Do Good Work, Diversify and Hobnob
Anybody who doubts the entrepreneurial value of a night on the town might be wise to follow the lead of Peter Striano. The chief executive of Unity International Group credits an exhausting schedule of evening hobnobbing as a key reason for winning contracts that have helped turn what was a low-key, two-truck electrical contracting business in 1974 into a global multimillion-dollar, multipronged operation today.
In fact, some of those earliest connections led to Unity's largest clients: blue-chip companies such as JPMorgan Chase. To wit: When it was known as Chase Manhattan Bank, the company hired Striano in the late 1970s to set up fledgling ATM machines. Today, Striano, 77, builds trading floors for the financial-services powerhouse.
The primary focus of the firm, which has about 800 full-time workers and numerous divisions, is electrical work and information technology systems. But Unity is far more than an electrical contractor. Early on, it made a savvy bet on the transformative potential of technology, which has allowed it to offer a host of ancillary services rare for an electrical contractor. Those services, including data center fit-outs as well as anti-terrorism market offerings, have helped insulate the company from the shocks of the recession.
That multipronged approach and the firm's staying power in an industry in which dozens of similar firms have failed in recent years have also helped Unity nab ENR New York's 2012 Specialty Contractor of the Year award.
Unity's data strategy has deep roots. In 1989, when Unity was called on to install electrical systems for Chase when it expanded to Four Metro Tech Center in downtown Brooklyn, the bank's executives asked Striano, "'Who can connect these new-fangled PCs on desks?' and Peter said, 'We can do that,'" says Bob Babcock, who handles marketing for the company.
From that decision came Uni-Data & Communications, the name of the company's IT arm, which is responsible for about 25 percent of the company's business.
Measured another way, the firm has set up 600,000 plain-jane desktop computers in the last 24 years while also creating 100,000 high-tech workstations for stock traders, says Joe Cooney, Uni-Data's division president.
Uni-Data and Unity Electric, the electrical arm, often work in tandem. For example, when JPMorgan Chase bought the 47-story tower at 383 Madison Avenue from Bear Stearns in 2008, after that investment bank collapsed, Unity Electric won the contract to install back-up generators at the site. Uni-Data followed close on its heels, setting up 3,000 computers.
Another competitive edge for Unity, which is based in Flushing, Queens, and has offices in New Jersey, Florida and London, stems from its ability to meet tight deadlines, according to those who have worked with the company.
Indeed, the company was given just 10 months to lay the low-voltage cables connecting fire alarms, security cameras and TV screens at the JetBlue terminal at JFK Airport, a $20-million project where Unity functioned as a subcontractor for Turner Construction.
Similarly, Unity had just six months to wire the new Yankee Stadium before the first pitch was thrown there in April 2009. The $60-million job, Unity's priciest to date, included the installation of scoreboards, a public address system and restaurant lights, all of which Unity still maintains.
To be ready for opening day, Unity had to double its work force to 120 while mandating a nearly round-the-clock production schedule, Cooney says. He recalls the stress, toward the end of the job, that accompanied the sound checking of thousands of speakers using 1,000-hertz "boops." Discovering that they were calibrated correctly produced "quite a sigh of relief," he says.
The company continues to diversify. An emerging focus on electricity from renewable sources led Unity to help construct a just-completed, 20-megawatt solar powerplant in Tinton Falls, N.J. The farm boasts 85,000 ground-mounted solar panels and is said to be one of the largest solar farms in the Northeast.
Unity also introduced a cloud-computing hosting service in 2007 for remote data storage. While it represents just 5 percent of Unity's revenue stream, the service is used by 3,500 local businesses, including hundreds of Sunoco gas stations.
Inching into the counterterrorism space, the company has partnered with Building Protection Systems Inc. The San Francisco company makes sensors that detect whether toxic chemicals or radiation have seeped into a building's ventilation system.
Currently, the sensors are used inside the Newark, N.J., headquarters of Prudential, the insurance behemoth, which is also one of Unity's largest clients. Unity handles everything for the firm from changing its light bulbs to creating intranets for its computers at 215 facilities, which represent 8.6 million sq ft of office space nationwide.
Unity is "very responsive," says Michael Perrette, Prudential's vice president for corporate facilities. "You can always rely on them to do a good job."
Perrette admits that a perfect storm of unfavorable trends has hurt the electrical contracting business in the last decade, like LED lights that can last for 50,000 hours versus the 2,000 hours of their fluorescent predecessors. House calls by electricians aren't as necessary as they used to be.
On the other hand, the category 1 cables that could amply handle data loads a few years ago are now mostly inadequate. This means that they need to be replaced with category 6 cables, Perrette says.
While other electrical contracting firms have closed, Unity has powered ahead as evidenced by its revenue growth. At the height of the construction boom in 2007, the company posted sales of $190.6 million, followed by $234.5 million in 2008, according to company data. By 2009, when the recession was in full swing, Unity had $211.3 million in revenue, though it stumbled recently, with $150.5 million in 2010. While still below its recent peak, the company managed to boost revenue to $179.7 million in 2011.
That total was still good enough to rank Unity as the fourth-largest firm participating in ENR's annual survey of specialty contractors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In terms of employee relations, Unity gets high marks from the Local 3 chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. Management, which renegotiates a collective bargaining agreement with IBEW every three years, is known for paying its employees punctually, says Vincent McElroen, the chapter's financial secretary. "You are always grateful for an employer that fulfills their contractual obligations without coercion," he says.
Meanwhile, Striano supports Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens. He is also involved with the Ronald McDonald House New York, which focuses on pediatric cancer, and the NephCure Foundation, which takes aim at kidney disease.
Though Striano is well past retirement age, he remains active in the company and still goes out on the town four nights a week, which is critical to fattening his Rolodex, colleagues say.
That public persona is possible because Unity offers such reliable services, says Mike Neary, chief operating officer of contractor Structure Tone, which has partnered with Unity for renovations of New York's Sheraton, Hyatt and Westin hotels.
"You are not afraid to meet and greet people because of the quality of work you have done," Neary says. "You can hold your head high because you have done a good job."