Published In January 2000
Gone is the gritty, sooty steel town of Pittsburgh. Over the past two decades, Pittsburgh has transformed itself into a clean city full of renewed energy and growth. By continually responding to the city's changes, Sargent Electric Company has prospered there since its inception in 1907. After 92 years in business, Sargent has grown into a company with approximately $100 million in annual sales, 650 to 700 highly trained electricians and supervisory personnel in the field, and 130 support staff in the office involved with administration, accounting, purchasing, warehousing, estimating, safety, and project management. Sargent has been performing power generation plant and substation work as a specialty-including work on gas, steam, nuclear, coal, and hydro projects-for more than 40 years. The company's extensive experience, and network of industry relationships were contributing factors when it won the bid to perform the electrical work at the Combined Cycle Turbine Generating System at the Barry Steam Plant in Mobile, Ala. The owner of the Barry Steam Plant-Southern Company Services of Atlanta-is a holding company for Alabama Power, Georgia Power, and other regional utilities. Collaborating with Atlanta-based Williams Power, Sargent Electric bid on the installation of all the electrical, instrumentation, and control equipment, as well as the plant's cable trays, conduit, and wiring. After a six-week bid process, the team of Williams and Sargent was awarded the approximately $4.5 million contract. "A lot of the competition was nonunion. The owner said we differentiated ourselves with our detailed proposal and professional presentation," says Jerry Collar, Sargent's team manager for Alabama projects. Williams Power is a construction and maintenance company that specializes in power generation facilities, paper mills, refineries, and chemical plants. Sargent Electric began collaborating with Williams in early 1998, when both companies worked jointly on a steam plant project in Birmingham. Sargent approached Williams about partnering on that job because Williams had already performed millions of man-hours in installation, overhaul, and maintenance on power generation facilities. "Williams was so pleased with our performance on the Birmingham plant that they approached us to bid on the Barry Steam Plant," explains John Sargent, president of Sargent Electric. Based in Pennsylvania, Sargent Electric performs more than half of its business volume in other states. The Alabama location of the Barry Steam Plant project was appealing to the company because it has plans to grow and develop existing long-term relationships there. "Other factors that were attractive were our relationship with skilled craftspeople in the area, and their open acceptance of our company," explains Chuck Peckham, Sargent's executive vice-president. The Barry Steam Plant project began in February 1999, and has a scheduled completion date of February 2000. Sargent has employed an average of 50 electricians on the job, all of whom are highly skilled in high-voltage installations. The project is unique in that it is a combined cycle plant rather than the more traditional gas- or coal-powered generation facility. Two of the plant's turbines are powered by natural gas, while the third is steam driven. "The heat emitted by the two gas turbines is captured by two heat recovery units, which then drives the steam turbine. All three produce power for the consumer," explains Collar. Each gas turbine generates 169 megawatts, while the steam turbine can produce more than 190 megawatts of power. Each gas turbine generator is connected to the substation transformers and has 18 kV of input, and 230 kV of power output. Sargent Electric's scope of work for the plant includes the installation of all electrical equipment, including the iso-phase bus, cable bus, switchgear, motor control centers, and the variable speed drives. In addition, the company is furnishing, designing, and installing all exposed raceways, and pulling and terminating all cables. Other responsibilities include outdoor lighting, exposed grounding, lightning protection, installing a telephone system and the station's backup DC power source for switchgear control, as well as installing the computerized distributed control system, the emission monitoring system, and the field instrumentation. "Systems such as emission monitoring insures that the plant is complying with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency," Collar explains. The facility also has a building where all recirculated water is analyzed to insure appropriate pH levels before it is recycled. "If there is too much acid in the water, it could damage the pipes," says Collar. In this building, Sargent is responsible for providing and installing the stairwell lighting. The company is also responsible for the instrument calibration and tubing installation for the entire project. Sargent will install 1,080 ft. of iso-phase bus from the generators to the transformers and approximately 60,000 feet of conduit and 900,000 feet of cable for the facility. Overcoming difficult problems For challenges on the Barry Steam Plant job, scheduling and timing top Sargent's list. The fast-track nature of the project means that the company has to schedule material delivery and electricians before the engineering for any particular phase of the project is completed. "The close link between engineering and construction activities forces work schedules to be changed daily," says Peckham. To deal with the challenge, Collar and his crews have had to maintain close and constant communication with Southern Company Services' design group. Communication helped to solve another of Sargent's challenges on the job, which has been that the electrical installation is dependent on the progress of the other trades, such as the mechanical contractors. "Field personnel have to be coordinated on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis," says Collar. To communicate