Profile of a Contractor: Then and Now

Arrogance ran rampant in the ranks of the electrical contractor in the early 1900s. As far as some were concerned, electricity was the “most powerful factor in the advancement of civilization.” In the contractor's opinion, “darkness [was] a shutter to one's soul,” so who better than he to throw open the windows and let the light in? Pretty heady stuff coming from the guys who just wired houses for

Arrogance ran rampant in the ranks of the electrical contractor in the early 1900s. As far as some were concerned, electricity was the “most powerful factor in the advancement of civilization.” In the contractor's opinion, “darkness [was] a shutter to one's soul,” so who better than he to throw open the windows and let the light in? Pretty heady stuff coming from the guys who just wired houses for a living.

There's a certain amount of pride to be derived from any job well done, but maybe that pride can go to your head. Maybe you can overstate the importance of a job. And maybe that's why those early contractors believed they were offering an invaluable service as they brought electricity to American homes. Yet in light of how far the country has come with the help of the men that designed and built its electrical infrastructure, who could begrudge the early electrical contractor his vanity? Maybe their big-headed claims really weren't that far from the truth.

Most homes in the first decades of the 20th Century were not built with electricity in mind. In 1901, the year of EC&M's birth, electric heat and air conditioning were more than forty years away. Today's electric kitchen, with its coffee machine, microwave, and George Foreman grill, was far from conceivable. And the personal computer? Well, let's just say the integrated circuit was yet to be dreamed of. In fact, it was the wiring of residences that increased demand for electric appliances, spurring manufacturers to create new and greater domestic toys. Many of the “necessities” we now take for granted were years from being patented, but none would have been possible were it not for the electrical contractor's vision of electrifying America.

It was with this very goal that many contractors of the early 1900s started out. Bringing electricity to residential housing created enough work to sustain a contractor in every town, but the overabundance of work wouldn't last forever. The work was so popular that every man with the slightest knowledge of electrical wiring was calling himself a contractor, prompting the Electrical Contractor-Dealer in 1919 to prophesize the possible market saturation the current trend could lead to and the dangers it could create. “The volume of business in [a] territory might be sufficient to support one concern but so limited as to cause everybody to lose money if two or more concerns were in the field,” George Loring wrote.

The push to bring electricity to homes may have modernized residences in America's cities and towns, but most farm houses in rural areas still went without. The problems inherent to bringing power to the countryside had slowed the electrification of farms and farmhouses. The distance between farms and the sparse population of rural areas made it difficult to build cost-efficient distribution lines. Even with technological advances, one mile of rural line cost more than $2000 in 1935. With power grids already in place, distributing electricity to homes in a residential area was relatively simple in comparison. To combat this problem, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935, making the initiative a federal responsibility. As with residential electrification, the rural wiring project was a springboard for countless budding electrical contractors.

In 1938, Chester Church was 26 years old and out of work, but he wouldn't stay unemployed for long. The REA had made its way to his hometown of Erie, Pa., and with it came the opportunity for steady work. Bringing electricity to farm houses was not a new idea to Church. With only one year of training from Academy High, he had begun wiring nearby farms at the age of 16 — nearly 10 years before the REA initiative. With the help of his brother-in-law Al Murdock (whom Church trained), he went to work on farms in nearby Franklin Center, Pa.

In retrospect, the 89-year-old Church says he can appreciate the importance of the work he and Murdock were doing, but at the time the chance to earn a living was his motivation.

“It was just work,” Church says. “It was just a paycheck, but I was bound and determined to get to the top. And I did with Murdock.”

Before the REA, much of the sparse electrical work that went on in rural towns was done by local crossroads mechanics who had little or no knowledge of the current National Electric Code. Some homeowners undertook the task of wiring their farms without any electrical training. With the standardization of rural electrical installations in 1937, however, wiring methods became more dependable. All the while, the electrical contractor was reaping the benefits of the government's program. Farmhouse wiring created $14,278,000 in revenue for contractors in 1939 — $1,320,000 more than all residential wiring that year.

Yet no sooner had the REA initiative begun to gain momentum, than the United States found itself embroiled in World War II, putting all non-essential projects on hold. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on that infamous day in December 1941, the nation turned its attention to winning the war against fascism in both the European and Pacific theaters of war. Increased demands stateside for raw materials in military construction brought residential and commercial installations to a halt, while increased demands overseas for enlisted men depleted the workforce back home.

