Case Studies

Robert Ford Electric Company

A Leader in Collaborative Electrical Construction

Dr. Robert Ford worked as a partner in his family’s company for 17 years before he decided to start his own electrical contracting company. Building on the work ethic, integrity and standards that already proved successful for the family firm in its 45-year history, Ford founded the Robert Ford Electric Company (RFE) in 1976.

Today, RFE remains committed to providing electrical contracting excellence for large-scale commercial projects, operating on a philosophy of building trust and mutual respect with clients. As a signatory to the International Brother Hood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 98, RFE employs only the most highly trained, seasoned electrical workers, providing the highest quality workmanship, materials, equipment and service.

From its headquarters in Bryn Mawr, Pa., RFE offers its customers value-engineered services, traditionally operating throughout Pennsylvania and into New Jersey and Delaware. The main office is an 8,500-square foot office, and the company also maintains a presence in Longport, N.J., Ardmore, Pa., and Philadelphia, Pa. From these locations the company will travel across the country for clients under certain circumstances.

As Ford explains, “We are a design-build electrical contractor and we have our own engineering division, Coulter Engineers, which provides all of the electrical engineering for our work. Even though there are seven other firms in the area that we compete against, having our own engineering team makes us unique in our market. In fact, we will only travel outside of our normal range for customers who request our engineering services.”

Coulter Engineers has national certification and registration, allowed RFE to provide design-build services in all 50 states. The company’s industry knowledge and ability to address any evolving design or construction technique are reinforced by the company’s continued membership in the Design Build Institute of America (DBIA), the Institute of Electrical and Electric Engineering (IEEE), the Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), the National Council of Engineers and Surveyors (NCES), the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE), and the Society of American Value Engineering (SAVE).

Using the design-build method, RFE can take total responsibility for the design, construction and satisfactory completion of the project, guaranteeing sealed and insured sealed engineering drawings, establishing maximum price early in the process, and coordinating all parties involved for quicker response to issues/changes and a close adherence to projected scheduled. Industrial facilities, historical renovations, office buildings, high-rise complexes, shopping centers, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, automobile centers, restaurants and fast food chains are just some of the projects on which RFE has applied its skills.

Finding Strength in Small Numbers

Even though the company boasts large-scale electrical engineering capabilities, the firm itself is not so big. Instead of keeping a large number of employees on hand, REF works with a team attitude and subcontracts the work to a trusted group of specialists as a project’s necessities dictate. RFE’s knowledge of mechanical systems, such as HVAC, sprinkler and plumbing, allow for close work with subcontractors of all sorts.

“Essentially we divide up the work into segments based on the subcontractors’ capabilities, and it’s a win-win because we provide these smaller contractors the opportunity to work on large-scale projects that they might not be able to do on their own,” says Ford.

Of course, RFE understands that subcontractors can’t be paid in prestige, so the company works hard to ensure that contracts are laid out to the benefit of all parties involved. “We treat our subcontractors well, and because we always make sure they can make a profit as well they continue to work for us.”

So far, 2011 has proved to be an okay year for the company, but RFE has struggled to adjust to the extreme volatility of costs in a construction industry that demands cost estimation years ahead of breaking ground. “Fuel is actually not such a big deal to our bottom line, but it has contributed to the skyrocketing of raw material costs in recent years,” expands Ford. “We have seen costs go up as much as 25 percent from when we price a project out and when we place an order.” To combat volatile pricing, the company relies on a trusted network of suppliers, soliciting bids from each and doing business with the most competitively priced.

A Sharp Eye for Business

Currently, the firm is beginning work on one of Philadelphia’s most anticipated and controversial projects in decades. The Barnes Foundation’s new home in Philadelphia will ultimately offer over 91,000 square feet of exhibition space to house the renowned collection of post-impressionist and modern masterpieces acquired by Dr. Albert Barnes, at a cost of $200 million.

“We are responsible for the incoming main service, secondary distribution, site lighting, fire alarm systems and power supply to the building’s HVAC systems,” says Ford. Regardless of the politics surrounding the relocation of the collection, the new center has been designed specifically to replicate the collection’s original display, while emphasizing environmental sustainability and preservation of the works for generations to come.

Across town RFE has also found itself busy on a new high-rise hotel for extended stay guests, one of the firm’s largest contracts in recent years. “We’re building a new 11-story high-rise for Homewood Suites that is a design-build project with all of our own engineering,” relates Ford. “It’s 136 units that require a 13.2 KV substation, as well as an emergency generator, dual secondary transformer banks, lighting protection and the standard low voltage work.”

Even though RFE maintains a healthy volume of work, the increased competition in the market has proven a challenge for the company, and Ford has placed specific emphasis on hedging risk, putting his many degrees to work. Armed with an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s acclaimed Wharton School of Business, a doctorate degree from Southern California University, and a Ph.D. from KW University, Ford brings both industry experience and the shrewd business acumen of someone who has seen how quickly a company can find itself in trouble.

“This business is so intense and there is such great risk that you have to be on your toes at all times, tracking your profit margins daily,” says Ford. “The trouble with this industry is that you can find yourself in trouble very quickly and the reality of the industry is that you have to become much more educated in the legal aspects of the industry to survive, which most people aren’t trained for in this field.”

Though Ford is optimistic about the firm’s ability to take the economic downturn in stride, he is less sure about the economic realities of the area. “I just can’t tell you where we will be in another two years,” admits Ford. “As long as we are able to secure jobs similar in scale to the Homewood Suites contract, I think we will be okay, and if not, we might need to make other plans. The economic situation of this area is really awful and I think it will take a while for things to improve.”

Armed with an even-handed economic perspective and the ambition, integrity, reliability and performance to stay successful and profitable, Ford is sure to carry Robert Ford Electric Company on to the next generation.

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Spring 2018



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