Heavy industry hasn’t disappeared; rather, it has been adapted and modernized to make products as diverse as chemicals, steel, airplanes, and beer more efficient and economical than ever. The electrical contractors’ role in heavy industry is still to use new materials and technologies to bring electrical energy where it is needed.

Although some heavy-industry plants remain hot, dirty, and dangerous, the need for very cold or super-clean facilities is increasing, due to the nature of the products. Many old plants have been rebuilt and laced with hundreds of miles of cables, cable trays, and fiber optics. In new and retrofitted plants alike, the communication, lighting, robotics, security, and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems often are monitored and controlled from a remote central location.


Electrical contractors serving industrial clients must perform assignments right the first time, often in less-than-ideal conditions.

“One major difference between commercial, institutional, and heavy-industrial work is that industrial projects require an almost instantaneous build-up of workers,” said Robert J. Corsiglia, president and CEO of JWP/Hyre, Highland, Ind. “We may add 150 or more workers a week.” Corsiglia said that managing quick growth is challenging when you are using union workers with enormously different skill levels and backgrounds. “Workers will do what you tell them, but managers have to be on top of the job.”

Corsiglia suggested electrical contractors wishing to establish an industrial niche should purchase an existing company to diffuse start-up costs and the time required to develop infrastructure, manpower pools, and management teams.


“New project managers entering the field with bachelor and MBA degrees come to us with good basic knowledge,” Corsiglia said, “but on-the-job work experience still is necessary to understand and estimate projects. We regularly recruit graduates from local colleges and universities, including Purdue University’s building-construction program, to train to be project managers. We prefer graduates with a broader background than the traditional engineering curriculum, including accounting, economics, and writing-communications skills.”

Paul F. McConnell, president and general manager of Norfolk Electric Inc., in Boston often speaks to high-school groups and school counselors about electrical contracting opportunities.

Richmond-based Chewning & Wilmer, Inc., is a privately held company. “We’re unusual in that we have done electrical design-and-build from the inception of our company,” said William A. Powell, Jr., president and chief operating officer.

The firm evolved from residential to commercial to industrial. Now with seven wholly owned divisions, Chewning & Wilmer designs and custom builds UL-approved electrical controls and instrumentation panels—often with programmable controllers—for its own clients and those of other electrical contractors.

“We specialize in power control and instrumentation that requires special employee training and skills,” Powell said. “Our electricians learn how to calibrate clients’ instruments and do functional testing.”

Chewning & Wilmer, which has served Philip Morris, is responsible for custom control panel fabrication and installation; instrumentation; electrical and mechanical construction; electrical-power distribution equipment installation; motor-control centers; lighting, telephone, data communications, and public address systems; closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems; programmable logic control (PLC) panels; computer-communications systems; process motor controls, and more.

“Typically we learn and reinforce our knowledge as we work for these and other clients,” Powell said. “Technical work is always done in a rush. By contract, work often is expected to be completed by a certain time and date. We often work around the clock.”

For Nelson Electric Co., “Cedar Rapids [Iowa] has a diverse economy that includes banking and financial services,” said President John J. Negro. “Generally, our business volume is about 65 percent commercial, 15 percent industrial, 15 percent voice/data/video, and five percent residential.”

For about six years, Nelson has provided full electrical-contracting service to The Quaker Oats Co.’s large Cedar Rapids plant. “Our Quaker Oats responsibilities include installation of new low-voltage cable, system integration, and general maintenance,” Negro said. “We assist them in all plant design and redesign. The Quaker project requires a lot of teamwork and effort to make sure equipment installation and alignment are perfect. The plant is 98 percent automated, with process controls and high-speed packaging.”

Nelson’s responsibilities for Goss Graphic Systems, Inc., a printing-press manufacturer, include general plant maintenance, assembly-line preparation, and new machine installations.

Superior Electric of Neenah, Wisc., is a division of Michels Pipe Line Construction, Inc., in Brownsville, Wisc. “Heavy industry is about 25 percent of our business,” Gerald W. Schulz, Superior’s vice president, said. Superior primarily serves regional industrial clients. “Our client base includes most of the nearby paper mills.” For example, Combined Locks includes a 270,000-square-foot building; in excess of $9.5 million in labor, materials, and equipment; and over 190,000 man-hours.

“For all the paper mills, we’re responsible for new and retrofit construction, instrumentation, lighting and power control, and rebuilding equipment to bring it up to new industry standards.”

This work includes rebuilding machinery and installing PLCs around hot water and steam. Two full-time employees are dedicated to a safety program.

