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Celebrating a business built on family values

For Benny and Rosemary Smith, their firm AC Electrics has been a labour of love. Over the years, it’s expanded and more family members have been welcomed on board. The result is a close-knit team that prides itself on high standards – and which recently celebrated 50 years as a SELECT Member

Buying your first house while raising two young children is generally not the best time to leave a safe and secure job and start out on your own, but that is what Benny and Rosemary Smith did more than 50 years ago and now three generations of the family are working for AC Electrics – the company they started from their home in Cleland, near Motherwell, in 1973.

And for the past 50 years, SELECT has been supporting AC Electrics to navigate the changing regulatory environment and keep up with the technological advancements that have occurred during this period.

Benny joined the Electrical Contractors’ Association of Scotland, as it was called back then, on 12 February 1974, and was a regular at his local Lanarkshire Branch, where he enjoyed meeting up with fellow electricians and keeping abreast of developments in the industry – a role that his son Paul has taken over as Vice Chair of the Branch.

Benny, together with his two brothers John and Edward, had all completed their apprenticeships at a local electrical contracting company in Motherwell, but after six years Benny was looking for something different, as he explained: “I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere with this company, particularly financially, so I was thinking of doing something else.

“I spoke to a house builder I was doing some work for who convinced me that I should start up on my own. He said that I was too good to be working with ‘that lot’, and I should start my own business. To give me a helping hand, he offered me a contract to carry out the electrical works on a new housing development he had under way.

“This persuaded me to take the plunge but I needed transport, so I borrowed £90 off my mother and went down to the Glasgow Car Mart with a friend of mine who knew all there was to know about vans and trucks, and came back with an ex-fire brigade A30 Austin van for £60. The rest of the money went on tax and insurance but it meant I was in business.” Now he needed a name, and AC Electrics came to mind – ‘AC’ for alternating current but, more importantly, it would be listed at the start of the telephone directory!

He added: “I don’t think I thought about the risks of starting a business too much, I just went ahead and did it. Even though my wife Rosemary was looking after our small children at the time, she supported me and when the children got older she took over the financial side of the company.”

Benny and his wife Rosemary worked as a team to build their business

While working on the builder’s new housing development, Benny also got to know the architects well and they asked him to quote for a job on a new British Legion Club being built in Whitburn. Although Benny’s quote was initially too high, the project costs were overrunning so the architects asked him to requote for a lower spec job and AC Electrics was in business again; the success of this project brought in more contracts around the local areas in the coming years.

The ‘breakthrough’ contract that helped the company grow further came from South Lanarkshire County Council in the mid-1970s to carry out repairs to council houses in the local areas of Newarthill, Cleland and Carfin. Following this work, the local authority awarded the company more repair contracts across its estate, which meant that AC Electrics could expand, taking on apprentices and foreman Billy Lewis, who only recently retired from the company after 40 years’ service.

Benny said: “We have been very fortunate to gain business over the years through our reputation for doing work well and having great people like Billy and others who have stayed with us for years and have provided a great quality of service, fast response times and a professional work ethic.”

During the 1980s, AC Electrics went on to win larger contracts for other local authorities such as North Lanarkshire and East Dunbartonshire Councils.

Benny with his original Electrical Contractors’ Association of Scotland membership certificate

Benny added: “The first big contract from North Lanarkshire involved rewiring 600 houses in Motherwell, so we had to sub-contract plasterers and carpet fitters as well as some other independent electricians to help.

“We had some of the best rewiring professionals in Scotland; they worked in pairs and could run through two houses in a day, sometimes three as they were paid on work completed.”

Being a Member of SELECT was critical to AC Electrics winning new contracts as Benny explained: “It really helped us to win the big contracts as local authorities demanded evidence that you were a bona fide contractor and SELECT membership gave them the reassurance that we were a professional outfit with high standards.

“It really helped us to win the big contracts as local authorities demanded evidence that you were a bona fide contractor”

“Rosemary and I found the SELECT helplines invaluable as you could just phone up to get questions answered right there and then. I know that Rosemary was grateful for the SELECT support when she was doing our books, particularly for employment and health and safety advice, and tax issues when paying our independent electricians that we contracted for some jobs.”

