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Ask half a dozen of Bob Colgan’s acquaintances about the man who has been the Babe Ruth of the Toledo electric community for 40-plus years and you’ll hear two things:
“First, he’s an honest man with great integrity whose word is his bond. If he says he’ll do something, he does,” said Buck Autrey, a longtime friend and NECA past president
Second: “He’s a lousy golfer and a prankster. He has a fluctuating handicap and if you give him two strokes a hole, he’ll win every time,” Autrey added with a chuckle.
That first trait may best be characterized by the story of the “$200,000 Smile,” as recounted independently on three separate occasions by Autrey, Larry Henning, a business acquaintance, and Colgan’s oldest son, Rob.
Asked to confirm the story, Colgan himself recalled, “We had requested bids from three suppliers for an electrical package for a new Caterpillar plant to be constructed in Peoria.” After being awarded the contract, Colgan was intercepted while boarding an airplane for the trip home by the sales representative of one of the unsuccessful bidding companies. “He offered me $200,000 below the bid award to award the bid to his company. My response was, ‘Have you ever seen a $200,000 smile? Sorry.’ and we boarded the plane.”
“It took a while for them to figure it out, but suppliers eventually learned that they had one shot to give Dad a price,” Rob said. “There was no monkey business. When they learned that, they would give him a bid price hours before the bid opening because they knew he would not shop their numbers.”
The beginnings of Colgan’s career were significantly less auspicious.
His father was a painting contractor so, naturally, his first job was as an apprentice painter. His first assignment: painting the interiors of closets using then-legal lead-based paint.
“It didn’t take long for him to abandon that field,” Rob said.
Drafted by the U.S. Army in 1942 at age 21, he was headed for infantry training as a machine gunner when he was redirected to the Army Specialized Training Program. After one month at Auburn University, he was inducted into the Signal Corps, then spent 18 months at Clemson College, receiving the equivalent of a five-year electrical engineering education. He was one of 31 graduates in a class that initially numbered 600 enlisted men.
Following graduation, he was reassigned to the infantry at Camp Crowder in Missouri, then transferred to Augusta, Ga., and Fort Bragg, N.C. At Fort Bragg, he met Emily Applewhite, with whom he would share the rest of his life.
As a member of the troops invading Okinawa during the last days of the war in the Pacific Theater, he also took advantage of an entrepreneurial bent.
“I had six businesses I ran while on Okinawa,” he said. “If you wanted a shower, photo processing or a radio repair, I was the guy to see.” He also ran a poker game and barbershop.
Within a month of his discharge in 1946, he and Emily married, and he enrolled as a senior at the University of Toledo to complete degree work for a bachelor’s in electrical engineering.
College was followed by five years as a sales engineer for General Electric Supply before joining Sidney Rogers, owner of Rogers Electric, as a member of the firm.
“Sidney needed a lot of help,” Colgan recalled. An excellent electrician, Rogers was a poor businessman, so “when the business outgrew Sidney, I purchased it in 1963.” At the time the firm was grossing only $2 million in annual sales. By the mid-1970s, then operating as Colgan Electric Inc., the firm had grown to $22 million in gross sales and was the fifth-largest in the Midwest.
Colgan had completed contracts on virtually every major building in downtown Toledo for a client list that included General Motors, Ford, Dana Corp., LOF and Owens-Illinois. In 1978, it completed the three-year Davis Besse nuclear plant project in Port Clinton, Ohio.
Despite the demands of running a business, and his success, Colgan was an active NECA member from the outset.
“He and Max Romanoff of Romanoff Electric were responsible for keeping our NECA chapter afloat when it was suffering through lean times,” Henning said. Why?
“Because it is a key to our business,” Colgan said.
Fifty-two years later, he’s held several national offices, including a six-year stint as president, and has never missed a national convention.
“After my first two terms, the board had to get Emily’s permission before they could nominate me for a third,” he said. In addition to service as president from 1974 to 1979, Colgan also was winner of the James H. McGraw Award in 1975, and the Comstock Award in 1977. He is a founding Fellow of the Academy of Electrical Contracting, and was chairman of the academy from 1980 to 85.
Of his contributions to NECA, he ranks working with Bob Higgins at the top of the list. A former NECA executive vice president, Higgins was the founder of the academy.
Sharing a vision of NECA’s future with Higgins, Colgan spent months traveling the country promoting adoption of a national agreement between major contractors, NECA members and the IBEW.
“We wanted to add management control, an increase in the number of apprentices and contributions to the trust in all of our agreements,” he said. The measure was eventually approved by the entire NECA constituency, which he considers his greatest accomplishment. However, in a decision of dubious merit, a judge later ruled the agreement invalid.
“But, the basic components of management control and the apprentices remained,” he added.
He also was successful in promoting an increase in pension contributions for electricians from 1 percent to 3 percent of pay, “which means that retirees are receiving considerable pensions now,” he said.
Tom O’Dwyer, whose relationship with Colgan dates to the 1970s, adds a different perspective.
“I was invited by Bob to become a member of the NECA Council on Industrial Relations. At that point…the council was brought into labor relations only when negotiations at the local level had come to a total standstill,” O’Dwyer said. “To consider a dispute, all 12 members of the council and 12 members of the IBEW committee locked themselves in a room until all 24 members reached unanimous agreement.”
Of Colgan’s work, O’Dwyer said, “He did a helluva job of steering the group through some very delicate negotiations. Then, when the negotiations were completed, all 24 members of the two groups regrouped…and solved all of the conflicts and worries of the world.”
Colgan’s methods worked, O’Dwyer said, “because he had the respect of every single wire twister in the group.”
As a golfer, however, Colgan “did not instill such confidence, except to the extent that he was not above a bit of chicanery when it came to deciding each golfer’s handicap,” O’Dwyer said. “He would range between 25 and 35, so I finally told him we’d settle that issue when it came time to start trading greenbacks.”
“Being the worst in the world is a pretty accurate description, though O’Dwyer’s comment on the handicapping is not exactly the truth,” Colgan said.
“Bob was a presence, a good guy and friend, smart and cooperative, everything a NECA president should be,” Higgins added. And, “as old fashioned as it may sound, a friend in a time of need, one of a handful I can count on.”
In addition to high jinks on the golf course, Higgins and Colgan also continue a game of gin rummy that began at a NECA convention in 1973.
“I won the first hand and thought I was off to a good start, then lost every hand for the next couple of hours,” Higgins said. However, “After 30 years playing in hotel rooms, on airplanes and buses, he still doesn’t have a mortgage on my house.”
Colgan retired from full-time employment in 1989, but maintains a strong presence on the Toledo electrical landscape as a consultant. Today, at age 82, he is overseeing construction of the electrical components of the Maumee River Bridge, the largest construction project in Ohio history.
And he’s still attending NECA meetings.
John Retzke, owner of Retzke/Snyder Electric, first met Colgan as a high school student seeking summer employment, beginning 13 years spent as a Colgan employee. “He took time to talk to me, and gave me a job, a lesson I learned that I try to use in my own business.
“I am like a lot of other business owners in this community who Bob has mentored. Even today, when we’re at a meeting, he’s the guy I want to sit next to, because I always learn something.”
“Look around a membership meeting of our NECA chapter and you’ll see people that have apprenticed with him, and moved up through the ranks to own their own businesses,” Henning added. “We have laughed about the fact that I’m one of the few guys in this market who haven’t worked for him.”
“He has touched our lives in many respects,” Retzke said.
With tremendously positive results, it seems. EC
LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at [email protected].