In February 1999, EMJ Corporation, Chattanooga, Tenn., put the electrical portion of the Rivergate Mall (located in Nashville) renovation project out for bid. EMJ is a multi-project general contractor with a national presence.

The owner of the Rivergate Mall is CBL & Associates Properties, Inc., also located in Chattanooga, which owns shopping malls throughout the United States. Harlan Electric, which has grown to nearly $20 million in annual sales with 155 employees including 140 electricians and apprentices, was awarded the $2 million electrical project in March 1999. The decision was based primarily on Harlan's low bid, its 10-year relationship with EMJ, and the company's 30 years of experience performing renovation work at various institutional, industrial, and commercial facilities.

The mall proper, not including the 150 stores or parking lot, measures about 120,000 square feet. Square footage of the entire mall is about 1.2 million square feet, and the whole project was worth about $5 million. Work began on March 15, 1999 and was completed in time for the Christmas shopping season on November 20, 1999. Harlan was responsible for the electrical renovation work throughout the mall, including the fire alarm, sound and paging systems, general and emergency lighting, neon signs, new outside power distribution, and branch circuitry.

New site lighting

For the site lighting in the mall's parking lot, Harlan Electric updated the old security lighting levels from 2-foot candles to 4-foot candles. The damaged or outdated lighting poles were replaced, and new heads with high-pressure sodium light fixtures were installed. Harlan was also responsible for installing eight new entrance signs, each of which was 6 feet high and outfitted with neon lights. "Before we could begin we had to dig up the asphalt and install new conduit with increased wire size and additional circuits to handle the newly designed lighting loads," explains Project Manager Bob Koran Jr. And if the electrical system was going to handle the load of the new site lighting and exit signs, new distribution panels at three different locations also had to be installed. Harlan Electric abandoned the existing panels inside the mall facility, which were located in an area that made maintenance difficult, and installed new panels that could carry loads of 1,000 amps at 277/480 volts.

"This part of the project was negotiated," adds Harlan. Koran and his staff worked constantly with the engineers at EMJ to keep this part of the budget aligned with the customer's needs for site lighting.

Renovating inside

Inside the mall, Harlan's electricians and apprentices first had to cut in new floor boxes for the additional sales kiosks that were being rented. "New branch circuitry and telephone lines were also needed," says Koran. In addition, the new kiosks required a total of 100 receptacles and branch circuitry installed throughout the soffets for any holiday and seasonal decorations that required electricity.

The mall is designed in four separate wings. For each wing, the old light fixtures had to be removed and new floor boxes had to be cut out. "We also had to install temporary lighting as we went, since the mall remained open to shoppers," says Koran. The new general lighting that was installed throughout the mall consisted of a high-pressure sodium system with 3,600 feet of fluorescent uplighting on fixtures suspended from the ceiling by aircraft cable. Harlan also installed a Kohler 40-volt, three-phase, 60 kW emergency generator, designed to deliver enough power to turn on exit signs and provide emergency lighting through each of the mall's four wings.

"The owner also wanted neon lighting installed for a newer, fresher look," says Koran. Harlan fulfilled the customer's requirements by installing 4,600 square feet of neon lighting around the skylights, ceiling mullions, columns, and through the food court. To complete this part of the project, the company had to install step-up high voltage transformers every 50 feet. "We also installed a new power distribution system and replaced 20 old or outdated panels in existing or revised locations," Koran explains. The mall's fire alarm and sound systems were also replaced. Harlan's electricians changed 30 duct sensors for the fire safety system and removed 166 existing sound speakers that were in the way of construction. "We also replaced the speakers as each phase of construction was completed."

The final renovation was to the mall's outdated entrance facades. Harlan installed incandescent and neon lighting for each of the four major entries. The light fixtures were hung directly on steel columns, and it required two electricians to be raised in a boom lift to install them and to run and hide the branch raceways from public view. "All these factors made it necessary that we get it right the first time," Koran says.

Rising to the challenges

As with so many projects, Harlan Electric had to coordinate schedules with other mechanical trades before electricians could install the new, permanent lighting. "We met with the foremen and superintendents from the other trades on a weekly basis to discuss their planned job progress over the following two weeks," says Koran. The teams from each company also communicated daily about logistics, and material delivery and storage.

The largest challenge presented to Harlan during the renovation was working with the mall's old general lighting, which was installed directly into the drywall ceiling. Because of the increased weight of the new lighting, which would now be suspended from aircraft cable, the new fixtures had to be braced. Harlan Electric solved the problem by first laying out the struts on the mall floor, directly under their final location, and then raising them into the ceiling.

Another one of the major challenges met by the company was working in an open commercial facility. "Safety for the public, as well as for our employees, was paramount," says Koran. The public was protected from the electrical installation with barricades, signs, trench plates, and flashing emergency lights.

"Renovation work is inherently more risky," says Koran. The contractor is dealing with many unknown factors, such as how the original builder installed the electrical system and how that system has been maintained. "You must have a good working relationship with the general contractor and its engineers to solve the problems that arise and still stay under budget and complete the project on time."

