Darren Smith Hits 30th Anniversary with City Electric Supply
From the Isle of Man to Greensboro, North Carolina, Darren Smith is probably one of the most well-traveled controllers City Electric Supply has ever seen.
Since joining CES in 1990, he’s held positions in the Isle of Man, Scotland, York, Kenilworth, Lemington, and eventually Greensboro, where he has now been the Controller for the North Carolina Accounting Division the last 24 years.
“It was an adventure for me,” Darren Smith said. “I was young, so moving around every few months, every couple years, it was no problem. Wherever I went, I met and kept friends at each location.”
There was a very good reason for Smith to move around as often as he did. When he came to City Electric Supply, he started in the Head Office Training Program. They wanted him to see the business from every angle — and just about every location.
“Each stop had a purpose,” he said. “At the time, I was training to become a divisional controller, but that’s a position that rarely opens up in the UK because CEF has a good mix of experienced Divisional Accountants. I wasn’t sure where I would end up, but I knew I’d have an opportunity somewhere.”
That’s a hard message for someone in their early 20s to wrap their head around. Ask anyone at that age about their future and they have some direction in mind, but few would invest the next six years of their life to follow through on that vision.
Reflecting back on that time, Smith talks about it like it was an investment in himself, a fitting metaphor for a controller. Even though there were some unknowns involved, it was still a great opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I knew at some point there would be a position,” he added, “but I never expected it to be in North America.”
At 19 years old, Darren Smith had chosen a path in architecture and building studies, but it was very challenging, he admitted. Plus, he just wasn’t enjoying it like he thought he would. That’s when current CFO Phil Flaherty reached out.
“Phil Flaherty asked if I wanted to interview with Roy Jenkins for this training program,” Smith recalled. “I credit Roy Jenkins with giving me 50% of my vision after that conversation. He worked with City Electric Supply all his life, and he gave me a good story of what to expect. I bought in.”
After that, it was a whirlwind for Smith. He moved all around the UK over the next six years before finishing the program and receiving what he’d call an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I had two choices once I finished the Head Office Training Program,” Smith said. “Either go to Canada and work as a controller or start our operations in North Carolina under nobody.”
Smith decided to go with option B, and he doesn’t regret it looking back.
“North Carolina was much warmer than Canada,” he laughed. “It was a risk, but I was confident that I could handle the operations at the time, especially when we only had 16 stores in North Carolina.”
Smith talked a lot with Jim Lawson, the District Manager in Raleigh, before he opened the office in Greensboro. Every time they spoke, he became more and more confident that he made the right decision.
But when Smith finally made it to the U.S., he was surprised by how much legwork went into opening new branches. He had to learn, and he had to learn fast. City Electric Supply was about to see its fastest growing period in the company’s history to date.
“Everyone reaches out to a controller when they start new branches,” he said. “John Gray, Jim Lawson, they were asking me a lot of questions — they still do — and I had to find answers. In the UK, you don’t have to set up financial accounts, really. Here, you have to do everything yourself. Sales tax accounts. Privileged licenses in each jurisdiction, city, county. It was a lot of work to start with as you’re adjusting to a new country.”
Fortunately, it didn’t take long for Smith to figure it out, and he began to see the vision he had six years prior pan out. Over the next 24 years, North Carolina exploded, adding 100 branches in one of the most impressive moments in CES history.
The Business Today
“The North Carolina division grew at an alarming rate,” he said. “We grew this division to levels I never thought we’d see, from 16 stores to 116 stores in really just a matter of years.”
And Darren Smith is the first person to point toward the City Electric Supply culture for that track record of success. CES looks after one another, promoting retention, which allows employees to buy into the culture.
“We’ve always been a family company, we always look after each other,” he started. “That promotes retention and longevity. You have time to become friends with the people you work with. I have 116 Branch Managers, and I enjoy working with them all. Dealing with all those different characters is a lot of fun. It’s challenging sometimes, but most of the time it’s a lot of fun.”
