Kevin Cole is the chief executive of Ennis Electric. (Courtesy of Ennis Electric)

Kevin Cole has had a full career at Ennis Electric, where he has spent the past 24 years. He started as an apprentice and then worked his way up to electrician, foreman, estimator, chief estimator, project manager and project executive before becoming the company’s CEO.

You attended Virginia Tech but dropped out. Why?

I wanted to be a nuclear chemist but Virginia Tech didn’t have a nuclear engineering program. I was put into mechanical engineering. I had to endure years of thermal dynamics, of gear design, all kinds of stuff that wasn’t remotely chemistry. I ended up dropping out after 3 1/2 years.

You had to be nearly finished with your degree.

I was. I said I’m not going to do this. This isn’t my future. It doesn’t make sense to invest another minute. Of course, I got home and needed a job, and the only thing I was qualified to do was mechanical engineering.

Why didn’t you like mechanical engineering?

It wasn’t exciting to me. It got increasingly boring. I wasn’t a happy person. That means you’re not a good employee. You’re not a good co-worker. It manifested itself in my attitude, and I got fired.

How did you end up at Ennis Electric?

I called up John Ennis and said, “Hey, I just need to earn money. I’m a hard worker. I’ll do anything.”

Why Ennis Electric?

That’s my father-in-law. I didn’t have any aptitude for all of this. They kept challenging me with more and more. In a short period of time, I said I like this. I’d like to have an apprenticeship.

You start to move up in the company, taking on increasing responsibility. What lessons did you learn in those early leadership roles?

To lead, you have to be in front in every way possible. The leader needs to be two, three, four steps ahead of the people you’re leading so that it’s clear to them that you are leading.

You keep being given more responsibilities. Was that organic or was there a plan in place to move you into a management role?

It was pretty organic. It was keep working hard, keep learning, keep improving and eventually an opportunity will come and you’ll be ready. It was told to me very clearly on many occasions: You don’t get any special treatment. Ennis Electric comes first. We’re not going to promote somebody because they are related.

Your father-in-law, John Ennis, who founded the company in 1974, retired in 2004, and your brother-in-law, John Ennis Jr., became CEO. Was it the plan for you to become CEO next?

In 2009, John Jr.’s opinion was: “Kevin is not ready to run this company. I need somebody to help me run the company while I get Kevin ready.” So John Jr. hires Jonathan Mitz from outside the company.That was pretty much the only time in my whole career where there was an intention to do something more.

What will your role be as CEO?

If you boil down what we do, it’s three things: We get work, we do work and we keep score. Get work is business development. Do work is design the job and install it. Contracting is an extremely risky business so the keep score part is really keeping track of costs and the feedback loop — did you do well, did you make mistakes, and if you made mistakes, what do you need to learn. I oversee 100 percent of the get work, and I share responsibility of keep score with our president, Steve Blankenship. I have high-level responsibility of all financial aspects of the company.

What’s the most difficult lesson you’ve had to learn as a leader?

Being too abrupt. I think that’s Steve Jobs-type leadership. He was too impatient to let you catch up with him. That doesn’t work. You have to offer them the same wisdom that you gained. It’s about being patient and giving others the opportunity to attain the same level of education so that they choose to follow you.

What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career?

My father-in-law told me every time you get something adverse in life, just think of it as somebody is testing you. If you accept that it is just a test and that you’re going to meet it face to face, it’s just one more thing to get through.

— Interview with Kathy Orton

Kevin Cole

Position: Chief executive, Ennis Electric, a Manassas, Va.-based electrical contractor specializing in electrical construction services for commercial, federal, historic renovation, government, institutional, industrial and education clients in the public and private sectors.

Career highlights: Executive vice president, vice president, Ennis Electric

Education: Stonewall Jackson High School

Age: 51