Published In December 2001
Times have changed, and residential electrical contracting is changing too. Twenty years ago, Inland Electric Corp., opened its doors in Shorewood, Ill., and the once-small company is now one of the Chicago area’s leading residential contractors. In the spring of 1999, the Chicago developer Alden Group approached Inland to develop a design/build value-engineered set of plans for both the high- and low-voltage electrical systems for the first phase of a multi-building health care living/residential new construction project located on 38 acres. “The catch was that they needed the plans in a just a weeks’ time,” said Ed Mattox, president of Inland and the company’s founder. In that week, two project managers and the company’s chief estimator broke the project down into more manageable parts for the design phase. After a week, the plans for the project’s physical rehabilitation facility were coalesced into a single design and submitted to Alden. “Over the next four months, Alden and our team worked together to refine the designs to ensure that they fulfilled local code requirements and that the living spaces would have the latest and best state-of-the-art electrical and low-voltage systems available,” Mattox said. At this point, though, there were still no guarantees that Inland would be awarded the contract. That summer, however, Alden did indeed give Inland the job. The decision was based on several factors, including the fact that the company’s value-engineered design met budget constraints, the depth of the relationship developed with Alden over the course of the design process, and Inland’s ability to handle a project of this size. Inland began the actual installation work on the first of five buildings in the fall of 1999. The rehabilitation facility, which is designed to be a temporary living space for people who require occupational or physical therapy to recover from surgery, an accident, or disease, houses a kitchen; separate dining, community, administrative, and nursing areas; and about 80 patient rooms. The company was responsible for designing, engineering, and installing the electrical and low-voltage systems, including the three-phase power distribution system, main switchgear, the back-up power generation systems, general and emergency lighting, and all of the wiring for the specialty fire alarm, nurse call, sound and paging, card access, and CCTV and master antenna systems. Work was completed in March 2001. “During the construction phase of the rehabilitation facility, we were already working on the design and value engineering for the second building,” Mattox said. The Alzheimer’s Building is designed for the long-term care of Alzheimer’s patients. This single-story facility with basement has about 100 rooms, and Inland was responsible for installing power distribution, switchgear, back-up power generation systems, general and emergency lighting; and the fire alarm, nurse call, sound and paging, and card access systems. Work began in the summer of 2000 and was completed in April 2001. Of course, the project’s design process never stopped and, while construction was still ongoing on the first two buildings, the company began value engineering the electrical systems for an assisted living facility. The three-story, 100-unit building would need the same high- and low-voltage systems as the previous two, and work on the installation began at about the same time as on the Alzheimer care facility. Completion for the assisted living facility, however, is not scheduled until the spring of 2002. “While construction of the assisted living facility was underway, our team was starting the design/build process for the independent living phase of the project,” Mattox said. The 30 single-story townhomes and 68 apartments in a separate two-story building are all designed for Category 5 cable, an emergency call system in each unit, and telephone and television systems. Outside power is distributed to the townhomes in six separate drops and construction was completed by the summer of 2001. The company was also contracted to install the street lighting. “We installed 70, 20-foot poles with metal halide lamps and five controllers, which were run directly from the utility’s transformer,” Mattox said. In addition, each building has its own parking lot, for which Inland installed 12-foot lighting poles. The value of the total project is currently about $40 million, with the electrical and low-voltage package worth about $4 million. The company runs an average of 10 electricians on site, and expects the project to peak at 16. A full-time general foreman and a project manager have been on the site since work began. After completion of these first five buildings in 2002, the complete plan calls for the addition of a full-service nursing home, medical facility, and doctors’ offices. “These final plans won’t be started for another couple of years. We will, however, help design and value engineer these facilities and bid on the project,” Mattox said. The company hopes that the trust and reliance developed over the life of the project will be an important factor in being awarded the final phases of the project by Alden. Making it unique Typical residential electrical construction usually involves a single building (whether a multi-family apartment building or a single-family home), or a group of identical buildings, such as in an apartment complex or a neighborhood development. The Alden Waterford of Aurora project, however, is a complex with different styles and uses of buildings, rather than a single structure or straightforward development. “There are definitely some commercial aspects to this project that a residential contractor doesn’t usually find, such as back-up power generation, low-voltage specialty systems, and switchgear,” Mattox observed. To overcome that obstacle, Inland approached