Kelso-Burnett Prepares for Its 2nd Century

By Darlene Bremer | Sep 15, 2002
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Since James Kelso and Oliver Burnett started pulling wire through the old gas pipes in downtown Chicago for electricity, almost a century has passed. "Founded in 1908, Kelso-Burnett Co. is one of the oldest electrical contractors in Chicago and one of the first members of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA),” pointed out Jim Kostek, president.

Through decades of dedication and service to its industrial, utility, commercial and institutional customers, Kelso-Burnett has grown into a company with average annual sales of $80 million, 510 highly trained electricians and communication technicians in the field, and 70 office employees who provide administrative, engineering, management and design support.

Designing the future

In 1999, Pepper Construction Co., Chicago, invited Kelso-Burnett to submit a design and electrical construction proposal to install a system for the corporate headquarters facility being built in Naperville, Ill., by Tellabs Operations, Inc. The company, which designs and provides telecommunication infrastructures and systems solutions for its customers, was moving its headquarters from Lyle, Ill., and wanted to occupy the new facility by December 2001.

“We believe we were invited to bid on the project because of our long-standing relationship with Pepper and because we are one of the largest electrical contractors in the area with a reputation for meeting the challenges of design and construction of complicated and sophisticated electrical systems,” said Perry Manago, project manager.

Kelso-Burnett has a great deal of experience installing high-end electrical systems for large corporations, utilities, and other institutional and commercial operations. For instance, for W.W. Grainger, in Vernon Hills, Ill., Kelso-Burnett installed the entire power distribution and security and fire alarm systems for the company’s newly constructed corporate headquarters. In addition, Commonwealth Edison relies on Kelso-Burnett for a variety of projects, from electrical construction to modernization of instruments and controls. “Keeping pace with the changing needs of our clients, whether large or small, has been our hallmark,” said Kostek.

When completed, Tellabs’ 857,000-square-foot headquarters, which is on 55 acres, will consist of two five-story towers with a two-story connecting atrium, and two three-story parking structures. In addition, several ground-level parking lots are strategically situated throughout the site.

Kelso-Burnett and the rest of the team (Midwest Mechanical, Willowbrook, Ill.; architects TMA Affinity Corporation, Arlington Heights, Ill.; OWP & P Engineers, Inc., Chicago; and consulting engineers JGW Associates, Inc. and Engineering Plus, Schaumburg, Ill.) started the design phase of the project in November 1999. “The team met weekly with the customer between November and construction start up in April 2000 to determine their needs for the facility, how it would be used, and their goals in what they wanted to achieve in terms of aesthetics and productivity,” said Manago.

The 20-month construction schedule required a continual design process, with Tellabs being an active partner in the building’s design from the beginning. “The initial design was for the shell and core of the facility. The development of the interior design evolved as the project progressed,” Manago said.

Various factors were involved in the company being awarded this contract. One, according to Manago, was probably the comfort level that the construction manager, Pepper, had with Kelso-Burnett because of the relationship the two companies have developed over the years. Another factor was how aggressively Kelso-Burnett pursued the project, as it offered the company a valuable opportunity to expand its operations into a new geographical market. “The companies we competed against were quite worthy, with similar levels of capabilities and resources,” he stressed.

The total contract value for the project was about $120 million, with the electrical portion worth about $15 to $20 million to Kelso-Burnett. The company estimates that an average of 40 electricians will be on site, with peak requirements of manpower reaching 70 electricians.

Building new systems

Generally, Kelso-Burnett was responsible for installing a complete power-distribution system throughout the entire Tellabs facility. The company also installed general power and lighting systems, and provided power for the mechanical systems and the critical back-up power distribution systems, including back-up generators and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems. Also included in the package was lighting control and exterior lighting installation, as well as some decorative and directional lighting for the ground-level parking lots. Company electricians also installed the low-voltage raceway system, including the cable trays that ran throughout the facility.

