Expanding Into Industrial Work
Electrical contractors that specialize in residential and/or commercial work experience a lot of challenges, but also a lot of rewards. For those “intrepid” contractors who are looking for more, both in terms of challenges and rewards, industrial work may hold the answer.
One company that has been successfully expanding into this type of work is SECCO Inc., Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, which has about 32 field employees in its ECS (Electrical Construction & Service) division.
“Industrial work hasn’t always been foreign to us,” said Bruce Seilhammer, ECS Group Manager at SECCO. There have been a number of ways the company has expanded into industrial work.
“A lot of our work over the years has been based on relationships,” he said. “Because of our involvement in some local business and professional associations, we had some opportunities to connect with facility managers, owners, presidents, and other industrial facility executives.” This has led to some opportunities for the company in the last few years, and it has been following up on those leads.
Much of the industrial work the company does involves projects for local foundry facilities. “These are often harsh, dirty environments with high temperatures, or even extremely cold temperatures, which are hard on a lot of electrical equipment,” said Seilhammer. This environment ends up creating more work over time, in that equipment, wiring, etc. often need to be replaced.
“We also found that some of our field guys were showing a lot of interest in the work, because they really enjoyed the challenges of the work,” he said. “Industrial work involves more than just running conduit and wire, as is the case in a typical commercial office building. It’s a bit different when you get into motor controls and automation, and some of our guys really enjoy those challenges.”
Currently, about 10 percent of the company’s work is industrial. Most of the remainder is in the heavy commercial end.
“We do a wide array of industrial work,” said Seilhammer. “Besides motor controls and automation, a lot of industrial facilities have their own medium-voltage onsite, so we end up doing a lot of testing and preventive maintenance on their distribution centers.” Another difference between commercial and industrial work is that the latter often involves more threaded conduit, whether it’s IMC (intermediate metal conduit) or rigid conduit.
In terms of field people, SECCO has its “go to” guys who do most of the industrial work. “They are very tuned into the work and know our customer base very well,” he said. “However, on larger projects, we might get some of our other team members involved as well.”
In fact, according to Seilhammer, the most important key to its success in getting repeat work is the quality of the “guys on the front line,” both in terms of education and attitude.
“We are a big advocate of education, and we want the guys to add value to themselves, so they can add value to the company,” he said. “This involves internal training, external training, and vendor training.” Internally, the company has SECCO University, which provides extensive training. “We also have 18 licensed masters on staff,” said Seilhammer.
Second is attitude. “Our guys are in front of the customer every day, and because of their professionalism and best practices, customers want to continue to use us,” he said. “Our guys in the field really do work hard to build and maintain professional relationships with customers.”
OLSSON INDUSTRIAL ELECTRIC, INC.
Olsson Industrial Electric, Inc., Springfield, Oregon, is another IEC member that has achieved success in industrial work. “My father, ‘Ole’ Olsson, started the business in 1985 as an industrial contractor,” said Ike Olsson, president. “He was encouraged by some of his good customers to start a merit shop business that specialized in industrial work.” Prior to 1985, “Ole” was an industrial manager for a union shop based in Eugene, Oregon. In the early 1990s, the company made the decision to start a UL 508A panel shop to perform integration work as well as construction. “In 2005, we decided to integrate engineering into our operation as well,” he said. “Both of these decisions have turned out to be very positive for our company.”
There have been many challenges along the way, though. The first challenge was finding competent industrial electricians. “When we started our business, the Mid-Oregon chapter of the IEC was not yet formed,” said Olsson. “Contractors in the Eugene and Springfield area spent countless hours to make the chapter a reality. Ole Olsson, Fred Witkup, Jack Reynolds, and Phil Rose, to name a few, were personally engaged to ensure the success of the merit shops in the area.”
The company has also encountered other challenges along the way, such as breaking into union-dominated industries, training and education requirements, bonding and financial stability requirements, and employee retention. “To ensure that we are able to attract and retain the best employees, we implemented profit sharing plans as well as bonuses, 401K plans, and health benefits,” said Olsson.
How does industrial work differ from commercial work? One difference in industrial work is the tooling requirements related to galvanized rigid steel conduit (GRC) or PVC-coated GRC conduit systems. Another is that work takes place in manufacturing facilities, where equipment is in operation. “In addition, working around plant shutdown schedules also means that working on holidays and weekends are the norm for us,” he said. Furthermore, the work environments are more challenging, such as working around chemicals, steam, sawdust, and other materials. There is also a lot of high-voltage work, and the work is done on the surface, where it is exposed.
According to Olsson, commercial environments tend to be cleaner and different types of materials are used, such as EMT conduit systems and light-duty hardware. In addition, the work is concealed in ceilings or walls. Finally, commercial work involves more repetition.
There are some similarities between industrial and commercial work, though, including communication systems, underground distribution systems, the distribution equipment that is used, and security system wiring.
What have been the keys to success for Olsson Industrial Electric over the past ten years? Olsson identified four. “One is our willingness to take on risky projects,” he said. “This includes hydroelectric dam conversions and distributed control system conversions in industrial facilities. We have also been able to take on projects that have short time windows with large manpower requirements.” A second is the company’s in-house ability to handle detailed design engineering and control integration. “This provides our customers with one-stop for coordination on projects,” he said. A third is the decision to diversify across a number of industries, including power generation, pulp and paper, chemical, pharmaceutical, aerospace, wood products, and hydroelectric. The final key to success is the willingness of the company’s people to travel throughout the six western states to take care of customer needs.
With a customer-focused attitude and dedication to excellence, SECCO and Olsson have found industrial work to be worth the effort to get to the rewards.
William Atkinson is a freelance writer with experience in the construction and contracting industries.