the project as a blend of commercial and residential work. A commercial engineer designed the back-up power generation systems and switchgear, and the company relied on its residential wiremen to wire the individual units cost-effectively. “But the project is still primarily a residential one,” stressed Mattox. And as the baby boomer generation ages, the types of communities that offer a full range of services and living arrangements will become more common and will present residential electrical contractors with a new range of opportunities. Residential contractors don’t usually need to closely coordinate activities with the local utility. On this project, however, Inland had to work with utility engineers and elicit their assistance in fulfilling the customer’s requirements. “Commonwealth Edison had to grant our electricians access to the main transformers so we could distribute the secondary power to the individual buildings,” Mattox explained. The project manager and site foremen also had to meet on-site with utility staff to explain how the construction was going to progress. “But the biggest challenge of this project has been obtaining the appropriate workforce levels needed to work on two or three buildings at the same time,” Mattox said. Fortunately, the company could rely on 25 years of partnering with the local union. “We drew on the relationships we’ve developed with adjoining union chapters to locate and hire qualified personnel,” he explained. A lifetime of experience Ed Mattox worked as a field electrician for various residential contractors before deciding to use his training and experience to strike out on his own in 1981. From only a few trucks and four employees, Inland Electric has grown into a residential contracting firm with $40 million in sales, about 300 electricians in the field, and 40 people in the office providing support, design, and engineering services. The company is divided into three different divisions; at 7,000 units being wired a year, the residential division accounts for about 75 percent of sales; the commercial division accounts for a little under 25 percent, and; the new voice/data/video (VDV) division, established in late 2000, is still too new to publish sales figures. “We established a separate low-voltage division to take advantage of the new telecommunication and wireless networking technologies being incorporated today into new home construction,” Mattox said. He predicted that such work will be a multi-million dollar growth spurt for the company. Inland’s current customers are primarily developers, builders, owners, and general contractors that require both high- and low-voltage installations in new residential construction. One factor Mattox attributes to the company’s success is the philosophy he’s always had toward customers. “We try to be a true partner with our customers by providing value engineering and developing long-term relationships to the benefit of both,” he said. The goal of partnering is to be as competitive as possible, and the company emphasizes using the best and most advanced technology as a tool for achieving that goal. “The more precisely we can estimate, track job costs, and allocate overhead, the more precise a bid the customer receives, the fewer changes orders there are on a project, and the more quickly any cost overruns are identified and resolved,” Mattox added. Also, by building long-term relationships with its clients, Inland can provide them with the most cost-effective and highest quality installation and become the developer’s or builder’s residential electrical contractor of choice. Inland’s philosophy also includes establishing partnerships with its suppliers and working closely with manufacturers to develop products that better meet customers needs and are easier to install. Most important, however, are Inland’s partnerships with its employees. “We emphasize creating an environment that focuses on training, job advancement, and job satisfaction,” Mattox said. That formula has created low turnover and high employee retention. “That level of corporate stability contributes to customers knowing that they can depend on the company.” Since Inland views its employees as its most valuable asset, it invests much time and money in training and in providing state-of-the-art office and electrical equipment and tools. “When employees realize that they are valued, they begin to look at Inland as a long-term career investment that provides an opportunity to advance as the company grows,” Mattox explained. Inland constantly acknowledges job performance, which, Mattox said, motivates workers to take pride in their jobs and instills a desire to grow. Future plans “Managed growth,” Mattox said of Inland’s future. His philosophy is that if something is measurable, it is more manageable. “If a company, any company, grows too fast, it becomes impossible to measure and manage performance.” Mattox is firmly convinced that runaway growth actually prevents long-term success. Inland’s immediate plans for its residential division are to expand its geographical area and to develop a true regional presence beyond Illinois. “Some of our residential developer customers have a national footprint and within five years we are planning to have the infrastructure in place to provide services to them in markets such as Atlanta, Colorado, Nevada, and Dallas,” Mattox said. In addition to that focus, Inland plans to expand and keep developing the VDV division in an effort to lead the technological wave as home networking systems become commonplace. “We are also looking to continue a diversification plan that will allow us to make further inroads in the commercial market in Chicago and to supply high- and low-voltage installations to corporations, businesses, retail, and institutional customers,” he concluded. 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.