Fort Wayne and the mechanical contractor out of Toledo called and went into the board and the administration and said, ‘we really would like to see you get somebody in besides Woolace,’ Butch said. “Not because we’d done anything wrong but because they just didn’t think we could handle the project. The hospital administrators stood behind us, our guys did the work and since then we’ve gotten invitations to bid for other projects from that general contractor. I told our guys that the hospital was taking a big chance by picking us for the project and we wanted to go out there and show them what we could do. At one time we had 22 guys working on that project at once and every one of them took personal responsibility for making sure we did the best job.”
“We all work for a paycheck but for any person that believes in himself, that’s third or fourth on the list,” Butch said. “It’s the fact that you’re doing a good job and that you take pride in what you do.”
Butch and his wife, Vickie, had seven children between them. Three of their sons work in the business, Ben, Eric and Tyler. “I have to admit, one of my proudest moments was this last summer when my grandson, one of Eric’s sons, started working for us in the shop,” Butch said. “That makes four generations of family in the business. Hopefully that will increase this summer. Ben has a son, Cade, who will be 15 and Eric’s son, Brandon will be 16 so they’ll both be eligible to work.”
Family has been the lynchpin holding Woolace Electric together and few felt stronger about family connections than Butch’s wife, Vickie. “When I finally convinced her to marry me it was with the condition that there wouldn’t be any of that step-son/step-daughter stuff. They were all going to be OURS and I think we did a pretty good job of sticking to that. Several of our kids got married in the last couple years before she passed and one of the things I’m so grateful for now is, she insisted that we always have a complete family picture taken at each wedding. I lost her a year and a half ago. She found out December 8, 2010 that she had cancer,” Butch said. “My wife, who never smoked a day in her life, had stage 4 lung cancer and it had spread to her bones. She found out December 8 and she passed away Mother’s Day, May 8, 2011.”
“There’s been a lot of changes and a lot of soul searching in my life but the way people have been in this area since my wife was sick and when she passed away and since then has been a blessing. I look back because of the business celebrating 50 years and those same people and how supportive they have been of the business and that’s the thing I feel so blessed about,” Butch said. “What a neat, close-knit area we live in.”
“I want to thank all our employees who have done such a wonderful job for us,” Butch concluded, “the customers, like Bryan hospital administrator Rusty Brunicotti, who took a chance on us and God because without Him we couldn’t do anything.”