“We’re not just a traditional electrical company,” Schulz said. “Our line-construction division brings high-voltage transmission lines right into a substation we built. Our Superior Technologies division installs and maintains fiber optic lines, voice/data/video, speaker systems, and fire alarms.”

Hyre Indiana today has 40 inside employees and nearly 250 outside ones. “Depending on projects, our outside employee number can go as high as 500,” Corsiglia said. “Our business is about 50 percent industrial. We consider our trained labor force part of our company. We are able to make successful bids in our home area because we have a constant proven labor force we can keep, and we know our labor cost.

Hyre often has demanding schedules. For self-protection, the firm tracks every job daily and compares accomplishments with expectations. Progress is analyzed weekly, which provides an opportunity to anticipate, then solve problems.

“Sometimes, even given our best efforts, another trade works slower than anticipated or the owner changes his mind,” said Corsiglia. “If either happens, we have detailed documentation of our efforts, which is important if extra funds are required, or to avoid paying penalties for circumstances beyond our control.”

Hyre finds new work by reading referrals at the project owner’s request, and through contacts with general contractors who ask the firm to join their team and file a joint bid.

Bell Electrical Contractors, Inc., is owned and managed by founders James C. and Carolyn Pavelec. This Maryland Heights, Mo., company, a Bell subsidiary, specializes in design, installation, and servicing of integrated security, safety, voice/data/video, and fiber optic cabling systems.

“In the beginning, we mainly did commercial and residential work,” said James C. Pavelec, Bell Electrical’s president of operations. “Our general contractors on commercial projects also were doing industrial work. When they thought we could handle the work, they asked us to join their bid efforts.

“For the last 10 years, we have provided services to industry clients, a small prequalified list of subcontractors that general contractor Rhodey & Sons Construction Company uses for projects with Mallinckrodt Inc., a manufacturer and marketer of medical products. At Mallinckrodt, we recently installed Category 5 cables and fiber optics in an enclosed ‘clean’ laboratory testing facility.” Bell provided power, lighting, a fire-alarm system, instrumentation, and control wiring for production.

President Ronald A. Bange and CEO David E. Nichols, Sequoya Electric’s founders, sold the Kirkland, Wash., company in July 1999 to Encompass Services Corporation, a national firm based in Houston, Texas. It provides electrical, mechanical, janitorial, and full-contractor services to heavy industries.

Before founding Sequoyah, Bange said, “We worked on many major Boeing projects before we started our own business. One of our strengths as a company is our skilled electricians. We have a cadre of electricians who understand their work, and the importance of following safety standards and meeting our clients’ deadlines. Gregory J. Evans and Jeffrey J. Hupp have been with Sequoyah since the beginning and are now our foremen.”

Sequoyah faces the major expense of providing low-voltage test equipment for several crews at multiple work sites. “For a communications client, we install Category 5 and fiber optic cables and back-up battery systems,” said Nichols. “There is a growing need from all the Seattle-area dot.coms for trained fiber optic electricians.”

Mike Russell founded Valley Electric, then 15 years later, Rex A. Ferry purchased Valley and added residential, commercial, and industrial work for the automotive and steel industries. “Generally we have about 23 office workers and about 50 in the field but, depending on projects, that can grow as high as 300,” he said.

One of Valley’s clients, the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, manufactures Chevrolet Cavaliers. “From 1993 to 1996, we helped install wiring to new and upgraded stamping plant at the Lordstown Stamping Plant, and pulled new Category 5 cabling and fiber optics,” Ferry said. “During rewiring, we kept the plant operating while we took down wiring and relocated production to install new machines, then tied the new machinery back into existing production lines.”

Other Valley clients include several Ohio steel mills. “Most of the steel-mill projects involved installing new power supplies, setting controls, and starting up the equipment,” said Ferry. “We have renovated existing steel mills, torn out existing equipment, and wiring, and installed miles of new cabling and microprocessors. Each area of the mills required different applications. We have worked with clients’ and manufacturers’ engineers to install new systems and make them function. We still install old conduit and hard-wire applications in hot areas of the steel plants. Depending on what is required, we pull new Category 5 wires to existing hardware.”

Ferry said it is difficult to find people willing to obtain special certification, work in dirty conditions, and travel a great deal. Other problems include the cost of staff training on new tools and equipment and their safe use.

Other safety training includes certification on fall protection. Anyone who climbs over six feet is trained to know when and how to put on a body harness and how to tie off to a safe point, such as a bar joist. All employees with industrial clients are required to take and pass a 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) course.

