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Semper Utilities' CEO, Mike Diaz, has more than 30 years of experience in the utility industry with work in distribution, transmission and subway utilities. Harrison Brink
Semper Utilities' CEO, Mike Diaz, has more than 30 years of experience in the utility industry with work in distribution, transmission and subway utilities. Harrison Brink

The Wiz Behind Semper Utilities

Mike Diaz, CEO and founder of Semper Utilities, has led  the way for diversity in a preponderantly white industry.

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The road to entrepreneurial success has been long and steady for Mike Diaz, a former veteran who worked his way up in the utilities world. 

Reaching the summit of an industry in which people of color are in the distinct minority is no easy feat, and Diaz emphasizes the importance of helping others like him in overcoming barriers to success.

In an exclusive interview with AL DÍA, Diaz talked about his career and the learning process that allowed him to break the glass ceiling.

Diaz started Semper Utilities because he saw a need in the industry to provide professional, safe and cost-effective utility construction services.    Harrison Brink
The Fundamental Pillar

While enjoying a well-deserved vacation in his native Puerto Rico with his family, the Semper Utilities Founder and CEO reflected on his role as a Latino business leader in the predominantly white utilities contracting space.

“When I first started in this industry, it was 99.9% white. That is slowly changing, and I hope to help more Latinos and other people of color gain the skills to succeed in this business,” he said.

Diaz says that he grew up in a strict Puerto Rican household.

“If anyone has Caribbean parents, then you know exactly what I mean,” he said.

“If anyone has Caribbean parents, then you know exactly what I mean,” he said.

“My parents, along with various aunts and uncles, came here when I was a year old. Imagine coming to the United States in the late ’60s, at the tail end of Jim Crow, not really speaking the language, and arriving here with nothing more than a strong work ethic,” he said. “That is what my family instilled in their children: A strong work ethic. I am proud of that.”

Diaz says that it is those humble beginnings that led him to join the Marine Corps.

“I wanted to serve my country and to do so with a team that strives to always get the job done. As a Marine, you are the first one there and the last one out. It is a philosophy and way of life that has served me well in my career outside of the military,” he said.

After a stint in the Marines, Diaz sought his first job in the utilities industry — as a janitor.

“I interviewed first as a janitor and moved my way up to journeyman/lineman. From there I moved up to a supervisor, and just kept climbing up that ladder.”

Diaz says that at the time, there were very few Hispanics in the utilities industry, but he was undeterred, thanks to the early lessons instilled in him by his family.

“My parent’s lessons in my head, their love in my heart, and my training in the Marines would not allow me to fail. It was this drive that pushed me to start my own business,” he said.

After years working his way up in public utilities, eventually earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree at night while working full-time, Diaz became an industry executive. But he wasn’t satisfied with being a leader in someone else’s organization, and in 2017, decided to become an entrepreneur.

“I wanted to create a business where I could create jobs for other young people from backgrounds similar to mine. Young people with lots of brains, dreams, and aspirations but perhaps not a lot of options,” Diaz explained. “It was a dream, but not a comfortable one. It meant giving up a secure, cushy salary and a very comfortable life. I thought it over not once or twice but a hundred times. I had naysayers in my ear telling me I was crazy for even thinking about it.”

 Diaz says it was the example set by his father, and the choices he had made in his life, that finally made him take the plunge into entrepreneurship. His own father became an entrepreneur later in life, and he followed that same example. He now hopes to help other Latino would-be entrepreneurs become successes, too.

Diaz prides himself on having a team of highly experienced personnel with an in-depth knowledge of industry regulations and safety controls.    Harrison Brink
 Semper in the Community

Semper has partnered with PECO Energy and Concilio, a Latino social services agency in Philadelphia, to create mentorship and education programs to train the next generation of utilities workers — and eventually leaders, like himself. These programs will train apprentices for trade jobs and help them pass certifying examinations, such as the CAST test. 

Diaz explains that Semper, PECO, and Concilio will jointly administer the program, providing intensive support in building the requisite math and English language skills necessary to succeed.