Church was among those who left his work in the states behind to join the war effort overseas. He had begun working full time for General Electric in 1939, and though his foreman pleaded with him to stay, he enlisted with the Navy's Construction Battalion (C.B.) in May 1943. He never saw action, but his knowledge of electrical systems made him a valuable asset to the C.B. While stationed at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, Church built electrical lines, wired tents, and worked on electrical installations at the military's airport on the island.

Despite thinning the domestic workforce, the war offered new opportunities for those who remained behind. Though new construction all but disappeared in the early '40s, there was plenty of work to be found in industrial plants. Existing plants had to be modernized to accommodate the massive defense production the war demanded. After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were questioning their safety at home and work, so the installation of emergency air raid and blackout equipment was crucial to the continued operation of munitions plants during the war.

The construction of military vessels created an equally lucrative opportunity for contracting firms willing to adjust to the changing market. Before the onset of WWII, E-J Electric had devoted a large portion of its resources to motion picture theater and studio work. Once the United States entered the war, however, few contractors had the luxury of working on such comparatively trivial installations. Beginning with a contract to electrify four 176-ft PC Subchasers for Jefferson Boat & Marine in Jeffersonville, Ind., E-J moved into a market that would help the company stay afloat during the war.

Though the majority of electrical contracting needs was in government work, opportunities for private work still existed in limited supply. For those that could find new construction work, the economic structure of installations changed drastically when Price Administrator Leon Henderson passed a new regulation in 1942 offering specialized price control. A price ceiling kept prices of materials and labor at their March 1942 level. On jobs that were worth more than $500, contractors were to supply materials and labor at actual cost. The new regulations all but eliminated profits, but for electrical workers struggling to find any work at all, the work would have to do.

When the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, World War II came to an abrupt end. And so did the electrical contractor's duty to American military forces. There were no more ships to wire or bases to electrify; contractors were free to return to private installations, and there was more than enough work to go around. For the nearly four years the United States had waged war against the Axis powers, the need for domestic electrical work had steadily built, and it was time to turn attention back to the job of bringing power to all Americans.

Upon returning from Guadalcanal in May 1945, Chester Church had little trouble finding work. However, the idea of going back to General Electric no longer appealed to him; it was time for him to see if he could take the new skills the Navy had taught him and start his own business.

“By this time, I had a First Class Electrician rating,” Church says. “That's one thing the Navy did for me — they sent me to school for 3-phase, 4-wire training. I had an idea that Al [Murdock] and I could start a business and make a go of it.”

And they did. Learning of advances in wiring technology wasn't the only thing Church gained by serving in the Navy. The country was proud of its veterans, and many Americans thanked the boys for their service by throwing jobs their way. For Church, advertising his new business was unnecessary; just putting “veteran” on his business cards was more than enough to build a respectable client base. One citizen of Franklin Center, Pa., gave Church and his partner Murdock a job wiring his house and barn specifically because they were veterans. He even went so far as to promise to get the other area farmers to hire the pair, as well.

“Because we were both veterans, they gave us all the work we wanted,” Church says. “The reason they gave jobs to the vets is because they thought we served the country well. It was kind of payback, I guess.”

But relying on a military service record and friendly townspeople wasn't a luxury all electrical contractors had. Though there were plenty of jobs, there were more than enough contractors to take the work. It was becoming increasingly important for electrical workers to distinguish themselves from their competition, and competition had begun to come from unexpected places. Department stores like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward gave contractors a scare when they began selling wiring supplies at discount prices, and contractors worried it was only a matter of time before the stores began installing electrical systems. Their fears proved to be unfounded, but the lesson was learned: Providing good service and high-quality workmanship were admirable business practices, but they were wasted efforts if no one knew your name.

The electrical contractor could no longer settle for being just a tradesman; he had to be a salesman, as well. Contractors began hanging banners displaying their company name from the buildings they worked on. Others employed the local newspaper to spread the word of their qualifications.