AC Electrics’ working relationship with East Dunbartonshire Council came about as a result of an advert in the Glasgow Herald in the mid-1980s and the company is still working with the council to this day, carrying out rewiring surveys and full and partial rewires of housing stock and other council-run properties, such as schools and offices.

The strength of these working relationships, particularly with local authorities and NHS Trusts, helped AC Electrics to weather the downturns, such as the 2008 economic recession and the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Benny said: “We’ve been lucky over the years as business has been fairly constant and we’ve had very strong relationships with our clients. For example, in 1979 we were called in to wire a 30 A socket-outlet in the telephone room of NHS Lanarkshire’s Hartwood Hospital and we’re still working for the trust 45 years later.”

Benny is proud of what his family has achieved

The only tough financial times the company experienced involved losing money for electrical contracting work from failed private housing developers. He explained: “In the past we have been involved with two developers that have left us out of pocket; one going broke and the other just doing a flit, so we do a lot of due diligence now and carefully vet private companies before we get involved in large development projects.”

Benny added: “As a family-owned company we have always been careful to cut our cloth to suit the work we had on and to sub-contract specialists when we’ve needed them, rather than try to scale up to do everything ourselves. We’ve seen many companies win big contracts and expand rapidly only to fail later as the work tailed off. Our ambition is simple: we just want to focus on what we do best and then do it well, and to build up our staff through apprentices who we can train in our ways of doing things. Although we’ve had our ups and downs, I’m particularly proud that I’ve never laid off anyone over all the years we’ve been in business.”


Time to hand over the reins 

Benny and Rosemary are unashamedly ‘old school’ and they admit it was the growing changes in technology that influenced their decision to call it a day and hand over the reins to their sons, Paul and Kevin, in 2004.

Benny added: “I think it’s just our mindset and we could never really transition from faxes to emails, and that’s what our customers wanted so we thought it was time for the next generation to take over.”

Kevin and Paul took over the reins of the business in 2004

Under Paul and Kevin’s stewardship, AC Electrics was one of the first companies in Scotland to get involved with electric vehicle (EV) charging through its relationship with BMW-Schneider Electric in 2013. This involved installing EV chargers – BMW i Wallboxes – into domestic properties for owners of the electric BMWi3 vehicles. This early and valuable experience has laid a foundation for the ever-changing EV markets.

AC Electrics had looked at getting involved in other renewables but felt that the market was quite saturated at that moment, as Paul explained: “We dipped our toe into installing solar panels but at the time, with the dwindling financial incentives on offer to consumers and all sorts of ‘tradesmen’ offering cut-price installations, it just did not appeal to us. I attended a solar panel course a few years back and was dismayed to find that other trades, with absolutely no electrical background, were looking to get into the market, so that made us stand back. However, we are looking at the new green technologies that are currently evolving at an increasing rate and think this will be a good area to get into as it develops.

“we are a tight-knit family and are always there to help each other out, and I think that attitude is reflected in our employees too”

“That’s why being a Member of SELECT is helpful to us to keep on top of new ever-expanding developments within the industry. I have to say that SELECT is much more hands-on than other industry associations we have been involved with.”

The business prides itself on carrying out work to the highest of standards

Today, AC Electrics employs around 14 people and continues to specialise in industrial and commercial electrical installations, lighting design and providing testing and maintenance throughout Scotland for its long-standing clients.

After 31 years working from the family home – from 1973 until 2004 – it was time for AC Electrics to move to newer and bigger premises, which also gave Benny and Rosemary their house, garage and driveway back!

Benny said: “Our driveway was always filled with cable drums, pallets and, of course, the vans. We also had a skip there too for 32 years that became part of the family; every Christmas we decorated it up with tinsel and lights!”

Although no longer in the driving seat, Benny is proud of what he and his family has achieved over the past 50 years and the support that the business has had from SELECT. He said: “With our children Paul, Kevin and Pamela, and spouses Linda and Hilary, we are a tight-knit family and are always there to help each other out, and I think that attitude is reflected in our employees too.

“We’ve had people that have been with us for years, often starting with us as apprentices, so there is a strong element of trust and respect, and a shared goal of doing the best we can for our clients. 

“Out of all my time with the company I’m most proud of my wife Rosemary who’s been by my side at all times, and particularly for putting up with me during all the trials and aggravations of running this business over the years, sometimes not knowing how we are going to pay the wage bill and chasing invoices!

