Chewning & Wilmer Inc.
For more than 90 years Chewning & Wilmer Inc. (C&W) has been a trusted name in large-scale electrical contracting, controls, instrumentation and mechanical. Based in Richmond, Virginia, C&W is the oldest electrical contractor in the state. “Over the years we have garnered a solid customer base and our name is pretty popular with most owners and general contractors,” says Robert Zahn, president of C&W. “Any large project that comes along, we at least get the opportunity to look at it.”
Most of C&W’s work is based in Virginia but the contractor is licensed throughout the country. “98 percent of our work is Virginia-based; we go north working with big clients such as Coors and down to South Hill – all the way east to Newport News,” says Zahn.
Today as a member of the Atlantic Coast chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (ACC-NECA), C&W deploys a highly skilled team of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) contractors. “We have approximately 344 field employees, including 30 construction electricians (CE) and 23 construction wiremen (CW),” notes Zahn.
Apprentice to president
Zahn, a certified journeyman himself, has worked his way up through the ranks at C&W since he started his career in 1980. After completing the Local 666 IBEW apprenticeship program, Zahn received an award of distinction from the apprenticeship committee. From 1985 to 1988, he worked as a journeyman and taught a National Electrical Code night class.
“I joined C&W in 1986 and worked as an electrician, then a foreman, scheduler, project manager onto vice president and finally president,” recounts Zahn.
Having been with C&W for nearly 30 years, Zahn has seen the company pull through tough times. “Before the recession we were working on 90 percent industrial projects for big-names such as Anheuser Busch, DuPont, Phillip Morris, Coors and large chemical companies, but then the recession hit and purse strings tightened up,” he recounts. “That’s when we started switching to more commercial work; now C&W does about 80 percent commercial and 20 percent industrial.”
Leveraging a competitive labor advantage
Moving into the commercial market not only gave C&W flexibility through lean years, but has also allowed the company to deploy a new class of labor; the Construction Wireman/Construction Electrician (CW/CE). “When we got into more commercial work it allowed us to utilize more CWs and CEs on projects,” measures Zahn.
“The industrial side requires a different skill set, some that CW/CEs don’t possess,” considers Zahn. “When you get into wiring, conveyors and special process systems that’s much more complex than a typical commercial building and that’s when you need a skilled journeyman.”
Zahn believes he knows a good worker when he sees one and says some CWs and CEs have made for more market share. “One of our CWs was once my waiter at Chili’s,” he recounts. “I asked him why he was waiting tables and he said it was because he lost his football scholarship due to an injury. I saw he had good hustle and asked if he wanted a job; I hired him the next day. He’s been working for us for about a year now and he’ll be getting into the apprenticeship program next year.”
It’s that same hustle and level of hard work Zahn looks for in every employee at C&W. “I keep my eyes out for people with that hustle and that want-to-work attitude,” he says. “From that point you can teach someone how to do electrical work, but they have to want to work.”
Zahn says benefiting from the new CW/CE program is a matter of what a company is willing to put in to it. “It’s like a golden token, but you’ve got to put it in a machine to win something with it,” he says. “Be patient and learn the process, because their [CW/CEs] success is totally dependent on you making them successful, but it will help you leverage business.”
In addition to leveraging CW/CEs to its advantage, Zahn says C&W has also brought on younger talent, bringing apprentices up through the ranks just as he did in 1985. “We’ve brought up younger project managers, developing them from within,” he says. “One of the owner’s sons who just graduated from college is in the mix. We didn’t go out and hire, we had them within our fold.”
But, the core of C&W’s team remains a talented team of journeymen, many of which are industry veterans. “It’s still a hard sell with the older journeymen in terms of CW/CEs,” admits Zahn.
Trusted union tradesmen coupled with a new class of labor has kept the ball rolling for C&W, landing the company major contracts. “In 2013 we finished the Capital One data center in Richmond, valued at $22 million,” says Zahn. “And now we’re just starting on the next phase of the Microsoft data center in Boydton, Virginia, with 160 electricians working on the $68 million electrical scope.”
Excellence day in and day out
Both of which have been named IBEW Code of Excellence projects. “The fact these have been named Code of Excellence projects is great, but at C&W that is how we see every job; we have our own self-imposed code of excellence,” says Zahn. “We don’t necessarily need the IBEW to give it a label because for us, excellence is a given.”
Holding every project to this high standard has helped C&W maintain a strong following, even after 90 years. “Some of it is luck and we were fortunate that some jobs that did very well, but mainly it’s just having a great name in the Richmond area, a solid customer base and frankly, just great people that work here in the office and the field,” says Zahn.
In a business that’s much more than running wires, a strong connection with ACC-NECA bodes well for C&W. “NECA provides us with valuable education above all else,” says Zahn. “We can learn, share and get ideas from other contractors in the same boat without competing against them on a day-to-day basis, there’s a wealth of knowledge from other quality contractors.”
Since 1924, Chewning & Wilmer Inc. has upheld its reputation for excellence day in and day out in the field and in relations with customers and fellow contractors.
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