Case Studies

Herbst Electric Company

Northern Ohio's multigenerational heavy industrial choice contractor

With more than 70 years in the greater Cleveland electrical contracting market, Herbst Electric Company (Herbst) is the product of three generations of father-son teams and a strong union Local 38 member of the National Electrical Contractors Association of Greater Cleveland Chapter (NECA GCC). Herbst’s varied experience and expertise in northern Ohio allows the company to design and coordinate projects of nearly any size and scope, particularly in the heavy industrial and high voltage sectors.

“We’re different from most electrical contractors in our market,” shares John Benevento, now president of Herbst. “We’re doing something different every day – one day we’re in a steel plant, the next a wastewater treatment facility or automotive plant. Our broad scope of work really keeps things interesting and the Local 38 electricians love working for us because the work is interesting and challenging.”

The in-house advantage

From substations to wastewater plants and much more, Herbst tackles highly complex projects others shy away from or simply do not have the resources to complete. “Herbst has the technical expertise of three in-house electrical engineers on staff,” says Benevento, who’s one of the engineers himself. “We work with Fortune 500 companies by taking projects cradle to grave, electrically speaking, from power and controls to systems integration -whatever they need; if it has wires, we do it.”‘

Benevento says the company also has design-build know-how in the medium to high voltage sector, a strength his father brought to the table when he purchased Herbst 25 years ago. “Medium voltage and high voltage is our other forte,” he reveals. “We do tons of substations annually, something many contractors in town don’t do. In fact, we often perform this work for them and they bring us in as a subcontractor.”

Herbst also has the in-house advantage of its own prefabrication and training center in Cleveland. “Most contractors our size don’t have this advantage,” measures Benevento. “We’re able to design and prefabricate components and then ship to the site to accelerate the pace of the job. This has been a hot-button issue with NECA lately, finding ways to save labor and be more competitive. Sometimes guys go out into the field with tools and materials but not enough of a plan. We’re able to map out the job and start the process in-house before we reach the field.”

Herbst Electric CompanyMultigenerational success

Today, Herbst can deploy up to 150 Local 38 union wiremen in the field when running larger projects. “Right now we’re running at about 65 employees,” says Benevento. But the company started out much smaller in 1944.

“Herbst was originally founded by Herman Herbst in the early 1940s and he brought in his son who ran the company into the 1960s,” tells Benevento. “The company was then sold to an employee and he and his son ran it until 1989 when my father purchased Herbst; so over its history, Herbst has been led by three different father-son teams.”

Benevento joined the company ranks in 1992 after graduating from the General Motors Engineering and Management Institute (GMI), now known as Kettering University. “My father was a Local 38 wireman and he worked for a large local competitor as general superintendent for 32 years,” he recounts. “I went to GMI for electrical engineering and when I graduated my father called me and said he was going to quit his job after 32 years and wanted to know if I wanted to go into business together. He knew Herbst was for sale and the then owner was 70 years old and the company was ready for a new beginning.”

The rest is history and the continuation of a traditional father-son executive team at Herbst. “You don’t hear about a lot of third-generation businesses, let alone three generations of father-son teams” compares Benevento. “I have three children and hope that someday they will follow and take over as well. My father has been retired for about ten years.”

The technical ability to keep facilities up and running

Until the next generation, Herbst is furthering its reputation in northern Ohio in the heavy industrial and high voltage markets. “We’re well-known for our wastewater work; we have more than $15 million going in treatment work right now,” details Benevento. “Herbst recently changed out $6 million worth of double ended unit substations for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in less than a year with no major outages or interruptions to plant operations. Not your average contractor chases this kind of work.”

Herbst completed the project, changing out 13 double-ended substations and automating the plant’s distribution system. “Essentially, we made the plant much safer and easier to operate,” explains Benevento. “We came up with an alternative to the original plan and changed the design, because originally, it was going to be a standard substation. Our electrical engineers proposed an automated General Electric Co. [GE] product -the GE Entellisys substation for the low-voltage switchgear.”

“We also installed a water pumping station just around the corner from our office for the city of Cleveland Division of Water,” tells Benevento. “Herbst finished the raw water pumping station complete with all aspects of electrical construction, including large medium voltage motors.”

From substations and wastewater plants to the high-process manufacturing in the pharmaceutical sector, Herbst is unafraid of a challenge. “We’ve completed more than 500,000 square feet for an area pharmaceutical client that included a great deal of unique and complex work,” describes Benevento. “Everything in this industry is tracked through clean good manufacturing process [cGMP]. It’s very technical contract work; you really have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s, as well as adhere to very tight time schedules.”

Herbst is no stranger to specialized work. At NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center at the Lewis Field building, the company is electrically re-building a massive compressor system. “We’re just getting started on retrofitting the indoor switch gear and installing a refurbished 10,000-horsepower motor,” details Benevento.

With a broad range of demanding projects, Benevento says Herbst is one of the few Local 38 members to keep moving strong through 2008 and the recession. “We have a strong customer base and we do a lot of projects that are not on the street, so to speak, or out for public bid,” he measures. “We land many of these jobs because of our reputation.”

Leveraging an advantage

Upholding a reputation of excellence and a higher standard for electrical work is the key to Herbst success as a respected NECA member contractor. “As a NECA member contractor we have great capability and understanding to deal with union issues while maintaining good relations on the union side,” says Benevento. “Coming together as a team makes it so you’re not out there on your own – it really makes a difference.”

Aside from long-lasting cooperative relationships with other NECA contractors, Benevento says the annual NECA trade show and convention, held in Chicago in 2014, gives the company insight into the latest and greatest the industry has to offer. “We invest heavily in technology and new tools, an area many of our competitors are falling behind in,” he compares.

In 2013, Herbst full time safety director managed to obtain a $65,000 grant from the state of Ohio to help improve the company’s ergonomics. “We gave a battery drill and impact tool to every one of our guys last year,” tells Benevento. “We did the same thing with a small hammer drill with a built-in vacuum cleaner, so when you’re drilling holes in concrete the dust gets sucked right back up and the guys in the field don’t have to breathe it in.”

As one of the youngest owners of a Local 38 company, Benevento, who sits on NECA GCC’s pension and benefits committee, says benefits are a big deal. “I’m doing my best to make our NECA contractors and the union as solvent as possible to insure a stable future,” he explains.

A competitive non-union class

Working with NECA allows Herbst to leverage an advantage, especially in a competitive Cleveland market saturated with nonunion, less expensive labor. “NECA has introduced the Construction Electrician-Construction Wireman (CECW) classification to help combat union employers loosing bids to nonunion contractors, particularly in light commercial and retail projects,” says Benevento. “Unfortunately, CECWs don’t fit our business model yet. I’ve made the point to the union that CECWs could also be useful in the heavy industrial market.”

“Heavy industrial contractors in Ohio have done well for years due to a strong presence, but it’s fading away,” he measures. “One or two good nonunion competitors can take a large portion of your business in the matter of a couple of years, so we need to be proactive and not think about just commercial and residential projects. We need to look at the whole market.”

Despite combating less expensive nonunion labor, Benevento says the future is bright for Herbst. “Both Herbst and the area are going to see moderate growth,” he shares. “The economy is coming back stronger and there’s pent-up demand in Cleveland area.”

Cleveland is now drawing major events such as the Republican National Convention with a brand new convention center. “This is a point of positive growth for the city and will bring more and more business; we’re even pushing for a future NECA convention here,” adds Benevento.

With more projects on the horizon, Herbst Electric Company continues a 70-year tradition of multigenerational leadership backed by in-house engineering, fabrication, design and highly skilled union labor.

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Spring 2018



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