“She is the only typist I know who could rattle out 40 words per minute with two fingers! She’s been fantastic.” 

The AC Electrics team includes family and colleagues who have worked with the firm for a long time


Supporting vital health services during COVID-19

Like most companies across Scotland, the COVID-19 lockdown on Tuesday 24 March 2020 came as a complete shock. At the time, Paul, Kevin and their colleagues were working on a number of various contracts for NHS Lanarkshire and local authority rewires and, like everyone else, were suddenly told to finish up, go home and wait for further instructions. Little did they know that they would soon be working flat out as ‘essential workers’ helping to upgrade hospitals and community health centres and vaccination centres across the region. 

Paul said: “The announcement of the lockdown was really unsettling as we did not know how this was going to affect the business and we knew nothing about how furlough would work, so it was a stressful time.

“However, the following day we got a call from NHS Lanarkshire calling us in to help convert one of their buildings at University Hospital Monklands into a 250-capacity temporary mortuary. Grim, but at the time, essential work.

“After that, we were working continuously on other hospital and community healthcare projects, such as setting up electrical connections required for the installation of patient ventilators. This high level of workwas necessary to cope with the increasingnumber of medical gas installations to wards and side rooms that previously did not havethese critical facilities. Further into the pandemic, we were involved in the creation of a number of COVID-19 vaccination centres, which included working closely with the vaccination teams in respect to vaccine fridge requirements and installing the appropriate electrical wiring and connections and certification to suit.

“We were all given ‘essential worker’ status by NHS Lanarkshire, which allowed us unrestricted travel during lockdown. On the second week of the first lockdown, I remember driving on the M8 to Glasgow to get supplies from our wholesaler. It was a Friday afternoon and I was the only car on the motorway. On the way back, I drove into the city centre, and parked in George Square. Just me and the pigeons! A Friday afternoon ghost town.”


On Her Majesty’s not so secret service

While the majority of AC Electrics’ work has been based around Scotland’s Central Belt, in 2009 the company was called upon by Her Majesty’s Government to undertake a special foreign assignment to upgrade the visa section in the British Embassy in Moscow.

 After working on a security contract installing retractable car bollards at Holyrood, Edinburgh, AC Electrics was recommended for the project in Moscow for the installation of weather sheltersand thermal heaters. This very unusual project also included the installation of body scanning and X-ray equipment to the embassy entrance compound. 

Paul and his colleagues flew out to Moscow on 6 January 2009 for the three-month contract and one of the first people he met at the embassy was the daughter of his old next-door neighbour from Carluke, who worked there as an interpreter! 

“It was tough work because it was the dead of winter and the temperatures would often be around minus 15-20 degrees centigrade”

He said: “It was tough work because it was the dead of winter and the temperatures would often be around minus 15-20 degrees centigrade. Working with galvanise conduit in those conditions is NOT recommended! However, I really enjoyed my months in Moscow as it is such a beautiful city. We stayed in Hotel Ukraine and my room looked out across the Moskva River to the White House government building opposite, and I could see all of central Moscow, including Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral. An awesome sight.” 

Another surprise was to find out how crazy the Russians are for Rabbie Burns, as he explained: “It was one of the guys’ birthdays, on Burns Night, so we all went for a night out in Arbat Street, which is Moscow’s equivalent to Sauchiehall Street. We went to a Mexican restaurant that had been recommended to us, and as we walked down into the basement of the venue, we heard bagpipes, and there right in front of us were six Mexicans in kilts, addressing the haggis in Russian. It was surreal!”


The missing brother

Benny’s two brothers, John and Edward, also trained under him as electricians and while John joined him at AC Electrics, Edward’s electrical career was foreshortened when the legendary football manager Tommy Docherty signed the 18-year-old to play for Chelsea FC. Unfortunately, when Dave Sexton joined the club in 1977 he had a clear out of Docherty’s Scottish signings and Edward was out of job.

Instead of going back to Scotland, Edward moved to Australia and while he continued his electrical career at Victoria Hospital in Melbourne, he still kept up with his first passion of football, playing for Melbourne City Football Club and winning a number of league trophies. He is now retired in Australia.


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