HENRIETTA — A willingness to learn and work hard has served as the formula for success for two local men who recently opened their own firm that employs more than two dozen people.
After more than nearly 20 years of working for Rochester Gas and Electric, now owned by Spain-based Iberdrola Corp., Ramon Colón and Felix Meléndez — longtime friends and Edison Tech High School classmates — took a leap of faith earlier this year and opened Innovative Contracting Services.
The company provides asset and project management as well as mapping of gas and electric facilities, Colón explained during a Nov. 7 interview in ICS’s suite of offices on Scottsville Road.
The two obtained jobs at RG&E right after graduating from Edison Tech High School in the mid-1990s. They were part of a school-to-work program based on their interest in drafting classes. To participate in the program, they had to maintain grade-point averages of 3.275 or higher, have good attendance records and complete Regents course work.
Both say they originally saw architecture in their futures, but then the RG&E opportunity arose.
"I couldn’t walk away," said Meléndez.
Technology has changed tremendously since they took those RG&E jobs right after high school, Colón explained. He remembers that when he first began working at RG&E, even with computer-aided design work, he still needed to hand draw the power lines, poles, streets and other land surfaces for the maps, using information provided by field workers.
The two friends then became part of major changes in the industry four years ago when Iberdrola bought out Energy East Corp., of which RG&E was a subsidiary, and they noticed that a lot of the work they were doing was being outsourced, Colón said. That spurred their decision to utilize the skills and expertise they had developed and create a company that would contract to do the mapping work for RG&E before someone else did, Meléndez concurred.
"We are natural leaders," he added.
Conversations between the two about making that transition began a little more than a year ago, and earlier this year they opened up shop.
"The opportunity was there," Colón said. "It was a now-or-never kind of thing."
"We trust each other," added Meléndez. "And we knew for us to team together would make an impact."
Both agree it was the right move at the right time, given that their old department at RG&E has been reduced from 27 people to nine.
But the initial steps to entrepreneurship began for Colón in the beginning of 2010 when he volunteered for a leadership role as part of a business-transformation project being undertaken by Iberdrola at several of its sites, explained Joe Purington, director of systems operations at Iberdrola.
"He wanted to stretch and help develop himself, added Purington, who is based at Central Maine Power in Augusta, Maine. "I think that helped develop his self-confidence to a point. … He came in and did something he didn’t know anything about and helped lead change."
Frank Reynolds, vice president of general services at Iberdrola’s Rochester office, said that he also witnessed natural leadership skills in Colón when the two worked together on that business-transformation project.
"What impressed me the most was Ramon’s focus and his ability to work with experts in different parts of the business that did not have common background, but (he) got them to a common place," Reynolds added. "He was able to get a tremendous amount of work done in a very short period."
He also is impressed that Colón and Meléndez recognized where the industry was headed and took a proactive stance to by creating a company that now provides services to RG&E on a contract basis. But as a brand-new startup, the move was not without risks, Reynolds acknowledged.
"As we all know no risk, no reward," he added. "And they’ve been real successful."
In addition to having a good business plan in place, Colón and Meléndez said that the support of people like Purington and Reynolds at Iberdrola was crucial to that success.
"We also gathered the right set of people to help us do well," Colón said. "But we want to lead by example."
That leadership mind-set was instilled in both of them by their fathers as they grew up in the inner city of Rochester, explained Colón and Meléndez.
Meléndez, who was born in Cayey, Puerto Rico, and moved to Rochester when he was 8, said he was told repeatedly that education was the key to a good future. And while neither Meléndez nor Colón went the college route, they said that there are still plenty of career opportunities for high-school graduates. Doing well in school and possessing a good work ethic sets the foundation for a good career in any industry, noted Meléndez, who still lives in the city with his wife, Warkiria, and their two children.
"If you can learn a trade and get that experience," a person will be successful, Colón remarked.
Colón said that he was headed in the wrong direction all together in high school when his father put his foot down and helped him focus on school. Looking back, he is grateful to his father for helping him understand that all that his father wanted was a better life for his son, said Colón who lives in Greece with his wife, Tara, and their three children.
"In the Hispanic community, young males have few people to look up to," noted Colón. "We both have strong father figures in our lives."