effectively, the teams had to be near each other physically. Rather than each trade setting up its own office space on the job site, as is usually done, Sargent and the other companies share the same field office complex. "Such close proximity has proven to maintain the extremely close daily communication necessary to coordinate all the various aspects of the plant's construction." Future Plans "The first steps in planning for the future include taking a long-range view and having a good plan for succession," observes Frederic B. Sargent, the firm's chief executive officer. Sargent Electric has been a family-owned, operated, and managed business for most of this century, and the company intends to maintain that family succession well into the next. Frederic Sargent has a bachelor's degree in English from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., but he has spent his entire 30-year career with this growing family business. Before becoming CEO in 1999, he held the positions of vice president of sales and president. Another family member, John Sargent, has spent more than 10 years in the electrical contracting industry since getting a master's degree in information networking from Carnegie Mellon University. He was the company's vice president of engineering before being named president in 1999. He is also a board member of several industry organizations. The veteran staff includes many experienced managers, much of that experience gained working for Sargent. Among those mentioned in this article, Jerry Collar has more than 30 years of experience in the electrical contracting industry as an apprentice, journeyman, estimator, field supervisor, and project manager. Sargent management was impressed by his expertise in commercial and industrial projects and invited him to join their permanent management team in 1994. Since then, he has been responsible for an increasing number of projects and has overseen the company's growth across Alabama. Chuck Peckham earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Pennsylvania State University and has more than 30 years of industry experience, including project and executive management. He joined Sargent Electric in 1989 as manager of special projects, and was named to his current position in 1994. Along with building staff loyalty, Sargent Electric's goal is to develop loyalty among its customers. "It's not enough just to provide customer satisfaction," Frederic Sargent explains. "You also need to develop fierce customer loyalty to insure continuity and to develop long-term and mutually beneficial relationships." Company managers believe one of the best ways to build that loyalty is to constantly provide new services to fill the customer's needs. Sargent believes in innovation, and is always acquiring new specialty skills to help in installing and servicing increasingly complex systems for its customers. "To do that," Sargent elaborates, "you have to insure that you have the right people with the technical expertise to deliver the product." Therefore, Sargent Electric provides training and education to its foremen and journeymen and gives them the support they need to do their jobs with the highest levels of skill and efficiency. "We attribute our high retention rate to the fair and supportive way we treat our people, and to the way we consistently demonstrate our desire for them to make their careers with us," Frederic Sargent says. For the long run, Sargent Electric plans to be on the forefront of changes in the marketplace. "With plans for more than 200 plants to be built across the country in the next five to eight years, the construction of merchant power plants is one trend we are taking the lead on," says Sargent. Merchant power plants are replacing traditional power generation facilities as jurisdictions are running out of space to build them. The merchant plants are smaller, more compact gas turbine/combined-cycle facilities that provide the same levels of power to customers, but on much less space and they can be constructed in a year. The company also plans to increase its participation in joint ventures. "Joint ventures allow us to take advantage of the established reputation and relationships of a contractor in another city," Frederic Sargent explains. Sargent Electric can offer its partners technical expertise and project management skills. "Our partner can take advantage of our advanced business systems that particularly support these large, fast-track projects." Contractors in other cities can also benefit from Sargent's extensive power generating construction experience, as well as the relationships the company has spent years developing with various industry organizations. Having these joint ventures sets the company apart from many other contracting firms. It gains the ability to serve any customer or national account across the country. "We are able to provide a great depth of expertise and services through our long-term relationships with other contractors and industry friends and organizations such as the Federated Electrical Contractors," says Frederic Sargent. (The Federated Electrical Contractors, an elite group of some 35 large electrical contractors, founded in December 1963. They regularly participate in joint venture projects and share design, trade, and management information, to operate more effectively in all aspects of electrical contracting.) Another growing trend that Sargent is incorporating into its plans is increased participation in the automated meter-reading market. "The market has already grown as utilities switch from traditional meters to ones that send daily usage information directly to the billing department," says Peckham. The company will also continue to increase its participation in the wireless market, as that technology continues to change the way people work and live. "We are already providing wireless carriers, equipment manufacturers, and tower management firms with turn-key wireless site build-out and maintenance services," says Frederic