Every January, many of us make New Year’s resolutions. However, sometimes we can’t get through February before we have forgotten about them or we have little internal motivation to follow through. One resolution we should all keep is to motivate ourselves to increase our business each new year. After all, if we do not grow our business, we will eventually go out of business.
In my role as your wise counselor, I ask both you and me: Have we given any thought to how we could increase our fire alarm systems business this year?
The real issue arises when we try to develop a strategic plan that focuses on concrete ways we can both grow our business and maintain stability when the business climate falters. If we have been in business for a while, we know the contracting business operates on a cyclical basis. This makes our strategic plan all the more important.
This issue of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR contains the 2019 Construction Outlook (page 18). Using that information generally provides a good basis for developing at least part of our strategic plan. However, tsunami-like changes may always happen to both the future business opportunities and operation of our companies that we will need to consider.
The “normal” changes usually prove easy to accommodate. These would include complying with the new editions of the codes we use daily to ply our trade.
For example, the National Fire Protection Association has just published the 2019 edition of the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. Of course, as often discussed in these pages, we should always use the most recent edition of a code or standard when designing or performing an installation. That said, the jurisdiction can only enforce the edition of the code referenced by the building code officially adopted by the jurisdiction where we perform the installation.
We have talked about power over ethernet (PoE) in these pages, and PoE has quickly become the norm for powering almost everything we encounter in building systems. That said, what have we learned about PoE and its varied applications?
UL now lists PoE products, and manufacturers are designing new systems to use PoE. This can only mean, if we and our teams do not understand PoE technically—and its applications, along with the applicable code requirements that govern those applications—we will not grow our businesses.
Understanding new technology and the changing codes is paramount to our success. How does new technology affect our strategic plans? First, we need to stay abreast of any new technology that will provide more reliable systems operation for our customers. We need to stay aware of how to sell the benefits of the new technology because it will help us differentiate ourselves from other contractors.
We need to embrace the new technology to ensure we understand how to integrate the technology into our fire alarm systems design, and to ensure our customers understand its advantages. In this way, we will commit to learning all of its nuances and then include the technology and applications in our strategic growth plan.
Our current technicians may or may not be capable of dealing with an ethernet-based fire alarm system that will integrate over the same cables to other systems in the building. Many reports indicate that there is a dearth of workers entering the electrical trades—or any trade for that matter. However, if we “sell” the opportunity to work with computer-based and ethernet-capable systems to prospective technicians, we stand to attract a different type of technician who has the motivation to learn more about all new technology, whether it exists in a fire alarm system, mass notification system, or a commercial sound system.
Of course, we will want to train our existing technicians and develop their capabilities with the new fire alarm systems. But, to grow the new line of business rapidly, we need to hire techs who already understand and can use the new technology as well as troubleshoot it.
One of the future benefits of new technology is the ability of the system to provide self-diagnostics and report information regarding problems or anticipated problems directly to those of us who maintain those systems. This capability obviously will set us apart from the competition and convince both new and existing customers to hire us. More than ever, system downtime can lead to building downtime. Therefore, having the ability to avoid, or greatly minimize, system downtime saves our customers money.
Having more than one system installed over the same pair of conductors provides additional savings. However, if we cannot service both the HVAC system and the fire alarm system, we need to ensure the owner knows coordination among the companies involved with servicing each system is imperative.
Our strategic plan should also include how to adjust to the inevitable cyclical downturn that occurs in the contracting profession. We should always implement this far enough in advance—for example, now!
Establishing a service division that can inspect, test and maintain (ITM) fire alarm and mass notification systems will offer an appropriate avenue for balancing our books of business. When attempting to incorporate this balance, we absolutely must determine which manufacturers we believe can competently perform this work as well as how much equipment stock we plan to invest in to ensure a quick response to our customers’ needs.
For ITM work, we will not need many sophisticated system programmers. However, customers will typically ask companies who perform ITM work to add to systems or upgrade a fire alarm system or mass notification system, due to building renovations. Therefore, part of our strategic plan should include training for a fire alarm system programmer. This will usually limit our work to a single manufacturer. So, we need to know our customers’ installed equipment.
Again, I ask, what will we do differently as we begin the new year? Take the time to review what worked when a customer asked us to install a fire alarm system last year. Determine what did not work well or where the authority having jurisdiction found our installation non-code compliant. Take stock of the fire alarm system vendors we worked with to determine if they were partners or competitors. Then, use all of this information when developing our strategic plan to ensure nothing in 2019 will surprise us.