“The design of the facility incorporates the customer’s requirement that the building never, ever lose power,” said Manago. The site itself is fed from two separate power grids, and each building has an automatic throwover switch to ensure that if the utility company does experience an outage at one of its substations, the site will be automatically fed electricity from another substation on one of the two grids. All of which would appear seamless to the customer.

Two back-up power generators, one dedicated to life safety, the other to maintaining the facility’s data center, were also designed to ensure no loss of power. In addition, the data center is protected by two 100 percent redundant UPS systems. Nothing short of a nuclear blast should be able to stop electricity from getting to the building and its vital systems.

The power distribution system installed throughout the building was designed to be more flexible than is normally found in corporate headquarters to accommodate moving research and development labs. “The system had to be flexible enough to place the labs wherever Tellabs wanted without having to do any major retrofit work to accommodate the new location,” said Manago. Kelso-Burnett used copper bus duct risers sized not only for general office load requirements, but also for the extra load required by the unique power demands of research laboratories.

Rising to the challenge

Keeping to the construction schedule proved to be Kelso-Burnett’s major challenge for the Tellabs project. “We had five months to discover what the customer’s needs were, incorporate them into the design, and begin the construction process to ensure the scheduled completion date,” said Manago. Using its previous experience of performing fast-track, high-voltage electrical installations, the company and its electricians hit the ground running. By developing detailed schedules that took into account the customer’s specific design needs and closely coordinating the electricians’ activities, Kelso-Burnett successfully achieved its goals. “Our initial goal was to get the shell and core design completed so construction could start, and then we began designing the interior office space and power distribution and lighting systems as outside construction progressed,” Manago said.

Because the design and construction processes occurred simultaneously, the company was challenged to maintain the pace of the design process while the general contractor performed construction. “Design was an ongoing process that needed to stay one step ahead of construction in the field,” said Manago Kelso-Burnett’s project management team called on whatever resources were necessary to complete the project.

One resource the company used was a consulting engineer. Engineering Plus worked closely with the Kelso-Burnett design team to help ensure that the design process and the electrical construction schedule would be adhered to in the most efficient possible manner. “The Tellabs job required such a large investment of company resources that a subcontractor was needed to enable company designers to continue work on other ongoing projects,” explained Manago.

The Chicago area, as elsewhere, had a tight labor market. “We were concerned that we would have some trouble finding enough qualified electricians to maintain the schedule,” Manago said. In addition,Kelso-Burnett lacked presence in the county where the facility was built. The company’s concerns, however, did not materialize. Through developing a much closer working relationship with the local IBEW chapter, Kelso-Burnett was able to procure the appropriate work force levels. “The Local’s help was a critical factor in ensuring we were able to fulfill the customer’s occupancy requirement,” he added.

Being part of the team that developed the entire facility from the beginning was a unique aspect of the project, according to Manago. “That’s what separates design/build projects such as this from traditional bid-build contracts. It also gives the contractor more control over the whole process.”

Kelso-Burnett has provided its customers with design/build services since its inception. However, many of the company’s industrial design/build projects have been performed since the 1960s. “We have also become involved in the commercial design-build market primarily within the last decade. The Tellabs project is the most recent and largest of these projects,” said Kostek. Kelso-Burnett offers design/build services predominantly to meet its customers’ needs, and to provide a superior product at a reduced cost. The customer, of course, gets to deal with one entity responsible for design and construction.

Bringing it all together

Through its five branch locations, Kelso-Burnett is dedicated to delivering the highest-quality traditional electrical and low-voltage installations to its customers. The company specializes in projects for the commercial, industrial and institutional markets throughout northeastern Illinois and uses the latest technology and hardware available to supply customers with high-quality voice/data/video (VDV) projects, including telecommunications, infrastructure cabling and backbone systems, security and fire alarm systems, and wireless communication towers.

