By Janet Alsas / Photography by John Michael Simpson
Carol Dixon Acton of Carol’s Electric spoke about breaking into a male-dominated industry and how her business has grown.
Tell us about yourself.
I’ve spent my life in Chapel Hill. I grew up right here in Orange County, and I went to Orange High School in Hillsborough. I live at the family home that we built when we moved here in 1973 when we came here from New York.
What was it like training to become an electrician?
Back in ’89, my sister and her husband had their own [electrical] company, and I just went to work as a helper for them. At that point, you just had to put in a few years of work and have it certified as experience. As soon as I got that experience, I went and took the test and got my electrical license.
What was the driving force behind starting your own business?
My father, John Dixon, had his own business [Dixon’s Garage]. I was brought up [believing] that the American dream is having and running your own business. So as soon as I got my electrical license, within probably a year, I went into business for myself.
What was taking that next step like?
Being in business for myself is one of the scariest but most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s hard to quit a good job where you get a paycheck every week and everybody else worries about all the problems. You just come in, do the work and go home. But it’s definitely worthwhile to run your own business, and there are untold rewards. There was a meeting in Hillsborough years ago that I was invited to – they said that I was the first woman to get an electrician license in North Carolina. I’m not positive if that’s true, but I’m sure I’m one of the first few.
How has your business grown over the years?
In 1990, I went into business for myself for a few years. I was still pretty young, and I had a daughter. It was just too hard to run a business and raise a child, so I went back to working for other people. In 2012, I started another business. At first, I ran the business by myself because work was much harder to come by and of course, nobody knew me. I hadn’t been in the field for that long so sometimes I would work for other contractors. But during the last 10 years, it’s been terrific. I’m usually scheduled four to six weeks ahead. We have five employees at the moment. There are three guys working for me, then there’s myself and my wife, [Jennifer Acton,] who runs the entire office and is a CPA.
What would you say is the most challenging part of being a business owner?
One hundred percent the most challenging part is finding good employees. It’s really hard to find good people to work for you who you can trust and have faith in their work.
Has your business been affected by the pandemic?
You know, it certainly has. Last year, we actually closed for two to three months and didn’t do any work because I was afraid that the guys would get sick. We’re so inside people’s houses in their intimate spaces [so] we just decided to close and stay out of people’s homes. Things have picked back up again, and we feel pretty confident. We wear our masks everywhere, there are jugs of hand sanitizer in the trucks, we’re careful and, so far, everything’s been fine.
What is the best lesson you’ve learned as a business owner?
A few things. Your employees are your best asset, the customer is always right and always, no matter if it hurts, do what’s right. When I first opened my business, I got a job and it was a big job for me, a couple thousand bucks. I put all of these parts in a house, and they just didn’t work out. So, instead of arguing with the customer, I just did what was right, and I took them all back.
What is something you want people to know?
One of the things that I would love to see is more women getting into this trade. It’s not hard, there’s no heavy lifting, it pays well, it can be dirty at times, but it’s really rewarding and it’s kind of fun. I go to different people’s houses every day, I meet all these interesting people, and everybody’s always glad to see me because I’m there to fix their problem. Now, people remember me because it’s so unusual to see a woman but we have a stellar reputation. We have to work twice as hard to get half as far but I think that women who run companies are at the top of the game.