“The program we have designed and will work hand in hand with Concilio on is an Apprentice Action Plan. We will have PECO Energy administer a diagnostic CAST test to the candidates, then we’ll review those results and proceed accordingly with tutoring. The deficient areas are normally math and English, and we have volunteers that will help the candidates to improve in these specific areas, so they can pass the CAST, “ he said

Once the test is passed, says Diaz, the apprentice can immediately become a groundsman for Semper. They also will be part of the PECO candidate pool for open positions in the community, with the ultimate goal of increasing average salaries and a road to success for Latino and African American utilities workers.

Reaching the point in his career in which helping fellow Latinos would be even possible was a daunting task, sometimes riddled with significant financial challenges, Diaz said.

“When I started, these people thought I was going through a mid-life crisis. Many others discouraged me from pursuing such an ambitious goal, but my close circle of friends and family and I believed it could be done. I persisted even when I was down to my last hundred and fifty dollars, and sold my personal truck to make payroll. Things got so lean last year, that I had to choose between buying the boys’ school clothes or buying groceries.” Last year but then the next couple of graphs says its a success? Check that quote. 

Fortunately, says Diaz, his resilience, as well as strong relationships with leaders in the utilities industry helped carry him forward.

Diaz and his team encourage the use of modern technology to assist their clients in order to expand visual capabilities while providing real-time status updates on current projects.  Gettyimages
 Reaching the top

While Diaz’s training and philanthropic work are admirable, so, too is his company’s success. 

Semper Utilities is a leading utility construction company providing distribution, transmission, and underground services. Established in 2017, it secured its first project in 2018. Since then, Semper’s revenue has increased substantially. In 2019, sales were $4.5 million, and so far in 2020, sales have exceeded $20 million.

Semper is proud to be the Contractor of Choice (COC) for PECO, BGE, and Atlantic City Electric. Some of Semper’s other clients include Delmarva Power, ComEd, American Water, SouthernCo, NYSEG, Entergy, and more.

“We’re set for a record number of clients in 2021,” says Diaz.

Semper has recently opened a civil services division and is currently performing a major project for PECO. The company was just approved by American Water to perform this work, and also plans to expand into the Florida, Virginia, and New York markets with these services.

“A large portion of the work we have done this year is storm restoration – very challenging conditions. We’ve worked across the country — completing projects in places like Louisiana, Chicago, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Long Island, Delaware, and Maryland,” Diaz explained.

Semper has been a self-funded venture since its inception, says Diaz, reflecting the inequitable access to capital that has often plagued minority-owned businesses.

“I was self-funded, not by choice but by necessity,” he admits. “I tried to obtain funding elsewhere but although I had great credit, a good education, etc., funding in the traditional arena was non-existent. I cashed out my retirement funds and followed my dream, because I felt making an impact in the Latino community was what I was put here for, it was my calling.”

Making that impact, and creating Latino representation in the utilities industry required Diaz to take bold steps.

“When I worked in the utilities, I always talked about making the workforce more reflective of the community it served, so when I founded Semper, I had to literally put my money where my mouth was,” he said.

Semper Utilities is a minority- and veteran-owned company. Along with the guidance of their CEO, they are a team of highly trained and experienced individuals who have a strong set of morals and ethics to help provide the highest level of safety, professionalism and quality to employees, partners and customers.  Harrison Brink
A word of advice

 After experiencing one of the most complicated years in recent decades, and as the company takes its first steps into 2021, Diaz reflects on the journey that has brought him here.

“My father taught me the value of hard work, and of helping others. That’s been a recipe for our success, and we’ll keep lifting others up as we climb higher ourselves,” he said.

“My father taught me the value of hard work, and of helping others. That’s been a recipe for our success, and we’ll keep lifting others up as we climb higher ourselves,” he said.

And just as his hard work and help are lifting other Latinos into opportunity, he has the helping hand of others to thank, in part, for his.

 “My team and close circle of friends have lifted me when I was at my lowest, and we wouldn’t be here without their collective efforts,” he said. “I also have Philadelphia-area utilities leaders to thank. PECO didn’t just tall the talk about supporting diverse companies — they gave us breath and life, we wouldn’t be here today without them providing guidance and an opportunity.”

As a final piece of advice to fellow Latino entrepreneurs, Diaz urges his trademark blend of determination and support for others.

“I would say never stop believing or working for your dreams. We were put here as leaders to create a path for others, guide, create opportunity and generational wealth in our communities.” 

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