Doing the job right

"We search for high-quality, skilled, office staff that can make their careers with the company," says President Stephan Harlan. It must be working. Harlan Electric has minimal turnover, and some employees have been with the company for more than 25 years. Harlan believes in the team approach, and "refuses to micromanage employees," although he does expect them to micromanage their jobs. "If everybody approaches their jobs as a team, problems can be solved quickly."

Harlan also extends the team approach to maintaining relationships between the office staff and field personnel. In the field, Harlan tries to match electricians and apprentices with the projects for which they are best suited. To ensure that journeymen and apprentices can perform well on projects, Harlan Electric continually offers its electricians training on new technologies and applications. "We encourage our field personnel to be creative and to try and discover new ways to do the job better, more productively, and more efficiently," Harlan says.

The company also firmly believes in investing the necessary money to provide its electricians with the latest tools they need to perform the work. "The investment in tools and equipment has actually saved a lot of money over the years."

Harlan Electric is dedicated to never missing a deadline when fulfilling its customers' engineering or construction needs. Office staff regularly updates files on customers' facilities so that when the company is called upon to work on a project, it has the latest information on the clients' electrical systems. "By establishing such close working relationships we are able to provide high quality, on-time service," Harlan explains. This viewpoint has also served the company well; a large number of Harlan's customers rely less on price than on quality, reliability, and the knowledge that the job will be completed on time.

Changing with the times

Harlan Electric continually tries to remain on the cutting edge of the latest technologies, not only those required by customers for their installations, but in the latest computer estimating, bidding, and accounting software for the office. "We want to stay at the forefront of the industry and would rather lead in the market than follow," Harlan says.

Harlan Electric's membership in Federated Electrical Contractors (FEC) also allows the company to have a national presence in what is fast becoming a global economy. And when working outside of Tennessee, the company relies heavily on joint ventures. "We have established relationships with dozens of electrical contractors across the U.S. Participating in joint ventures with these contractors gives us the opportunity to learn the best practices of other companies and to present ourselves seamlessly to customers," Harlan explains. Not that the company restricts its participation in joint ventures to out-of-state contracts. "The advantages of such a relationship are the same in our home market."

Harlan Electric has built its business on the philosophy that each potential project must be first examined to determine whether it fits in with the company's goals and present abilities, and whether the staff exists to successfully manage it. "We have no plans to change that philosophy in the future," Harlan says. Actually, because of the labor shortage in the market the company is presently being even more critical in choosing new projects. In planning, Harlan Electric constantly balances growth against risk, with the goal of maintaining margins while slowly increasing volume. "I am comfortable with the size of the company today and prefer to focus on smart growth rather than on large volumes and the accompanying reduced margins," he says.

According to Harlan, what sets the company apart from comparable contractors in the market is the high levels of professionalism displayed by both the field and office staff. "Most of our estimators and project managers have more of an educational background in engineering, which most of our industrial customers require," he says. The company also prefers to focus on more unusual projects to differentiate itself from its competition.

Harlan Electric plans to continue to prosper through its long-term relationships with its industrial customers. "The company has grown with some customers from installing their original traditional electrical systems to updating and upgrading their facilities to include the latest automation, controls, and telecom and teledata technologies," Harlan concludes.

The people

After World War II, H.L. Harlan Sr. returned from Europe and traveled with his brother to Detroit to find whatever work was available in the automotive industry. Answering the call for electricians, Harlan, who had no previous electrical experience, received his training on the job. He eventually moved home to Nashville and began working for Ramsey Electric before buying the company in 1946. Founder John Ramey had served the Nashville area since 1913, working mostly alone on small commercial properties.

Stephan Harlan graduated from Peabody College, Nashville, Tenn., in 1971 with a degree in business administration and an emphasis in marketing. He began working for his father in the warehouse the day after graduation. The younger Harlan learned the business from the ground up, moving from the warehouse into estimating, project management, and field operations before buying the company in 1976 and changing the name to Harlan Electric.

Bob Koran, Jr., joined the Harlan team as a project manager in 1985. He graduated from Ohio University in 1975 with a degree in management and marketing, and has worked for various electrical contracting firms as an estimator and project manager. Koran has performed work on high-rise office buildings, institutional facilities, sporting and arts venues, and government facilities.

The company

Technically, Harlan Electric is not divided into separate divisions. In 1997, however, a distinct group of employees was hired to handle telecommunications and fiber optic projects. "We had always performed that kind of low-voltage work, but as the technology grew more complicated, we realized the need for a dedicated, knowledgeable staff that could fulfill those specific needs for our customers," Harlan says.

A separate service department was also formed to serve the customers that call upon Harlan to provide maintenance services and electrical system upgrades. These customers are primarily large property owners with multiple properties, such as malls, parking facilities, and other public buildings. Mark Kelly, project manager, oversees the operation, which provides 24 x 7 emergency service. Kelly worked as a journeyman electrician at Harlan for eight years in the service department. He was promoted to warehouse manager in 1990, and moved into his current position in 1997.

The company also maintains a branch office in Spring Hill, Tenn., to service General Motors' Saturn production plant. A dedicated crew of 30 electricians performs maintenance, renovation work, and new installations on projects such as automation and conveyor systems, robotics, and telecommunications systems.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to Electrical Contractor. She can be reached at (410) 394-6966 or by e-mail at dbremer@erols.com.