How can a small electrical contracting firm flourish in 2020? Turns out by positioning its company in the municipal arena, seeking out community-oriented projects, aligning with manufacturers, staying abreast of the emerging technology and dividing the specialty areas between the crew.
That’s been the longtime combined strategy of Electric Service and Supply Co. (ESSCO), Pasadena, Calif.
“My father founded the company in 1947 and, today, it’s a three-generation company,” said president Stan Lazarian.
Today the Los Angeles-based company is owned jointly by the Lazarian family, which includes Stan Lazarian, wife Susan, and their sons, Tyler and Sean. The rest of the 50 or so employees are viewed as family friends. It’s that kind of firm.
Eldest son Tyler is the chief operating officer. He initially trained as an inside wireman.
“We track our family business back to when my grandfather was doing simple little remodels,” Tyler Lazarian said. He kept telling people, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ I guess he could, because he did. He was reckless enough to go forward and wise enough to be able to resource and get the right answers. That kept him on the edge of new technology and opportunities. That same attitude is still prevalent in our company today. We say ‘yes’ if we can do something. We don’t want to wait until a sector of the market is flooded.”
Following in the footsteps of its founder, the Lazarians have steadily broadened the company’s opportunities. For example, ESSCO became a prequalified contractor for the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, which has garnered the company a steady stream of projects. The most recent job was the 2019 renovation of Franklin’s Café at Los Angeles’ historic Greek Theatre. Located within the 3,000-acre Griffith Park, the popular outdoor concert venue has hosted musical legends from Aretha Franklin and Elton John to Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana. Its design was based on a survey of Greek temples around the world. The first show, on June 26, 1931, was operatic music.
The theater itself is a large, open-air structure with a circular seating area. The adjacent cafe renovation included construction of a ticket booth and bar area and a multilevel deck with stairs plus switchgear changeouts and a new lighting design. By day, the spot caters to golfers playing the Griffith Park course, by night to the Greek Theatre crowd.
Overhead festoon lighting gives the cafe space its “wow” factor. Lighting designer Erin Erman, principal of eSquared, Redondo Beach, Calif., selected 20 types of LED fixtures from four manufacturers. ESSCO’s crew installed and hung the lights from aircraft cables strung overhead around the perimeter of the cafe. ESSCO’s installation enhanced the aesthetic.
“The biggest challenge,” said Matt Larrick, project manager at ESSCO, “was that the project was shoehorned into the schedule and initially way over budget, so we worked with them to get it into budget.”
Working cooperatively with clients is ESSCO’s trademark. In the last four years, the company has completed more than 40 projects for the City of L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks. ESSCO also has established a relationship with the City of Los Angeles, winning contracts with that entity as well as working with several school districts.
“I love having a family business,” said Susan Lazarian, vice president, ESSCO. “More importantly, I love having a business relationship with my adult sons.”
Years ago, she encouraged son Sean, who quite unexpectedly entered the business at a very early age.
“Sean has always been into computer stuff and constantly playing games. I thought nothing good would come of that, but I was wrong,” Stan Lazarian said. “When he was a kid, the VP of our company, a smart guy, had a problem with his computer. He had worked on it for several hours but wasn’t able to fix it. I went home and was talking to my wife about finding someone to help with that. Sean overheard us and said, ‘I’ll do it.’
“I told him, ‘I don’t know, son, it’s a big responsibility.’ My wife said, ‘Let him try.’
“Sean stopped by our office, turned off the problem computer and then turned it back on. Ninety seconds later, it worked. I told him I’d hire him for $10 an hour. He was 12 years old. It opened up a whole new world for him and ... for our company in terms of growing our business,” Stan said.
Sean started with the company at 22 as an estimator, but found the work tedious.
His father was on NECA’s Energy Solutions Task Force, discussing lighting controls and California’s strict Title 24 Building Standards Code requirements for energy conservation and green design. To participate in projects funded by the California Clean Energy Jobs Act (Prop. 39), which awarded more than $1.7 billion to K-12 schools for energy-efficiency and clean-energy upgrades, Sean learned about lighting controls.
“It was fortunate for us because, at the same time, I got invited to be on Lutron’s Advisory Council,” Stan said, adding that Sean is on the council now. “We took on a project basically thinking, ‘We can figure this out.’ We had the help of the manufacturer and people on the school board wanted to find a way to save energy. We saved them a couple million dollars in air conditioning and lighting. Now, I tell other contractors, ‘Find young people in your company who are computer savvy, give them some training and turn them loose.’”
ESSCO took its own advice, sending its journeymen and apprentices to be educated in lighting controls.
ESSCO’s open contract with the city of Los Angeles leads to projects such as the renovation of senior centers and recreation facilities, some of which haven’t been touched in 40 years. In renovating them, ESSCO chose not to break open ceilings and walls, rather learning to implement wireless controls.
“It’s basically a way to achieve California’s Title 24 compliance,” Sean said.
ESSCO also takes on projects with issues such as poor air quality, mold and asbestos and lack of air conditioning.
For one Los Angeles County school district, ESSCO retrofit all the classrooms with wireless controls and individual classroom controls with wireless sensors.
“In some instances, even the engineers on jobs can’t keep up. For one school district, an engineer designed a system using pipe and wire,” Stan said. “But we proposed [something] different. They were thrilled, since they thought they were going to have to spend a lot of money tearing up buildings. We did it wirelessly at great financial and energy savings.
“With the installation of wireless controls, for example, a teacher can have more flexibility. Previously, when a teacher wanted to work on a SMARTBoard, a large, touch-controlled screen that works with a projector to provide students with larger version of the teacher’s computer screen, it required teachers to dim or shut off the lights.
“However, the students couldn’t see to write. With wireless controls, the teacher can control the light so the students could write and still see the smart board. “It’s a great solution for lighting, but it requires that you know how wireless controls work and how to install them.
“We proposed different fixtures and lighting controls and saved the district a couple of million, and they were thrilled. Once you understand the controls, a lot of possibilities can open up for customers who thought they were going to have to spend a lot of money tearing up a building. Now, we can do all of it wirelessly at great savings,” Stan said.
While Stan and Sean were busy with lighting controls, Tyler, who trained as an inside wireman, has focused on acquiring skills related to solar projects. In response to the California Solar Initiative rebate program, contractors are compelled to include solar readiness in projects, yet many are not trained or interested in solar.
“We get calls from other ECs asking, ‘Can you do the solar part? It hasn’t been fully designed,’” Tyler said. “At the time, we had been installing solar but someone else would design it, and we’d hook it up. In the 1990s, we started designing our own under companies that were getting contracts. That gave us a bit of a nudge. In those cases, the designer might be back East, and we partnered with them and gradually started designing our own. Now we have a workforce here and the ability to do design-build projects from start to finish.
What new area might ESSCO enter next?
“Battery storage,” Tyler said. “There’s some companies that have gotten into it already so I’m a little behind the companies doing backups for data centers. Though the advantage we have is that being small, it is easier to change the direction of our ship than if we were a large company. It’s harder to steer a large ship.”
The Lazarian family is in command of its ship and is sailing ESSCO in the right direction.