Through Ups And Downs

HMT Electric Inc., Escondido, Calif., was established in 2007. The company, which employs about 100 people, specializes in commercial electrical installations in high-rise construction projects (generally 30–40 stories) that use cast-in-place concrete design. In addition, the company also works on commercial tenant improvement projects (office and retail), building core and shell projects, underground services and infrastructure, school remodeling projects, and commercial solar installation projects (canopy, ground-mount and rooftop).

About 15 percent of the company’s work involves low-voltage projects. In order of priority and frequency, they include building automation (BAU) and control, fire alarm systems, and security. HMT also does telephone, video, data wiring and infrastructure work when it is performing its standard electrical work on high-rise construction projects.

HMT first got involved in low-voltage work when the economic downturn occurred in 2009.

“We had just come off finishing a large high-rise, and high-rises were our bread and butter,” said Brian Hudak, president. “With the downturn, all of this work went away. So, to survive, we started to look for some other niches to keep us going, and this is how we fell into low-voltage work, starting out with automation and control.”

HMT doesn’t have a separate division for low-voltage work, but it considers low-voltage to be a separate part of the business, which is overseen by Stefan Southas, senior project manager.

“We bid our regular work through our chief estimator,” Hudak said. “However, Stefan ends up chasing and bidding his own work, which signifies that he does have his own business in a way and is in control of his own destiny.”

“In a way, we are a company within a company, and I have my own little group within the company,” Southas said. “However, we don’t really have definable boundaries in that we can pull people from different parts of the company when we need them, and vice versa.”

When it comes to finding employees to do low-voltage work, HMT is especially interested in attracting people who can be trained.

“This is a skill that the average journeyman doesn’t have,” Hudak said, adding that, “it requires a higher aptitude.” 

And, according to Southas, employees who are involved in this kind of work need to have a particular interest in it.

HMT does most of its own low-voltage training in-house. However, it is also currently working with a couple of companies that provide training on their specific equipment.

“In addition, when our people are on the job, they get a lot of training from the technicians of the companies we’re working for,” Southas said.

In terms of marketing its low-voltage capabilities, HMT doesn’t advertise much.

“In fact, we have never been a big advertiser of any of the work we do, even for high-rises,” Hudak said.“The majority of our work comes from relationships that we already have. In addition, we get a lot of work from the two control companies that we do most of our business with. These two firms are able to keep us pretty busy.”

In terms of convincing its customers that it can do the low-voltage work they need, HMT has built up its reputation in the last couple of years and has proven its capabilities. However, according to Hudak, there has been a learning curve that HMT has had to master.

“As an electrical contractor, you can’t just jump into low-voltage work and expect to know what you’re doing and make money from the start,” he said. “It takes time. There are learning curves with the technology, the estimating and the new people. The way we succeeded was that we made a commitment to invest in this direction, we put the resources behind it, and we worked it until it turned into a good portion of our business.”

Another thing that has helped HMT succeed in low-voltage work is that—since it specializes in the systems from just two control companies—­it is able to do really good work for them.

“Since we concentrate on these systems, we end up doing a better job than if we did work for a lot of different control companies,” Southas said.

As Hudak noted, it took a lot of time, effort, resources and commitment to get involved in low-voltage work. However, it has paid off in a number of ways.

First, so much of HMT’s low-voltage work ends up being in markets that aren’t affected by a bad economy.

“For example, we are in a lot of hospitals,” Hudak said. “There will always be a need for hospitals. In fact, hospital work is what helped us get through the downturn in 2009 and 2010. We have been in just about every hospital in the San Diego area, and there are a lot of them.” 

HMT also does a lot of military work, and in some instances, the two markets overlap. Recently, for example, HMT has been involved in low-voltage work for the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton Replacement Naval Hospital in Oceanside, Calif. 

In sum, a large benefit of being involved in low-voltage work in certain markets is that it is generally recession-proof, Hudak said. Also, because low-voltage work has such a large learning curve, not all contractors get involved in it, meaning that there is less competition than in traditional electrical contracting work.

“Some of the BAU work we do is associated with very large projects, where someone else is doing the Division 16 work,” Hudak said. “As a result, this introduces us to some very large general contractors that we might not otherwise have contact with, and then, in the future, we may end up doing some Division 16 work for them.” 

Recently, HMT did BAU work for a large contractor, which is now talking with the company about doing some more projects.

HMT plans to expand its low-voltage business.

“However, it doesn’t expand quickly because it requires so much time and resources to find and train the right people properly,” Hudak said.

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