Electrical Business

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Pre-buying, the union hall, product support… and other contractor issues

November 11, 2016 | By Anthony Capkun

November 11, 2016 – Product knowledge, skill specialization and competing against manufacturers who are supposed to be their partners were just some of the discussion points covered at “The Future of the Canadian Electrical Contractor”—a recent Electro-Federation Canada (Ontario Region) breakfast meeting.

The event was based on the report of the same name EFC revealed back in the Spring. After some commentary, the panel discussion commenced with electrical contractor reps from two companies, who were asked to share their views with the audience of manufacturers and distributors.

The discussion with Peter Calabrese, VP with Black & McDonald, and Rob Smith, manager of Pre-Construction with Guild Electric, essentially revolved around how both electrical contractors and their distributors are to remain relevant in the marketplace. Is this channel even viable any more? Are distributors doing all they can to ensure their contractor customers remain viable?

Food for thought: distributors
“The supply chain is very important to us,” said Smith. “The support they provide relieves some of the project planning pressure.”

But that doesn’t mean distributors should rest on their laurels. “Often, the guy on the other end of the phone [at the distributorship] is just an order-taker,” said Calabrese. “He doesn’t support the product. This erodes the relationship.”

“Distributors need to have some in-house product specialists we can turn to,” added Calabrese. We favour those distributors who support the product.”

Food for thought: manufacturers
“There is definitely an erosion of brand loyalty,” said Calabrese, who also noted, “Manufacturers are becoming our competition, then try to sell us product, too.” He also warned of “huge multinational EPCs who are muscling in”, who have the capacity to both build—and supply—most of the product.

On how manufacturers can do better, Smith said they should provide “better education, including on the products [themselves] and how to better sell them. Help end users understand why they should use the channel”.

Smith suggested, “Anything that reduces our risk is better. So a product that requires little assembly is good; but then we look at that cost compared to what we can build in our shop”.

Food for thought: the channel
One of the big issues both Calabrese and Smith brought up several times is that of pre-purchasing by either the end user or, increasingly, the general contractor… and the manufacturers who enable them.

“My biggest problem is the end user—especially general contractors these days—buying the product. We fight to stay in the supply chain,” said Smith.

“We’ve had end users ask us what we need, then go and buy it offshore. This complicates things like approvals, having things onsite when you need them, and so on,” Smith added, citing the example of lighting and controls. “The problem is with components being certified, but not [necessarily] the whole assembly.”

Food for thought: IBEW
With technological advances seemingly occurring every day, it’s not unreasonable to assume not every journeyman is going to know how to do everything. Both Calabrese and Smith believe future electrical projects will involve some degree of specialization, whether it’s wireless controls, building automation system integration, or what have you.

“It’s hard to be specialized in every field, so we’ll have to depend on subs for specialized work,” said Calabrese, noting, “Our problem will be getting guys from the union hall who have the skills we need.”

So there may be a skilled labour problem down the road… not with numbers, but skills.

“As for the future of the electrician, we’re going to see more technicians and technologists,” said Calabrese. As such, “The IBEW has to become a union—not just for electricians—but for people who install electrical product.”

Anthony Capkun, Editoracapkun@annexweb.com

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