Each branch has separate divisions to deliver services to different market niches. “However,” Kostek said, “All branches have commercial and industrial electrical construction divisions.” The Lake County, Rockford and Romeoville offices specialize in performing mostly traditional electrical construction, while the Loop Branch in downtown Chicago focuses on both high-voltage projects and structured cabling installations.

“Telecommunication work is the fastest growing segment of our business,” Kostek observed. The company actually experienced a 100 percent increase in low-voltage projects in 2000.

Finally, the Rolling Meadows office covers the rest of the area outside of downtown Chicago and performs traditional industrial and commercial electrical construction, fire alarm system installations and utility projects. All low-voltage projects, regardless of their location, are directed from the Loop office.

Unique among electrical contractors, Kelso-Burnett is completely employee owned. “Since everyone is working for themselves, they are motivated to perform at the highest levels for the benefit of everyone,” Kostek said. This approach strengthens client partnerships and enhances the company’s vision of meeting challenges through experience, professionalism and efficiency. Kelso-Burnett’s core group of electricians possess an average of 15 years industry experience, and the company’s communication professionals are certified by more than a half dozen leading manufacturers. Project and contract managers have the autonomy to take a project from beginning to end and are free to operate as they see fit, yet have the resources and support of the entire company.

“We don’t have a sales force,” said Kostek. “Everyone promotes the company by performing at the highest levels, and most of our work is from repeat business or from referrals.” And the turnover rate at Kelso-Burnett is very low, as employees have a long-term vested interest in the company.

To keep electricians and technicians performing at their peak, the company heavily invests in ongoing training, particularly in VDV technology. In its training center in the Loop office, manufacturers hold classes and technicians can practice what they’ve learned before going out in the field to install a product they have not worked with before. “Our technicians are the conduit that brings new technologies to our customers, so we are dedicated to continually educating them on new products and materials and installation methods,” Kostek said.

Safety training is also of paramount importance at Kelso-Burnett. Full-time training directors cover topics such as lifting and moving, tool maintenance and safety, and high-voltage safety standards and requirements. Directors also go into the field and conduct seminars, answer questions, and provide information on the latest safety issues and governmental regulations.

The company’s focus on its employees translates into successful projects for its customers. “We don’t try to just do a job, but to win a long-term customer,” Kostek said. The goal is to perform at such a level as to make the customer want Kelso-Burnett to be its electrical and communications contractor of choice. “We have built our reputation of providing high quality services at a fair price by performing above expectation,” he explained.

Looking toward the future

“If you quit learning, you’re falling behind,” Kostek observed. He believes everyone in the company must keep up with changing technologies, which is exactly what Kelso-Burnett did 10 years ago when it made its first foray into the VDV market. “We saw signs then of the opportunities that the telecommunications industry could provide electrical contractors.” It took some time to develop the resources and company infrastructure to successfully perform VDV work, but today Kelso-Burnett can provide its customers with system solutions that are designed to be easily upgraded as technology advances.

With the same willingness to explore new opportunities that the company displayed a decade ago, Kelso-Burnett is focusing on the future. According to Kostek, the company will continue to stay on the cutting edge of changing technologies. “We are running into new niches that we didn’t even know existed a few months ago,” he said. For example, there has been an increased need recently for contractors to also perform test and turn-up services at telecommunication traffic sites. Customers that usually performed these services in-house are now relying on the telecommunication contractor that installed the system to test it to ensure it can handle the traffic load as designed.

The company will also continue to monitor changing telecommunication needs and be prepared to offer services that fit customers’ changing requirements. “For instance, we have recently noticed an increase in demand in the area for security, video and closed-circuit and card access systems,” Kostek said. The company, as it has always has, continues to search for professional people who have the specialized knowledge to help the company make ventures into these new market segments.

“We continue to work hard to further our reputation for being one of the best electrical and communications contractors. For the benefit of our employees, customers, vendors and shareholders, we are eager to begin this next century of progress,” Kostek concluded. EC

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 [email protected].


About The Author

Darlene Bremer, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributed frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR until the end of 2015.





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