The Electrical Worker online
June 2013

New Business Development Team
Goes Straight to the Customer

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Two years ago as an International Representative in the Eleventh District, John Bourne was approached by a business manager with a mystery.

"John Weyer, business manager of Burlington, Iowa, Local 13, saw someone installing twin 24-inch gas pipes, big enough to supply thousands of houses, but this was in the middle of the country," Bourne said. "He said, 'I don't know what it is. What can you do to help me find out and get this job?'"

The project was shrouded in secrecy. No one seemed to know much about the new company said to be behind the pipe's construction, the Iowa Fertilizer Company.

At that point, Bourne could have alerted a signatory contractor or two that something was up and hoped that one of them would make a bid when the time came. No one would have faulted him for not doing more because, after all, the IBEW's role is to do the work and organize workers and contractors across the electrical industry. The contractor's job is to get the work.

"How customers make decisions is something we never had to worry about before. We were happy with 'They bid it. We did it,'" Bourne said. "We don't have that luxury, if we ever did. If we wait for the bid, we'll be stuck at 30 percent market share forever."

Over the next 12 months, Bourne and Weyer called on dozens of people to find out what the pipe was for, who was paying for it and how to get Iowa workers and Local 13 members on the job.

They discovered that the gas lines were part of a $1.6 billion fertilizer plant, the largest capital investment in Iowa history. Behind the Iowa Fertilizer Company was the Egyptian infrastructure and energy construction giant Orascom.

The Construction and Maintenance Department shot a video explaining why working with the IBEW was the best business decision Orascom could make. IBEW members had the right skills, of course, but they also highlighted the strength of IBEW connections to the community, political leaders and state and federal regulators.

Local 13 members are already working on the early stages of the project, and Davis says he is optimistic that when the full electrical contract is put out to bid, a NECA contractor will get the job and IBEW members will do the work.

"What you find out is that most customers want the help," Bourne said. "If you're offering them a hand of friendship, they'll take it."

Organizing the Work

Winning back market share by going straight to the businesses that pay for the projects and hire the contractors is the central purpose of the IBEW's new business development program, launched at the beginning of the year. Three International Representatives are already out in the field: Bourne in the Midwest and the Rockies; Ed Hill Jr. in the East Coast and the Middle Atlantic and Tom Davis on the West Coast, the Southwest and the South.

Business development is among several market recovery programs approved by delegates as resolutions at the 2011 IBEW Convention in Vancouver, a group of initiatives that includes the national advertising campaign, more organizers and a new training program to get the rank-and-file into the heart of organizing campaigns.

"First we organize the workers. Then we organize the contractors. Now we're organizing the work," said Jerry Westerholm, Director of the Construction and Maintenance Department.

Resolution 38 called for an ongoing program, "to aggressively seek and secure work for all IBEW members by building partnerships and engaging in customer marketing outreach."

"Too often, if we reach out to a customer we'll just say, 'We're here. We're the best trained electricians in the world.' It's true, but we're more than that," Westerholm said. "We have political connections, community connections, investments in companies. Our instructors often sit on the committees that write building codes. We are a valuable partner to have."

Westerholm said he brought Davis, Hill, Bourne and International Representative Jim Ayrer together in September 2012 to translate those goals into realizable tasks. They have broken down the job into four parts: develop relationships with present and future customers, research new job opportunities, raise the IBEW's profile and train locals how to do business development themselves.

One of their key tools is Project Tracker, an online database of upcoming construction jobs. Project Tracker consolidates information gleaned from specialized publications, trade journals and the information entered by districts and local officers.

"Project Tracker is the starting point, because in that database is every local's future," Ayrer said. "It's up to us make sure that work is ours, and the earlier we talk to customers about how we can help them, the more leverage we will have."

There is plenty to start with. Project Tracker was launched in 2011 and there are now more than 100,000 jobs in the system.

"There is so much work out there, it's a challenge figuring out where to start," Hill said. "But we're at 30 percent market share right now. We're like that general who told his men, 'The bad news is we're surrounded. The good news is we can attack in any direction we want.'"

Setting Priorities That Win Back Market Share

A handful of other trades have business development teams, but there are few examples for them to follow. The challenge of prioritizing is particularly acute for Davis, whose turf extends from Seattle to San Diego and across the south.

Davis says he is targeting three industries: oil and gas, shipping and fertilizer production. All three industries are driving billions of dollars of new construction across his territory and involve a relative few customers. Sasol, for example, has announced a $20 billion plant in Lake Charles, La., that converts natural gas into liquid fuels. While natural gas processing will be especially important along the Gulf Coast, there is a $6 billion uranium processing plant going up in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and multibillion dollar potash mining projects planned for northern Arizona. Ports nationwide are preparing now for the increase in traffic that will follow completion of the Panama Canal expansion project in 2015.

"We are getting insight into the dynamics of the construction industry as a whole," Davis said. "The better we understand what drives our customers, the better we will be at talking to them about how we can help them solve their problems."

Hill said the dollar value of an individual project won't always determine if he gets involved. There is a $17-35 million hotel project in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is providing research and relationship-building support to Local 241 Business Manager Mike Talarski.

"A smaller hotel doesn't have a high number of work hours, but it helps the local learn how to do it," Hill said. "And we can leverage good work here into work in other places for these clients."

Hill has also been focused on winning back small commercial development, like retail pharmacy chain CVS. While each store isn't very large, each year CVS spends $1.2 billion on capital projects.

Hill had developed a relationship with the regional director of construction at CVS who asked Hill for some help finding more minority-owned contractors. There are more than 300 minority-owned National Electrical Contractors Association signatory contractors, and Hill helped connect some of them with CVS, but he also made sure the executive understood that the IBEW could help him in other, even more valuable ways.

"We have a lot of reach in a lot of areas, and we can leverage them to help our customers," Hill said. "Honestly, I think they were surprised that we were talking about helping them, because, I think in their minds, unions are something you deal with, not a resource you can take advantage of."

Already there have been new opportunities for work, but more importantly, the IBEW has a direct relationship with a national customer that is good for all sides. The key, he said, is speaking to people who are senior enough in an organization that they are thinking about the value of a proposal, not just the cost.

"If they value community connections, we will talk about volunteerism at the local. Some might need finance help. Some want political help," he said. "It is critical that we are productive and keep costs low, but if that's all we talk about, we are selling ourselves short."

How to Work with Business Development

Today, Bourne says about 60 percent of the projects he works on come from him approaching a local or district office about an opportunity and 40 percent begin when a business manager contacts him, but he expects requests from locals to increase quite a bit.

"People have forgotten who we are, because we stopped telling them and even if we had a business development representative in each state it wouldn't be near enough," he said. "But if we can start teaching everyone — from the business manager and local president down to the first-year apprentice — that it is part of the job to pick up the phone and a call a customer, that will be an important difference."


John Bourne


Ed Hill Jr.


Tom Davis


Jim Ayrer

New U.S. Construction
is on the Rise
The pool of projects for the IBEW's business development team to choose from is vast and growing. 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau