While some contractors start out doing traditional work and then expand into low-voltage, others actually begin in low-voltage work and stick with it.
Advent Systems, Elmhurst, Ill., employs more than 100 people in Chicago, Dallas, and Little Rock, Ark.
Advent, which has done low-voltage work from the start, began business in 1994. Prior to that, it was part of a company called JWP, and before that, it was a part of Gibson Electric & Technology Solutions.
Advent’s low-voltage work includes security, closed-circuit television (CCTV), network cabling, voice/data networks, audio/video, sound masking, sound reinforcement and paging systems.
“However, our primary specialty is security,” said Paul Seben, vice president.
Advent works closely with clients throughout the process, including CAD, project engineering, construction, installation, training, and ongoing maintenance and support. Maintenance contracts are a big part of Advent’s business.
“We have probably more than 300 maintenance contracts,” he said.
They include preventive maintenance contracts and repair contracts.
The company has never had a problem finding qualified employees. In fact, most people who want to work for Advent call to seek employment or in response to ads the company places in newspapers. Instead, finding new business is always an emphasis for the company.
“We advertise on our website. We also have a lot of salespeople, and they are beating the bushes constantly,” Seben said.
However, the company’s widespread reputation makes finding business easier than it might be for some other low-voltage contractors.
“We are probably the oldest and largest low-voltage company in the Chicago area,” he said.
It seems that people talk to each other, so when someone needs low-voltage work, they talk to someone they know, who may recommend Advent Systems.
When explaining its services, the company focuses on face-to-face meetings.
“We will also take [customers] to visit sites where we have performed work in the past, so they can talk to our other customers,” Seben said.
Advent is also working to expand its geographical territory. For example, its Dallas office seeks work throughout Texas, and its Arkansas office does work in Oklahoma and New Mexico. From the Chicago office, Advent works in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Of course, as with any company, Advent finds keeping up with technology to be a challenge.
“As far as we are concerned, the low-voltage business keeps growing and continues to merge more and more into the IT [information technology] world,” Seben said. “In fact, virtually all of our systems are being run through the IT part of the customer’s business.”
The company started out with a single IT employee in 1994. It now has eight.
“We spend a fortune every year training and retraining,” Seben said.
Advent does some of this training in-house. However, much of it is specific to individual systems that the company installs, so vendors provide it.
Advent’s strategies continue to pay off.
Southland Electric Co. Inc., Birmingham, Ala., started in business doing low-voltage work in 1977.
“When Honeywell and Johnson Controls got out of the installation business, there was a need in Birmingham, so I decided to fill that need and go in and install their equipment,” said Michael McCain, president. “We now also do installations for Siemens.”
These days, low-voltage work represents 75 to 80 percent of Southland’s business. The biggest share is temperature control installations. It also does a lot of fire alarms, CCTV and access control. Voice/data is only 10 percent. It also does some lighting control system work. Southland doesn’t handle maintenance contracts and leaves most service work to the manufacturers.
However, most of the company’s work comes from repeat business, so it has had to do very little advertising.
“We have had a lot of the same customers for the 35 years we’ve been in business,” he said.
McCain has also gotten to know mechanical contractors through his company’s work, so Southland sometimes works directly for the mechanicals. In some situations, such as fire alarm work, the company will bid as a prime contractor.
The key to success in doing low-voltage work for 35 years, according to McCain, is to know everything about the business.
“When bidding electrical work, all you need to know is what is on the drawing,” he said. “Though, when we do temperature control work, we not only need to know our job, but we need to understand the HVAC systems.”
When McCain began his company, he was fortunate enough to have some employees who had worked with Honeywell, so they already understood the business.
At this point, McCain sees no need to chase more work.
“We have naturally had a slow, steady growth over the last 35 years,” he said. “Despite the economy, we have been fortunate. We have stayed relatively busy over the last few years. In fact, the economy has probably worried me more than it has hurt us.”