For contractors who want to get into or expand their presence in low-voltage work, who better to learn from than contractors who have decades of experience in these kinds of projects? Two such contractors are Robert Ford, Ph.D., P.E., president of Robert Ford Electric Co. and Coulter Engineers, Bryn Mawr, Pa., and Paul Guarracino, president of J.M. Electrical Co. Inc., Lynnfield, Mass.

Robert Ford Electric has been involved in low-voltage work since Ford founded the company in 1976. On the low-voltage side, the company specializes primarily in fire alarm systems, security work and teledata systems. J.M. Electrical has been involved in low-voltage work since it was founded in 1985. In fact, about 95 percent of its work is low-voltage. J.M. Electrical focuses on fire alarms, life safety, building automation, security, total building integration, communications/data and renewable energy.

Ford and Guarracino identify four keys to success in building low-voltage business: developing expertise, creating a niche, focusing on large projects and maintaining an excellent reputation.

Expertise
For J.M. Electrical, an important element of success is having qualified, knowledgeable people who stay up-to-date on all of the new technologies in low-voltage work.

“We do all of our own training,” Guarracino said. He offered four reasons. First, obviously, the company’s work is specialized, and there are few others who could provide the necessary training.

“Second, with hardware and software technologies constantly changing, we can’t rely on anyone else to keep us up-to-date,” he said.

The third reason is that customers demand new types of projects. For example, integration into other systems through networking is a popular request and is becoming a larger part of the company’s business. Some customers want to run a whole building from one computer.

“Finally, we often expand into new technologies,” he said. “For example, we have been getting into renewable-energy projects, including solar.”

Each of J.M. Electrical’s trainers specialize in a certain aspect of the training.

Within the last year, J.M. Electrical completed work on the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“This was a brand-new laboratory building that involved almost every aspect of what we do,” Guarracino said. “There was a lot of very intricate wiring involved.”

Niche
Robert Ford Electric has built its business by specializing in design/build projects. Coulter Engineers is its in-house engineering business.

“Being a design/build company provides us with a competitive advantage,” Ford said. “If a contractor or owner calls, says that they want a fire alarm system or security system installed in a 12-story building, and wants to know what it will cost, we know the codes that are required and everything that has to go into the project. This allows us to come up with a price that we will guarantee, before there is ever a pencil on a drawing.”

Large projects
Robert Ford Electric focuses on large projects in general, which also is true on the low-voltage side of its business.

“We specialize in large, complex and difficult jobs,” Ford said. “For example, our low-voltage fire alarm systems generally tend to be quite large. We also do a good deal of large security work projects and have a large tele-data operation.” Coulter Engineering provides the design and engineering for these systems.

For example, Robert Ford Electric did the fire alarm system at the Comcast Center in Philadelphia. This project included a voice-annunciated, fully automated, state-of-the-art smoke evacuation system in the 57-story, 973-foot-high, 1.5-million-square-foot building. Ford said it was the largest fire alarm system ever in Philadelphia.

Robert Ford Electric also worked on the security system for University of Pennsylvania Health System—Fisher Translational Clinical Center, a 110,000-square-foot clinical research facility. The job’s scope involved all fire alarm equipment and wiring as well as the raceway and boxes for the security, teledata and audiovisual systems.

“We did all of the interlocks for the door security system,” said David Pascoe, senior vice president, Robert Ford Electric/Coulter Engineers.

Reputation
Neither Robert Ford Electric nor J.M. Electrical actively advertises its low-voltage business. Building and maintaining their reputations have taken care of that.

“Since we have been in business, it has all been word of mouth,” Ford said.

“Word of mouth is the best advertising,” Guarracino said.

J.M. Electrical also has a formal quality management process. The company is ISO-certified. It is one of the only contractors in New England with this certification.

“This ensures that we have standard processes throughout all parts of our company, from how we manage financials to how we handle tools,” Guarracino said.

Part of the ISO requirements also includes doing customer surveys. If the company receives less than “excellent” or “good” ratings in every category, it goes back to the customer to find out what the issue was and then address it.

“As a result, we have had steady growth for 26 years,” he said.


ATKINSON has been a full-time business magazine writer since 1976. Contact him at w.atkinson@mchsi.com.