It’s probably a good sign that Daniela Pluess is more frequently asked how old she is than questioned about being a female owner of a residential and commercial electrical company — Empress Electric in Abbotsford, B.C. But there’s still progress to be made, she says, before construction contracting firms are judged entirely on the merit of their work.
“I grew up on the Sunshine Coast and my parents would often buy a house, reno it and flip it,” she says. “My dad would do most of the little work himself and I would help out. Seeing all the construction and being a hands-on person, I loved it.”
Graduating from high school, Pluess enrolled in the BCIT Trades Discovery General program to experience different trades.
“I couldn’t choose between carpentry and electrical,” she says. “But I ultimately decided I’d rather be working indoors most days instead of out in the rain. I also enjoy the mathematical knowledge you have to apply to electrical work.”
Pluess began working her way up through the construction ranks 13 years ago, working for other contractors. When a friend asked her to complete a considerable amount of electrical work on a townhouse, she leveraged the project to launch Empress Electric in summer 2018, serving the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley.
“My bread and butter is residential work, but I also have commercial and industrial clients,” says Pluess. “We do a lot of maintenance work, but not too much new construction.”
Despite a few slow breaks, Pluess says the company has kept busy through its first year. She often puts in 10-hour days. The company’s increasing workloads inspired her to take on a part-time apprentice entering the fourth year of her apprenticeship.
“When I started to look for help, I wanted someone with an existing skillset, not totally green, so that I could let her work independently,” Pluess says. “It’s been great to have another set of hands, but I also appreciate another way of looking at things. We’re more of a team than employer and employee.”
The team’s not-so-silent partner is Sparky, a Wheaten terrier poodle who manages the office.
Pluess says she’s encountering a lot more women in her profession these days — certainly more than when she started to work in the industry. It’s not only evident on jobsites, but at electrical supply depots where Pluess lines up alongside other electricians who are women. However, women who own their own electrical contracting business are still rare.
“I’ve never felt discriminated against in the industry,” she says. “However, as a female I often feel like I have to prove myself — to say, ‘yes, I can lift this heavy object and it doesn’t matter that I’m a girl.’ You feel a pressure to step it up and prove to everyone that you can do it as well as a guy.”
There are also some subtle differences in the way she’s treated by clients, particularly when presenting a project quote.
“If I present a quote to a man, he’s likely to question me way more than if I present a quote to a woman,” she says. “They want me to prove I know what I’m talking about. A woman is more likely to trust me and respect my professional opinion on the project.”
Over the near term, Pluess wants to switch out her pick-up truck for a van so she can carry more electrical supplies. Over the longer term, she’d like to grow Empress Electric to a five- to 10-person company. Some of those future employees may be young women who are currently in school.
“If I had the opportunity to speak them today about construction, I’d let them know that there’s a whole employment world out there where you’re not tied to a computer,” she says. “In a hands-on job like construction, there’s such a great level of satisfaction when you look back at the end of the day with the knowledge that you built something real or made something work. If you have a strong work ethic, there’s money to be made in the trades and you have the opportunity to grow.”