Warren Graves had just picked up his briefcase and flipped off the lights at the office on a Friday when the phone rang. It was NUCA CEO Bill Hillman, calling to let Graves know before hopping on that plane to Puerto Rico for the NUCA Annual Convention that he was the 2015 Ditchdigger of the Year.
“I was speechless. People who know me won’t believe that,” Graves says. “I confess I was a little reluctant to share it with anyone in case he had to call me back because he had miscounted the votes. That whole Steve Harvey-Miss Universe thing was going through my head!”
Presented annually at NUCA’s Convention, the Ditchdigger of the Year is one of the highest honors in the industry, awarded to a contractor member who has made a significant contribution to the association and the underground utility construction and excavation industry.
“I think of it less in terms of past accomplishment than as a challenge to continue to be a part of the utility contractor community and to give back as much as I can,” he says.
Career in Safety
Graves’ career has been focused on safety, but it didn’t start that way.
“I actually started my work life in the nuclear construction industry,” Graves says. “I was convinced it was the wave of the future.”
He spent 10 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) when the active construction of most nuclear facilities started winding down. He was at a “personal and career crossroads” when his brother called with a tip that Team Fishel was looking for supervisors. Why not? Twenty years later, Graves is still at Team Fishel.
Initially Graves worked in an operations unit doing gas installation for Nashville Gas, but a year later Team Fishel asked if he wanted to move into a safety role. Why not? Graves has been in safety ever since. He says his success in this segment can be traced to NUCA. Graves first got involved with NUCA in the late ‘90s, enrolling in a train-the-trainer class taught by George Kennedy and Greg Strudwick. These were the right mentors at the right time.
“I had not been in the safety role very long, but found an immediate and lasting source of information and inspiration,” he says. “I truly get much more from those guys than I am able to give back.”
“Warren is one of those outstanding safety managers who really cares about utility construction workers and his teammates,” Kennedy says. “He does everything possible to ensure their safety. He is a dedicated NUCA member who cares very much about our association, membership and the utility construction industry.
It is an honor to call him Ditchdigger of the Year and my friend.”
Soon, Graves was a regular at the Safety Ambassadors Club and the annual Safety Director’s Forum (only missing one in 20 years). He has been a part of other committees over the years too, just recently ending a two-year stint as the chairman of the Safety and Damage Prevention Committee, and until this year was also part of the Best Practices Committee of the Common Ground Alliance. On top of it all, he was one of the many utility contractors who helped get the NUCA of North Texas Chapter started.
“The information I am able to acquire and use from my peers in the utility community has proven invaluable,” he says.
Team Fishel has been in business for 80 years and currently has 30 offices in 12 states as well as performing special projects, substation construction and transmission work all over the country. With Graves in charge of safety for a quarter of that time, the company has seen excellent results. Team Fishel just won the 2015 William H. Feather Award in the large contractor category, and during the last two years the company has worked nearly 8.5 million man-hours and have a TRIR of less than 1.8.
“It is amazing what can be accomplished when the whole team works together,” Graves says. “Our vision is to be accident free, and we truly believe we cannot only reach the goal but sustain it.”
Thanks and Thoughts
When asked to discuss his accomplishments, Graves probably spent more time talking about the people who influenced him, from Team Fishel — Chairman and Owner Diane Keeler, President and CEO John Phillips, EVP and COO Randy Blair, Safety Director Craig Mathes — to NUCA.
“Our entire company has benefited from the education NUCA has offered our safety team,” Graves says. “Every safety coordinator we have or have had for the past 20 years has been through the train-the-trainer program for Competent Person Training and Confined Space Entry.”
Oh, and there was one other person to thank: his wife Diane.
“My jobs have always involved a lot of traveling and she has been great at being a semi-single wife and mother,” he says. “She is fond of saying that I always move and she always finds me! Thank goodness.”
But he did have some words of wisdom of his own to share for the industry:
“If I could boil it down to one word, that word would have to be solutions. Let’s face it: We all have pretty much the same issues to deal with. Whether it’s safety, personnel, operations, equipment or profitability, the chances that one of us has a unique problem is pretty small. One or another of our NUCA colleagues has very likely faced a similar issue at some point. Just being able to network with such a diverse and talented group makes it worthwhile. The friendships I have made in my years with NUCA will last my lifetime and the list of unpaid consultants is pretty long and growing.”
And the country: “I am cautious but hopeful that our leaders will recognize the eminent need to invest in this country’s infrastructure and recognize the best investment we can make for America is in America. Gridlock and partisanship will not build our future.”
And himself: “As for me, I’m putting in another 10 or 20 years and that’s it!”
Chris Crowell is a contributing editor of Utility Contractor.