Published In May 2000
Indianapolis is not just the home of one of the world's most famous speedways. The city also lays claim to the third largest federal government facility in the country. ERMCO Electrical Contractors, Indianapolis, Ind., has joined the team that is giving the Major General Emmett J. Bean Federal Center, originally built during the Eisenhower administration, its much-needed renovation. The Federal Center is a 1.6 million-square-foot facility and houses the operations for producing the federal payroll. The original traditional electrical and power distribution systems were completely outdated. And although the communication system had been updated frequently over the years, the government wanted a complete communication system solution for the entire complex that would serve the building and its workers well into the future. The Bean Federal Center is not ERMCO's first large telecommunications renovation project. Over the company's 40-year history, it has designed and installed telecommunication systems for various clients. In addition, the company has worked on countless fire alarm, video, security, and fiber optic installations. "We recently began considering low-voltage projects to be a company specialty and in 1999 began to focus on that type of work as a growth opportunity," explains Randy Maddox, vice president of business management. The General Services Administration (GSA) sent out the government's request for proposal (RFP) late in August 1999. The entire phased renovation and modernization project is worth a total of $100 million. The general contractor, Indianapolis-based Huber, Hunt and Nichols, Indianapolis, partnered with minority owned contractor Sherman R. Smoot Co., also of Indianapolis, to win the contract. Their success was based on their low bid and certain governmental set-aside criteria. As the construction manager, Huber, Hunt and Nichols invited ERMCO to bid on the technology portion of the project, worth about $3 million. "The company was among four firms asked to bid on the project," recalls Maddox. Before being invited to bid, ERMCO assisted in budgeting the project and in providing design input to help the construction manager fashion its final proposal. ERMCO was awarded the contract based on pre-qualifying criteria such as size, finances, past experience, and the post-bid interview. The company's previous relationship with the general contractor also played a part in its receiving the initial invitation to bid on the project. ERMCO has worked with Huber, Hunt and Nichols since 1962 on various projects, including professional sporting stadiums and arenas throughout the eastern half of the country. It was during the post-bid interview that the scope of work was reviewed, the project schedule was discussed, and ERMCO was asked to demonstrate how it would approach the five phases of the project. "Considering the scope of the project, the construction manager had to ensure that the electrical contractor chosen had the resources and technical expertise to meet the requirements of the federal government," explains Gene Burcham, manager of ERMCO's telecom division. GSA's primary concern was that the workers would still need to use the communications system even as it was being renovated. "A large portion of the pre-bid work focused on how to deal with switching over from the existing system to the renovated system while federal employees continued to work in the building and use the Internet and e-mail systems," Burcham says. One of the factors Maddox believes played a large part in ERMCO winning the contract was Burcham's experience. "He played a critical role in the pre-bid process and his ability to answer all of the general contractor's questions and concerns led to the development of a high level of trust," he says. ERMCO began working on the Federal Center in September 1999, and the scheduled completion date for the renovation is the end of 2002. With an average of 15 to 20 communications technicians, ERMCO is responsible for installing a completely new telecommunications cabling infrastructure. Details include: - Provide Cat 6-compliant unshielded twisted pair horizontal cabling system to support voice/data applications. The system must support gigabit Ethernet and 622-megabit-per-second asynchronous transfer mode applications. - Provide copper and fiber optic backbone cabling system capable of supporting gigabit Ethernet applications. - Provide coaxial-based bi-directional broadband video distribution and compliant unshielded twisted pair video control cabling. - Provide special video input connectivity requirements and compliant pathway and cable support. More than 500 miles of cabling will be installed by the time the renovation is complete, which is the equivalent of 200 laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the annual Indy 500 race. In addition, more than 1,000 to 2,000 workstations per floor of the four-story building will have to be connected to the new system without disrupting the flow of data. Meeting the challenges One of the most unique and challenging aspects of the project is its sheer size. Only the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Center in Washington, D.C., are larger government facilities. Another unique factor for ERMCO during the initial stages of the award was