With the growth of the business came an increasing demand for workers. When the Twentieth Century Fund predicted that 60 million Americans would be in the workforce by 1950, the question became how to get the men into jobs that fit their skills. Church and Murdock found the answer in union labor.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) was founded by Henry Miller in 1891. Ten delegates representing 286 members gathered for the first time in St. Louis on Nov. 21, 1891. From this humble beginning, the union grew to include more than 225,000 wiremen by 1941. Most electrical contractors at the time did not employ union labor, but 80% of the electrical construction in America in the early '40s went to the remaining 20% of electrical contractors who had union shops. It was becoming increasingly evident that the electrical contractor would have to learn to work with the union to succeed.

Church and Murdock had only been in business for themselves for little more than two years before they became a union shop. Up to that point, the Pennsylvania Electric Company (Penelec) had given the pair all the business they could handle. The fledgling contractors spent much of their time converting residential electric ranges and hot water tanks from 110V to 220V services. In 1948, Penelec came to Church and suggested he join Local 56 of the IBEW. It was up to him and Murdock, but the jobs from Penelec would dry up if they refused to go union. As far as the two were concerned, the decision to join didn't take much thought.

“We joined the union, and that was the best thing we ever did, because we went big then,” Church says. “We could bid on any job that there was.”

The partnership between the union and the electrical contractor was far from a happy one, however. The unions demanded better wages, improved working conditions, and shorter work weeks — and in most cases they got their way. Wiremen had organized themselves, and if the contractor wanted capable workers, he now faced a united front. Yet the subject was so taboo, “the average employer would no more write his frank views on the labor problem in a letter than he would set fire to his thumb,” wrote Earl Whitehorne of Electrical Contracting in 1941.

Chester's son Al, who now runs the business with Murdock's son Jess, characterized the relationship more harshly.

“It used to be the contractor and the union were enemies,” he says. But with the vast changes in the makeup of the electrical workforce over the last 50 years, the contractor and the union have learned to work together in a more amicable relationship.

The newfound bond has created an unlikely friendship in Chester's opinion.

“[Al and Jess] don't have any problems with the union they way we did,” he says. “We had to live up to their owners, and now I get a kick out of the way they talk back to them.”

Not only did the increasing workload create a need for more workers, it called for improved efficiency. Electrical contracting was no longer just a mission to bring electricity to America. It had evolved into a thriving business sector. As the bottom line took precedence, contractors were looking for better and faster ways of doing business.

For many contractors, estimating was — and still is — one of the more time-consuming tasks of the job. Not only was it tedious work, but it also created countless chances for mistakes. Without estimating software, the contractor has to trust his ability to transfer figures from one piece of paper to another; just one transcription error could throw off the entire estimate. The likelihood of mistakes troubled Wallace Brausell, former CEO of Fisk Corp., Houston, and he watched the steady improvements in automated estimating with interest.

“Any time you allow people to write numbers down, you increase the possibility for mistakes a thousand-fold,” he says.

To combat the problems inherent to manual estimating, Ralph E. Johnson, of Sturgeon Electric Co., Denver, developed the Estimatic Automated Estimating System in 1965. Though far from the computer-aided techniques of today, it was a giant leap forward. By feeding coded standard assemblies into electronic counters and recorders that automatically transferred the information to punched paper tape, estimates traveled by way of Western Union Telex telegraph lines to computers at another location. The rough estimate could be returned by the same method in less than 24 hours for final adjustments by estimators.

Predesigned assemblies used in these calculations took another step forward in 1973 with CELEST (Computerized ELectrical ESTimating). Instead of redrawing similar plans several times, estimators could refer to the hundreds of predesigned construction assemblies in the program that included material cost in dollars and the man-hours needed for each particular assembly. The contractor was well on his way to drastically reducing estimating time, and the growing technology that made it possible was the computer.

Few technological advancements had the impact on electrical contracting that the computer did. Not only did it improve estimating techniques, it became a tool for making business run smoother. Computer technology ushered in advances in production schedules, the ability to track productivity, and computer invoicing. By the mid-'80s, electrical contracting businesses that had yet to computerize their operations were virtually nonexistent — except for Church and Murdock.

“We operated quite a long time without computers,” says Al Church. “A lot of people couldn't believe that we didn't have computer operations for estimating and other tasks. We converted about six years ago. We were doing about $10 million a year, and we didn't have computers.”

