Case Studies

Rock River Electric

New facility gives electrical contractor room to breathe and socialize

This summer, Rock River Electric will host a big event in an even bigger space. After 10 years of business and with a new 12,000-square-foot facility in Colona, Illinois, Rock River Electric certainly has reason to celebrate.

Before moving into its new facility in late 2016, Rock River Electric was bursting at the seams of its old, 600-square-foot office space and its makeshift shop—rental storage garages with temporary power, lighting and heating running to them—wasn’t doing the trick anymore. So, its new location is long-awaited; it’s room to breathe. The new space is also a place to hold the kinds of social gatherings important to Rock River Electric, a company proud of its family-like culture.

Rock River Electric

In 2007, TJ Thompson opened Rock River Electric with his wife and current vice president Marisa Thompson and a since-retired partner. Everyone cautioned the trio not to grow too fast.

“We tried to do the exact opposite,” Thompson says. “We’ve grown as needed.”

Today, Rock River Electric is one of the largest electrical contractors in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 145. The company serves a 120-mile radius around its Colona, Illinois, facility, including the Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois.

Time for a switch

In Rock River Electric’s first few weeks, the founders hired two employees. After a couple of months, they hired another two. Within a year, the company had a team of 10. Then there were 15. Today, Rock River Electric floats between 30 and 40 electricians.

But while the company grew, its office did not.

“We made do with what we had,” Thompson says, explaining that they put in long hours to build the company and its client base.

When Rock River Electric was completely out of space, the company bought five acres of land about 300 yards down the road. There, it built 4,000 square feet of office space and 8,000 square feet of storage and shop space. It still has plenty of room to grow—but only as needed.

Thompson is careful to point out that this isn’t a horse-before-the-cart situation. Rock River Electric didn’t build in order to grow.

“We kept getting work, hiring more people, and absolutely had nowhere else to go but into a bigger facility,” Thompson says. “We stretched our old office shop as far as we could, as long as we could.”

Financially, it has paid off, and Thompson is especially proud of the fact that the new location is fully paid for. “That’s unheard of, especially in the contracting world, to start a business, grow the way we have and be able to pay for a new facility in the first 10 years,” he says.

Lighting up the Quad Cities

Even before expanding into its new space, Rock River Electric was able to tackle anything from the $100 residential lightbulb change to multi-million dollar jobs.

The company is especially proud of one of its current projects, the $3.3-million additions and renovations at Geneseo High School in Geneseo, Illinois. That work includes new site lighting, a new football stadium and lighting by MUSCO Sports Lighting LLC, a new concert hall and theater, a new fire alarm system, new paging, intercom and data communications wiring, and a complete remodel of the existing school.

What makes that job even more special for Rock River Electric is that both TJ and Marisa Thompson graduated from Geneseo High School, and their three children attend the same school district.

Thompson says another “big one” was performing all of the electrical work for DICK’s Sporting Goods’ new stores in Moline and Joliet, Illinois, as well as a building that houses three retailers— Field & Stream, DICK’s Sporting Goods and Golf Galaxy—under one roof in Davenport, Iowa.

In the last few years, Rock River Electric has taken on multiple hotel projects, including a Holiday Inn Express in Moline, Illinois; Homewood Suites in Davenport, Iowa; Hilton Garden Inn in Bettendorf, Iowa; Holiday Inn & Suites in Davenport, Iowa; and most recently, a Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in Peoria, Illinois.

Rock River Electric

Rock River Electric also completed multiple residential apartment complexes and retirement homes, including the 61-unit Village of Crow Creek in Davenport, Iowa; the 31-unit Chase Bank Apartments in Moline, Illinois; and a 48-unit, historic preservation project for the Jackson Renaissance, also in Davenport.

Rock River Electric also serves residential clients and maintains a full residential division. Thompson says, “It is important to keep a balance between commercial, residential and industrial work as an economic buffer. This allows for us to maintain a diverse workforce and customer base,” adding that all customers, small and large, get equal treatment.

There seems to be plenty of work in the 120-mile radius Rock River Electric serves around Colona, Illinois, and Thompson says Rock River Electric is one of the hardest contractors to beat.

“We bid very competitive, and are able to land the jobs, turn them around, and still make money by working faster, more efficient and with less overhead than our competition,” he says. “Good manpower, good management and good communication—when you’ve got all that, I believe things will run smooth.”

Rock River Electric’s new facility gives the company another advantage. Now, it will be able to complete more prefabrication work in its shop, saving time and money, in part, by allowing less-skilled workers to play a greater role on larger projects.

Hiring the brightest bulbs

The only real challenge Rock River Electric faces is finding enough labor, and that’s a challenge shared by the construction industry as a whole.

“There’s not enough manpower for us to get as big as what we could be,” Thompson says. “So our downfall right now, if anything, and this is not a bad thing, is manpower. There’s not enough labor to go around for the amount of work that I could run through this company.”

It helps that Rock River Electric can pull from its Local 145 IBEW chapter, and the company relies heavily on its union apprentices, at times employing equal numbers of apprentice and journeymen electricians. Rock River Electric has low employee turnover, and part of the appeal, Thompson says, is the company’s culture.

Rock River Electric

“It’s a family atmosphere,” he says. “We’re all one company and work as a team. We take the job serious and do what it takes to get it done. It’s not always fun, nor is it easy, however, we can all sit back at the end of the day, relax, have a drink and laugh about it. That’s what makes it fun.”

Rock River Electric hosts frequent get-togethers, like its annual Christmas party, and occasionally has chartered a bus to bring employees and their spouses to a Chicago Cubs or St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. From an employee having a baby to a family member passing away, the company stands united together. Rock River Electric supports its team both on and off the job.

“We just take care of them, and in turn, they take care of us,” Thompson says.

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