GSA's security requirements. "A lot of areas exist in the facility in which we had to ensure no government data would be disturbed as the old system was replaced," says Jeff Yoder, project manager. Furthermore, the company management and on-site technicians had to undergo background checks before work could begin. Governmental regulations also made it necessary for ERMCO to meet certain criteria in its bid for small business, small disadvantaged business, and small women-owned business. "In any subcontract or in the purchase of materials, we have to guarantee that certain percentages would come from each of these categories," explains Yoder. More challenging for ERMCO than any governmental regulation is the fact that during the five phases of renovation that the project is broken down into, parts of the telecommunications system will still be in use even while it is being renovated. "We are required to switch over from the old system to the new one without disrupting the payroll or the workers in the building," Yoder says. The company is meeting this challenge through painstaking planning and careful implementation of the design. The amount of cable that needs to be installed at the center for the backbone-cabling infrastructure is not as daunting as how it must be done. "All the copper and fiber cabling backbone must be installed from a 4-foot-wide by 5 1/2-foot-tall tunnel system that runs underneath the building," explains Yoder. To make it work, the general contractor must dig 6 to 8 feet beneath the building and cut holes through the 24-inch concrete foundation walls in selected places. ERMCO's technicians then pull the cable through the holes and install it into the tunnel and then up to the appropriate telecom closet. The reason the cable is being run into the building from the outside is that the 4- to 8-foot-tall reels that hold it cannot be moved through the building itself. "We're pulling 1,500 pair of cable that is 3 inches in diameter and each reel weights around 7,000 pounds," says Yoder. A trailer with hydraulic arms lifts cable reels off the ground and onto a truck that moves each reel to the appropriate knockout created in the building's foundation. Renovating a 40-year-old building with a new communication design presents unique challenges of its own. "You always run into design problems when you enter into that kind of application," says Burcham. To meet the challenge of working in such an old building, ERMCO takes advantage of its leaders who can make quick decisions and work closely with other trades on solutions that work well for everyone and that are cost-effective for the customer. Because ERMCO is both a traditional electrical contractor and a telecom contractor, it has been exposed to a broader range of situations and technologies that some strictly telecommunications companies have not. "Our experience helps us to envision what problems may occur and avoid them," says Maddox. To solve the problem of renovating a system that is still in use, ERMCO focuses on being prepared. "Being prepared means being flexible, constantly communicating with all the parties involved, and remembering that the customer's needs must be met with as little disruption as possible," Maddox adds. A forward-thinking company Three years ago, ERMCO's management realized that the company had begun to focus more on internal issues than on its customers, and was losing its competitive edge. A consulting firm, Performance Technologies, Dayton, Ohio, was hired to solve the problem. "They studied our operations and suggested formulating an annual business plan that would be distributed to everyone in the company," Maddox says. The objective was to gather employee input and encourage their involvement in achieving the company's goals. The annual business plan determines the company's primary goals for the year and the critical success factors necessary to achieve them. "It provides a cohesive road map for the upcoming year and a direction for everyone to focus on," Maddox explains. Each year the plan, which includes financial goals, is presented to all employees and the company's performance against its objectives is evaluated. "A byproduct of this procedure has been the creation of task force teams that work toward solutions," Maddox says. Performance Technologies remains involved in the process to ensure that momentum is maintained. Some issues that have been addressed and successfully resolved include administrative staffing, defining specific office functions, invoice routing, and a pay-for-performance plan. Since ERMCO believes that the most critical link between the company and the customer is the project manager, it is expanding the project manager's role to be more of a consultant in the daily interactions with the customer at the job site. "Our goal is to create a consistent approach in dealing with the customer from the bid process through project completion," Maddox explains. Prior to this restructuring, ERMCO admits that it was more project- than customer-focused. "Now we target customers through certain markets as defined by the Indianapolis Economic Development Corporation (IEDC)," Maddox says. The IEDC is an independent organization whose mission is to promote the strengths and economic development of the area. Through its involvement with the IEDC, ERMCO