Completing The Circle: McKinstry Electric

There are many low-voltage contractors in the United States, but few of them embrace the future and opportunities for deployment of new technologies as actively and passionately as Seattle-based McKinstry Electric, which provides consulting, construction, energy and facilities services. With more than 20 locations nationwide, McKinstry Electric focuses on collaborative, sustainable designs to ensure occupant comfort, improve system efficiency, reduce facility operational costs and optimize profitability.

The electrical contracting division, which officially launched in 2002, came about as a way to deliver full-service construction services for new buildings. The division, which has about 350 employees, uses innovative strategies to design and build electrical systems. Together with 
McKinstry Electric’s mechanical construction division, it provides a single integrated team and operates out of three offices in Washington and Oregon.

In 2006, the division added low-voltage to move even further along the integrated delivery path and ensure it could control every aspect of what it would give clients.

“It was a way to complete the circle,” said Sam Rathert, McKinstry Electric’s director of data services. The low-voltage side—divided into three groups—employs about 122 field employees and 44 staff. 

The low-voltage construction group has specialties in standard voice/data cabling, controls, security and passive optical networks.

The audiovisual (A/V) group started with a focus on conference rooms and has since expanded to include TelePresence suites, video walls and command-and-control centers. This group is completely design/build.

The wireless group started out with a focus on public safety and expanded into the cellular space (private radio space), then distributed antenna systems, and now includes a whole host of other leading-edge technologies. This group is also completely design/build.

“We were the first company to deploy an enterprise zone small-cell system in the U.S.,” Rathert said. “We are also looking at deploying solutions around wireless Bluetooth wayfinding, which allows people to pull up a map when they enter a building and show them how to get anywhere in that building.”

Training, of course, is a requirement for learning about and staying up-to-date on the latest technologies. The low-voltage construction group relies heavily on BICSI training paths. The A/V group relies on InfoComm training and a lot of manufacturer training.

“The wireless group relies almost all on manufacturer training,” Rathert said.

One reason the company keeps up on the latest technologies is that a large percentage of its customers are tech companies, primarily because there are so many of them in the Pacific Northwest.

“In fact, we have built a number of world headquarters facilities and corporate office campuses for these types of companies,” he said.

When selling its capabilities to new prospects, McKinstry Electric explains its priorities are people, customers and community and emphasizes two particular competitive advantages.

The first is its people. The company offers opportunities for employees to get exposed to new technologies, to get excited about the future, and to have the opportunity to try new things.

“This is why we are able to get involved in new technologies faster than a lot of our competitors,” Rathert said. “In addition, because of our priorities, we are able to attract the best people.”

The second is an integrated delivery strategy. Clients are offered the full integration of mechanical and electrical, including low voltage.

“Clients these days like integrated systems,” Rathert said. “They want their systems to be able to operate and communicate with each other and provide a single dashboard for interface.”

For this reason, McKinstry Electric works with clients from the very beginning of projects—during the design phase.

“We find a way to design integrated technology solutions for them that combine everything that will go into their facilities—controls, security, A/V, voice/data and wireless,” Rathert said.

What new challenges does the company face in the industry these days?

“We face the same one that other low-voltage contractors face—commoditization,” Rathert said. “There are some contractors who try to simplify low-voltage and sell the lowest-price package. We set ourselves apart by looking for ways to add value to our package, such as wireless. We continue to focus on bringing ‘heads,’ not just ‘hands,’ to the client experience. For example, some customers, especially data center customers, want to buy their own equipment, such as cabinets and fiber assemblies, meaning all they want to hire is labor.”

McKinstry Electric shows them that there are a number of opportunities to go above and beyond the mundane—to create something outstanding and durable.

For example, the company recently helped complete the new world headquarters for Weyerhaeuser in Seattle, which has already won a number of awards.

“They wanted us to come in and deliver all of the technologies in a design/build fashion,” he said. “We were able to demo a number of new technologies for them, giving them options they never even knew existed. We also gave them a chance to experiment with these technologies in their old facility before installing them in their new facilities.”

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