HAILEY | In June 2012 a TV audience of millions watched with bated breath as the King of the High Wire Nik Wallenda stepped onto a tightrope above the frothy plunging waters of Niagara Falls.
Bret Moffett could not watch. He knew if something went wrong and Wallenda fell into the wash machine-like waters, that the Hailey-based firm of Power Engineers would likely shoulder some of the blame.
“I was terrified — I didn’t want the company associated with something tragic,” recounted the company’s president. “Finally, someone texted me — 'you can turn on your TV now.'”
Power's design, installation and teardown of the 2-inch diameter cable for the 1,400-foot walk, which was engineered by Peter Catchpole, didn’t make the company a lot of money, Moffett said.
But the project, which involved installing a series of stabilizing pendulums to eliminate the unwalkable twisting on the cable, gave Power engineers a shot of adrenaline as they demonstrated how their company could handle even the most difficult problems.
That kind of wherewithal has taken company employees all around the world, from Ayers Rock in Australia’s Outback to the geothermal hotbed of the Great Rift Valley in Africa, as they work on projects dealing with energy, communications, the environment, food and beverage and top-secret government projects. Cyber security is one of the new fields on its plate.
It’s regularly landed the company on the Idaho Statesman’s list of top privately held Idaho firms. And it provided the company with more than enough work during the 2008 recession, when other companies were struggling.
“Our engineers work amidst the wild animals in places like Botswana and Kenya, getting to see things most people only see on public TV,” Moffett said. “And they installed a two-mile electric cable system connecting Oahu to historic Ford Island underneath the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Those kinds of projects showcase Power’s ability to take on unusual challenges and be successful.”
Power Engineers may just be Idaho’s best kept secret. Though it’s one of the top engineering consultants in the country, few Idahoans know about the company, employee Harry Hurt said.
“While we’ve kept a low profile in the past, we’re starting to change that,” he added.
The global consulting engineering firm was founded in Pocatello in 1976 by two engineers and their dogs. When their office burned down the following year, the two decided they’d prefer to live in the shadow of Sun Valley’s ski area and so they moved into a log building heated by a wood stove near the Hailey airport.
Jack Hand, the company’s chief executive officer, joined the team when he read about the company in the Times-News while driving from St. Louis to the coast for a vacation.
He took a detour to Hailey, moved there and since has presided over the construction of an ore haulage control system for a copper mine in China and thousands of miles of fiber optic long-distance phone and data lines around the West.
Under his tenure, Power has installed post-war reconstruction of power generation and transmission facilities in Iraq and a power plant in Kabul, Afghanistan. It’s installed gas turbine CHP plants for potato processing plants in Idaho. And it’s built an Intelligent Transportation System to alleviate traffic congestion in the Dallas Metro area and installed a 2,367-mile fiber optic backbone from Portland, Ore., to Houston, Texas.
That line is the equivalent of 41,659 football fields.
“The foundation for our success is our people,” Hand said. “We succeed because of them.”
Power now has more than 2,300 employees working in more than 45 offices in the United States and abroad. The log cabin in Hailey gave way to a 30,000-square foot facility in Hailey’s industrial park in 1989. Firearms were banned from the Hailey office in 1990 to keep office cubicles from looking like swap meet booths, and dogs were banned in 1998.
But other early vestiges remain. Among them, the January holiday party called “The Burnout” to commemorate the burning down of the early office. Also, the annual campout and picnic in the Sawtooth Mountains called the “Power outage.”
The 25-cent beer dispenser company employees invented is gone. But employees still get together to swap stories about their projects over free beer and soda Friday afternoons.
The company has regularly been ranked No. 1 among firms on Engineering News-Record’s Top 10 Electrical Power Transmission and Distribution Design list. It has climbed into the Top 10 of Food Processing Plants list. And it hosts its annual Line Conference in Sun Valley, bringing transmission line engineers from throughout the country.
Moffett was promoted to president in May 2015 and will take over as CEO in May 2016.
He will be only the company’s third CEO in 40 years, which is “pretty cool,” said Janet Metzger, the company’s communications manager. “Forty years in Idaho— a profitable homegrown company that has avoided being purchased by the big boys because part of our vision is to stay employee owned.”
“It really shows the sustainability of the company,” she added.
Moffett said the company is well positioned as he moves toward taking over.
“My job is not to screw that up,” said Moffett, who became acquainted with Power while building Micron’s plant in Lehi, Utah.
Power's biggest office is now in Meridian. But Moffett said the Hailey office is not on the endangered list.
“Not at all. In fact, I offered to move there, but they told me to stay in Boise since my family was already settled. Hailey will continue to be our corporate headquarters. There’s so much history in that office. And it’s our cultural center. We do talk about how the airport could be better—Hailey doesn’t have as many flights in and out as it used to. And, frankly that’s why Boise has grown faster—it’s easier to do business there.”
Many of those who work in Hailey have been with the company over 30 years so they bring a lot of institutional knowledge to the job, Moffett said. And Hailey is great for recruiting those who like outdoor opportunities like skiing and snowmobiling.
“It’s still our second-largest office, and it’s going to be there a long time,” he said.
That’s good news for the Wood River Valley, which recently lost two major employers in Smith Sports Optics and Scott USA.
Power is the second largest private sector employer after Sun Valley Company. And it employs middle- to upper-level professionals, such as engineers and technology specialists, unlike Sun Valley Company, where many of the employees are lower- to middle-service level employees, said Harry Griffith, who heads up Sun Valley Economic Development.
“At the end of the day, they’re an international company that’s headquartered here, and they’re very well recognized and respected in a number of different areas, including geothermal and power lines,” he said. “They also have been very supportive of economic development in the Wood River Valley.”
One of the biggest hurdles to Power's success is being able to attract and retain qualified people, with the number of engineering graduates down, Moffett said.
Power gave a half-million dollars to the University of Idaho to establish the Power Center for Engineering, one of the nation’s premier centers for engineering research and education. And just this year it established the Power Foundation to nurture and empower the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math enthusiasts.
“We do a lot to make our work environment attractive, as well,” Moffett said. “For instance, we match our employees 401K plans, as do many companies. But at the end of the year we also evaluate our profitability and make discretionary contributions to our employees based on that. Decisions like that may not be classic MBA decisions. But we make those decisions because we think they’re the right thing to do.”