knows what businesses are growing or entering the area, and can focus its efforts on securing these new projects in the transportation and distribution, corporate headquarters, biotech and healthcare, sporting, and office and retail markets. Not just a face in the crowd "We are constantly searching for new ways to add value to our customer's project," says Burcham. ERMCO's mission is to achieve success through customer satisfaction and employee fulfillment with a commitment to teamwork, innovation, diversification, and professionalism. With an eye toward innovation, the company has recently gotten involved in energy management, lighting retrofit, and infrared scanning projects. And in its new panel fabrication shop, ERMCO designs and manufactures control panels. "Fabricating panels on-site increases our value to the customer, especially in design-build situations." ERMCO also recently became a TEGG franchisee and offers structured preventive and remedial maintenance for the electrical systems of its existing customer base. "Being a TEGG service provider also allows us to expand our customer base through relationships with other franchisees," observes Maddox. The company uses its franchise to design, install, test, repair, and replace electrical systems in the industrial, commercial health care, institutional, educational, and government markets. What sets ERMCO apart from other area contractors, according to Maddox, is the company's customer-focus and its problem-solving approach. "When approaching a customer, we try to learn why he or she needs something, not just ask what they want. With that information, we are in a better position to provide possible solutions that are relevant to their interests," he says. The company wants to be viewed by its customers as more than an electrical or communications contractor, but rather as an integral part of the customer's organization. "We believe this is the best way to develop long-term relationships between us and our customer base," Maddox says. Planning for the future To help ensure its future, ERMCO concentrates on encouraging its employees in both their personal and professional development. "Much of our success is dependent on employee involvement in the company's long-term growth," Maddox says. Toward that goal, the company spends a great deal of effort in ensuring that its employees feel they are an integral part of the firm's future. Awards are given to employees for length-of-service and extraordinary efforts and individual successes. Managers are authorized to grant "spot bonuses" for outstanding performance. These service and performance awards are publicized through the company's newsletter, staff meetings, and on its Web site. "The awards demonstrate not only the individual employee's performance, but how achievements contribute to everybody's success," Maddox adds. Through its newly formed telecommunications division, ERMCO will continue to offer a wide range of low-voltage services, enabling the company to provide its customers a single source for solutions. "The advantage to the customer is the ability to go to just one place to get all of their electrical and telecommunications needs met," says Maddox. The company also plans to continually adjust its goals and objectives, based on the needs of the local market and how the economy is performing. "Our goal is to learn more about how our customers operate internally and to search for ways to provide value and to anticipate their needs, rather than reacting to them," Maddox explains. A company's story: Ed Gossett originally founded ERMCO Electrical Contractors in 1962. At the time the company was called Electrical Repair and Maintenance Company, and it dealt with maintenance and emergency service projects that another local firm, Robbins Electric, did not want to handle. At about the same time, Jim Maddox, also with the help of Robbins Electric, founded Maddox Electric. In 1970, Maddox and ERMCO merged and became a completely separate firm from Robbins. Today the company's facilities include a 27,000-square-foot office and a separate 32,000-square-foot service center, which houses tool and material inventory, a pre-fabrication operation, and the control panel building shops. ERMCO also has a branch office in Orlando, Fla., which opened in 1986. This branch, which focuses on theme park construction and is managed by Scott Maddox, vice president of Florida operations, represents about 20 percent of the company's total sales. Overall, ERMCO has about $60 million in annual sales, 65 employees in the main office, and an average of 500 electricians and communications technicians working in the field. The company performs work on projects throughout the United States, and installs complete traditional electrical and high-voltage power distribution systems, as well as low-voltage and telecommunications systems, including fiber optics, fire, life, safety, security, and building management systems, and automation controls and instrumentation, and process controls. The separate telecommunications division formed in 1999 offers design and installation services for complete telecommunications systems. With $5 million in annual sales, the division employs six people in the office, and has 46 technicians in the field. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.