It certainly looks like North Carolina has the perfect group of Branch Managers in place, too. And although Smith has already overseen a huge milestone, he’s ready to see at least one more in his long career.
“North Carolina’s branches are really taking on a new challenge: solar,” he said. “Establishing that business is another milestone I can’t wait to see take off.”
The question for Smith isn’t if the branches in his division go after solar, it’s how hard they chase it. If his last milestone is any indication, this next one could add the next 100 branches to North Carolina’s total under his watch.
But Smith is modest. He’s OK with 150 branches before he retires, which he should have plenty of time to see. He’s not even thinking about retirement yet.
“I think everyone had a vision that City Electric Supply could grow and become very successful in the U.S.,” he said. “Seeing that growth firsthand, being a part of it, that was a huge milestone for me.”
But it wasn’t the most motivating milestone for Smith. For him, that had to be the people at City Electric Supply.
“People you work with, you don’t want to let them down,” he said. “You want to keep them happy, keep them enjoying what they’re doing. As a controller you want your decisions to enable your employees to have good sense of job security and progression in what they’re doing. If they feel like they’re spinning their wheels, you’ll lose them.”
Above everything, it’s the people that Smith attributes North Carolina’s success to.
“It’s impossible to grow a division like this size without good people. We’ve been through some people, some might’ve been let down, but they also let you down. You recognize that the person who steps in next is the right fit,” he said.
And once that happens, you begin to recognize the traits you need from your people, something that the North Carolina division has excelled at.
“When you start to spot these characteristics and these people, you do everything you can to invest in them,” he continued. “From promotions to advice, you can help make sure the right people who are doing a good job don’t get overlooked.”
But Smith is the first to admit that that’s easier said than done.
“It’s always a challenge, and there’s no perfect way to make sure that happens. I do my best to talk to the branch staff in the stores. Try to influence them, try and push them forward. I challenge everyone in a leadership position to do that. I’m a firm believer that you’re only as good as the people who make you.”
Almost a lifelong career behind him, Darren Smith certainly has his fair share of people — and memories — that helped make him what he is today.
Darren Smiths’ Favorite Memories
After 30 years with City Electric Supply, it turns out that Darren Smith has quite a few memories he’ll never forget — but some of those, he might not be able to share.
“There’s a lot I can’t bring up,” he joked. “One of my favorite memories though is whenever me and the District Managers have a chance to go golfing. Such a comradery among CES that during those moments you can really talk and learn about each other.”
And it just wouldn’t be a spotlight story if Smith didn’t have a memorable encounter with late-CEO and Founder Tom Mackie.
“Tom Mackie, the CFO from the UK, and a few others were at the Greensboro office to do an audit,” he said. “They asked if me and my son, who was a 1-year old at the time, wanted to go on the jet. You aren’t ever going to pass that up.”
What happened next might surprise you… unless you knew Tom Mackie.
“I let my son crawl on the floor of the jet. He crawls right up to Tom, who picks him up and gives him a big sloppy kiss on the head,” Smith beamed as he told the story. “Tom always enjoyed what he did. You could always tell just how he interacted with people and their families. I’ll never forget it.”
The Best Advice Is Just Advice
If you think someone hasn’t received a ton of advice throughout their 30-year career, think again. Darren Smith has used this advice to help grow his own career, even if it’s a little conflicting.
“COO John Gray told me to keep it simple. On the other side, VP of Operations Gary Smith told me to take my time and read it over. There’s something that can be said for both, so you have to find a balance between the two”
You can’t argue with that, certainly when it’s worked out so far for Smith. But what about some advice of his own that he’d like to share?
“Number one, work hard,” he said. “Number two, always listen to the people around you. You don’t have to take bad advice, but you should always listen. Then number three, take advantage of opportunities. Even if you don’t think it’s the right opportunity, still think about taking it. You never know what might happen if you do.”