Peters-Eichler Mechanical (PE) is named after the two entrepreneurs who established the business in 1894. What began as a small piping company for the mechanical industry has grown into a well-known sheet metal, ductwork and piping business in St. Louis, Mo. Over the years, the company has changed hands several times. Dan Durphy bought out his father and two other partners in 1985, becoming full owner.
Dan grew up in the industry and began driving trucks for his father while still in high school. “I started working for the business in 1974,” Dan recalls. “I moved into the office in 1980.” Today, he oversees around 20 employees, most working in the field as well as two in the company’s fabrication shop. The crew works within a 100-mile radius of PE headquarters, serving diverse commercial customers with diverse and often complex needs.
Building a niche
PE has established lasting relationships with several commercial and institutional partners throughout St. Louis and the surrounding counties. One of the company’s largest markets is in the medical field, including health care and medical research facilities. “There are a lot of good mechanical contractors in our area,” Dan explains. “What sets us apart is our capacity to perform well on critical jobs, such as in hospitals, schools and other institutions. These are typically more technical projects.”
The team’s broad labor experience means clients can rely on PE to know complex mechanical systems inside and out. Many of these projects and systems are completely specific to the medical field. Over the years, these customers invite PE to bid on projects on a repeat basis. The company has longstanding relationships with several regional healthcare groups, research laboratories and universities.
One of these repeat clients is the Washington University Medical School. PE has performed many projects for the institution, most recently a unique installation. “We installed the mechanical systems for a cyclotron machine,” Dan elaborates. “This equipment is used in nuclear medicine, most commonly for the treatment of cancer. This was a very interesting project for us. We performed all of the process installation for piping and duct systems to the associated equipment.”
PE has performed many other projects for the school, including research laboratories with specialized exhaust systems. Another major client is the local children’s hospital, where the crew installed systems for operating rooms, as well as numerous other critical care areas. The projects require training and focus. While PE performs most of the work in-house, the team subcontracts controls and insulation. While most of these contracts are bid out, Dan tends to work within a specific network of subs that are qualified to perform the critical work that takes place in health care and research areas.
Strong partnerships comprise the backbone of PE. Dan and his team strive for lasting relationships with suppliers, subcontractors and clients. One relationship that has significantly benefited the business is with the Local 36 Union. PE has been a signatory contractor since 1975, when Dan’s father first became concerned about the role of independent contractors in the area.
“The biggest benefit for us has been the availability of qualified labor,” Dan explains. “The training program also plays a very big role for us, between the apprenticeship program and ongoing educational opportunities for journeymen. These classes offer our employees an edge by keeping them up to date with the demands of the industry. We also have a great network. We have quality working relationships with the other signatory contractors. We all see the value in working together to meet our needs in this business.”
Staying on track
Union benefits have helped the business stay stable, despite a rough few years throughout the recession and some market stagnation since. PE downsized by nearly 20 employees in 2008. Now, Dan’s focus is to remain steady as the economy stabilizes. With repeat work coming in steadily, he is cautiously optimistic about the future of the company.
In the coming years, his main goal is to maintain existing relationships. These repeat customers bring in revenue and keep his team busy. “That’s one of our biggest measures of success,” Dan explains. “We judge how well we are doing on how many times we get invited back to bid on another project. Other than that, we track the margins.”
As the margins gradually creep up, Dan and his team are ready to take on organic growth. PE celebrates 120 years in business in 2014, although Dan has no plans for a big celebration. “We’re happy to still be here,” he jokes. In the next few years, Peter-Eichler Mechanical will be expanding its market, but for now, the crew is focusing on what is most important: quality and service.
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