“Serving heavy-industry accounts requires being financially sound, having a good bank, and being able to offset your payroll cost because industrial accounts generate a lot of overtime and often take up to 60 days to pay,” said Ferry.

Tools are another expense, when the crew size jumps from 40 to 100 practically overnight.

Automotive and steel clients expect their electrical contractors to work long hours and during holidays.

Boston-based Norfolk Electric Inc.’s President and General Manager Paul F. McConnell explained: “Back in the 1960s and 1970s, Norfolk worked on Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority (MBTA) mass-transportation projects. A large portion of what we are doing now is repeat business. Today we have an office staff of 15 to 20 and a field staff of about 150.”

Norfolk clients/projects in the Boston area include Bentley College, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the $3 billion Boston Harbor Project of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority’s new Ted Williams Tunnel and Central Artery/Tunnel Project.

“In recent years we have taken a lot of new training to qualify to bid on the new high-tech traffic control project. Our goals are to be the best, not the biggest, and to have the financial underpinnings as well as the technical expertise to adjust to the dynamic changes in electrical contracting,” McConnell said.

“Most of our employees are as familiar with a computer keyboard as they are with long-nose pliers and twisting cables. We’ve contacted the manufacturers of new high-tech equipment and some of their representatives have come to speak about voice/data/video transfer.”

Mary Ann Cataldo, president and CEO of Boston-based City Lights Electrical Company Inc., said, “We started taking work everyone else considered undesirable. We did something no one else then offered, a customer-service approach to commercial maintenance and renovations, when everyone else wanted to build monuments.”

The company is working on a dozen Central Artery Tunnel Projects, two major MBTA projects, and an intelligent transportation-management project for Honeywell/Allied Signal of Baltimore, Md., part of the MTA projects.

Construction Manager Michael V. Defee of Gold Crest Electric Company, Inc., of Beumont, Texas, oversees the day-to-day estimating and production operations. “We have an office staff of about 25 and average about 150 in the field,” he said. “Our diverse work takes us all over southeast Texas. We serve residential, commercial, and petrochemical-industry clients. We provide full-service electrical support to our petrochemical clients, including construction of new buildings and power and lighting, instrumentation, and fiber optics for security and voice/ data/video (VDV).

“We have formed a five-year partnering agreement with Motiva Enterprises, one of our petrochemical clients, to provide electrical/instrumentation services. Motiva Enterprises is a joint venture established in 1998 by Texaco, Shell Oil Company, and Saudi Aramco to three refineries. We do all of Motiva’s electrical and instrumentation work. Its engineering firm develops the drawings and contract documents, which they issue to us. We look at the drawings, and prepare an estimate and a budget price to complete the project. If at the end of the job we’re able to save man-hours, we split the profits from the unused man-hours. If there is a cost overrun, they pay only 50 percent of the overrun from a labor standpoint but continue to pay all the material costs.

“We also partner with our supply vendors, and on some jobs with a general contractor. These contracts are written to make the general contractor more diligent. If one of us fails, it costs us all; if we succeed, we all benefit.”

The “Big Dig”

Norfolk Electric Inc. and City Lights Electrical Company Inc. (one of the oldest electrical-contracting firms in the Boston area and one of the newest) are constructing the two-mile-long Central Artery/Tunnel Project popularly called the “Big Dig.”

Started in the mid-1990s, the project is expected to last 14 years and radically change the regional traffic pattern of downtown Boston. It includes the 1 3/5-mile-long Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor; the Central Artery tunnel under the Metropolitan Boston Transit Authority’s subway Red Line; a new electric-bus line in the Transitway tunnel from South Station to South Boston; and a new 1,457-foot-long, 10-lane Charles River bridge connection to Interstate Highway 93 and Massachusetts Route 1. Their work includes an operations-control center (OCC) in south Boston, which is designed to use Intelligent Transportation Systems equipment requiring miles of traditional and fiber optic cables. From the OCC, Massachusetts Turnpike Authority employees will monitor the system’s downtown ramps, surface highways, tunnels, and Interstate Highway 90 (the Massachusetts Turnpike).

“The ‘Big Dig’ is a $12.2-billion project, mostly underground, with billions of dollars in over-runs. It is supposed to be done by 2006,” Norfolk Electric, Inc.’s President and General Manager Paul F. McConnell said.

Other Boston-area electrical contractors working on the Big Dig have included Fishbach and Moore Electric, LLC, and Mass Electric Construction Company.

LEPOSKY is a freelance writer based in Miami. She can be reached at releposky@aol.com.