According to Jess Murdock, Church's partner, the business simply didn't need to convert. “We were kind of dragged kicking and screaming into the computer age,” he says. “And the reason is we had several competitors who were doing about the same volume we did. We were operating with two secretaries and no computer, and they were operating with five to seven secretaries and a couple of computers. We couldn't see a whole lot of sense in switching over.”

Despite their hesitation, it proved to be a good move. “By the time we did switch over, it was almost mandatory,” Murdock says. “It's worked out well; we've had some glitches, but we've gotten used to it.”

Tony Mann, president of E-J Electric Installation, who became the third-generation of Manns to work for the company in 1986, finds it hard to imagine working before the dawn of the computer age.

“When I came in to the business, fax machines were just starting to be used commercially,” he says. “The process was much slower. But then again, with all the fast-tracking today, they still built the Empire State Building in 13 months.”

For all the broad improvements the computer brought to electrical contracting, it isn't the only technological advance to bring change to the business. Tools have come a long way from the days when Al Murdock first wired farmhouses in Erie, Pa. with his partner Church. In particular, his son Jess points to the bender as one instrument that has improved dramatically over the years.

“The benders and the drills have improved so much over everything we had to work with when I started in 1970 as an apprentice,” Murdock says. “With today's benders, all you have to do is throw the pipe in and hit a button, and the thing bends it for you. Before that, we had to measure all the angles and measure the rise on the bender. It's increased productivity tremendously.”

Keeping up with the changes in tools can be expensive, but as far as Church and Murdock are concerned, it's vital to the business. “We buy a lot of tools. There's no doubt about it,” Al Church says. “We both worked for other contractors when we were apprentices. A couple of them were really stingy on tools, and I think we both saw the light on that. We see a big difference in productivity with good tools. When a guy needs a new tool, if it's out there, we try it without a doubt.”

Throughout all the changes computers and tool improvements have brought about, however, the most important parts of installations haven't changed, according to Brausell.

“There are only certain ways you can actually get power to an area,” he says. “First of all, it has to be protected from human contact, because if it isn't, you get the shit knocked out of you. The other thing is, it has to be as efficient as possible, and there have been no innovations in the last 40 or 50 years that I'm aware of that have been better than wiring cable and bus duct.”

Those aspects of technology aren't the only things to remain similar over the years. Electrical contracting began in many cases as a family business built on personal relationships. Despite attempts by bigger roll-up companies to absorb smaller contracting firms for the purpose of specialization, the family nature of the business has remained intact. And for people like Chester Church, keeping the business in the family was extremely important.

“You build a business, and you're always happy if your son takes over,” Church says. “That's what happened here — two sons took it over, Al and Jess.”

Al Murdock, on the other hand, had no intention of encouraging his son Jess to follow in his footsteps. In fact, he went so far as to discourage him.

“My dad wanted me to go to college and do something different,” Murdock says. “He used to tell me that there were a lot better ways to make a living than being an electrical contractor. I didn't know he was right,” he says with a laugh.

For Mann, taking over the business from his father Bob, carried with it not only a sense of pride, but also one of pressure.

“There's always pressure to succeed when you're succeeding successful people,” he says. “But it made a difference that it was family, because when you come aboard, people realize that you're there because you're a family member, and you have to prove yourself even more than if you came in as an outsider.”

In the case of Al Church and Jess Murdock, the pressure didn't come from their fathers or coworkers, but instead from the community. With the poor track records of other second-generation businesses dogging them from the beginning, the pair even struggled to get financial backing from their bonding company and local bank.

“Everyone said we wouldn't make it six months,” Murdock says. “And then six months went by, and five years went by and we still heard rumors, and then 10 years went by, and people decided we were here to say. I haven't heard any of those rumors for a long time.”

Brausell attributes electrical contracting's enduring nature as a family enterprise to the fact that construction in general is a business of personal relationships.

“A general contractor firm doesn't do business with sub-contracting firms — it's people from the general contractor that do business with people from the sub-contractor,” he says. “It's very much a people business.”

There's no doubt things have changed since the early days of electrical contracting. Wiring techniques, tools, and the size of the industry have all seen vast improvements in the last 100 years. Yet, through it all, the basic tenants around which contractors like Chester Church and Al Murdock built their business remain intact today. Maybe that vaunted sense of pride and purpose the early contractors felt as they “electrified America” wasn't so unfounded after all. Maybe it's the ordinary American who has taken them for granted all along.

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