Sargent. Tens of thousands of wireless sites still need to be built nationwide to develop the envisioned seamless communications network, providing Sargent Electric and many other electrical contractors with great opportunities for future growth in this market. Sargent Electric also excels in safety. The company has four safety experts on staff. "Our safety experts are schooled in all safety programs and procedures," says John Sargent. These experts spend their time going to job sites to check for safety violations, correct any that exist, follow up on incidents, and develop new safety programs for new markets, such as the company's new wireless services. "New types of projects can present new kinds of safety challenges and the need for new kinds of safety equipment," he explains. The company's trademarked "We Prize Safety Contest" involves presenting monthly prizes to any employee, and his or her crew, who does not have a recordable injury for one month. "We provide prizes that the employees will find useful, such as new hand tools," says Peckham. Foremen of crews who go without a recordable injury for the quarter receive gift certificates. There is also an annual drawing to award foremen for the least number of recordable incidents during the entire year. Four of the company's foremen and their spouses win a weeklong, all-expense-paid Caribbean cruise. "We believe the program helps to build a spirit of pride and teamwork," Peckham says. Sargent Electric has always concentrated on delivering the highest quality work, on time and within budget. With its approach to searching out new opportunities, and its willingness to diversify and adapt to changing technologies, it should do well facing the challenges of the new millennium. The Company's Long History The Sargent family has owned Sargent Electric since 1907. Each generation has taken the company to a higher level of success and prosperity. Sargent was founded to serve the large steelmakers in and around Pittsburgh. It then branched out into performing electrical work for other types of manufacturers and utilities. The company's territory has broadened over the years as well, to include a Midwest division, founded in 1959, and a Southeastern division in the mid-1970s. Both divisions were originally founded as part of the company's efforts to better serve U.S. Steel, one of its oldest customers. Also in the '70s, Sargent began performing work in commercial construction, and the 1990s have seen the company start business units for the automated meter reading market and the wireless services market, co-found the TEGG Corporation (as well as becoming a franchisee - see "Maintenance, Service, and Repair"), and establish Brite House Electricians. Staffed by people with expertise in marketing and selling electrical services to the residential consumer, Brite House Electricians is a growing national network of residential electrical service centers. The company's goal is to raise the standards for electrical service for the home, and is an opportunity for Sargent Electric to increase its presence in the residential market. Sargent Electric does not limit itself to any single market niche. Instead, the company's services run the gamut of electrical work, from heavy industrial and power generation to commercial projects such as sports arenas and airport facilities, to wireless services. In addition, Sargent continues to serve those steel industry customers that have remained so faithful over the years. The company contracts for work in a variety of ways, including time and material, unit price, fixed fee, or target-manhour, and also offers lease financing. Maintenance, Service, and Repair at Sargent Maintenance, service, and repair work is 20 percent of Sargent's total business, but since profit margins in this type of work are higher than in traditional electrical construction projects, it is a very successful part. Sargent Electric is one of the original founders of TEGG Corporation, which provides preventive maintenance contracts. Preventive maintenance is designed to avoid electrical problems in a facility before they occur, while remedial maintenance fixes problems only after they've occurred. Sargent Electric Company also is a TEGG franchisee, allowing it to offer its customers emergency service for their electrical systems, energized and de-energized preventive maintenance, switchgear maintenance, infrared testing to eliminate hot spots, harmonics testing, power quality analysis, and cost-saving measures to reduce utility charges. A general manager, two full-time salespeople, and 12 electricians, on average, staff the TEGG Service business at Sargent. All salespeople must complete an initial two-week training course to learn the most effective ways to market TEGG Services, from producing introductory letters to generating proposals, to closing agreements. John Sargent predicts that maintenance, service, and repair work will continue to be a consistent growth market due to the increased number of electrical systems used in homes, commercial facilities, offices, industrial plants, and factories. These are all systems that will have to be maintained. One of the advantages of providing this service is that additional project work flows naturally to a company that has service electricians in the customer's facility. The customer learns that the company's electricians are highly trained and provide excellent service, laying the groundwork for establishing long-term relationships. The potential for wireless service, maintenance, and repair work is also an increasing opportunity for Sargent and other electrical contractors as the wireless sites that are only now being built will need to maintained. Power quality is another emerging issue in the maintenance, service, and repair market. Sargent Electric's TEGG Service business offers power quality solutions to customers in this age where uninterrupted, clean power is becoming increasingly important. 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 email@example.com.