Five-Year-Old Specialty Contractor Quickly Finds Footing
From day one it could be argued that C3M Power Systems was already a top specialty contractor in the MidAtlantic region. Formed in 2014 by four executives and roughly 50 employees who had previously worked together at a Reston, Va.-based firm, the Capitol Heights, Md.-based electrical contractor entered the market with a wealth of experience, working for notable clients in the rail, aviation, highway and utilities sectors nationwide. As a wholly owned subsidiary of Clark Construction Group, the firm also had the backing of a 113-year-old, $4-billion company.
Still, C3M needed to quickly prove itself in the market. Early wins of new work with transportation agencies and successful completion of projects helped the company steadily build revenue and backlog. In 2018, the company tallied $37.18 million in regional revenue, up 23% from 2017. Despite a challenging labor market and a war for staff-level talent, the company has more than tripled its workforce since its formation.
Given its impressive track record, ENR MidAtlantic named C3M Power Systems its Specialty Contractor of the Year.
The company is led by the executive team of Mark Ketchel, senior vice president; Chuck Hinton, vice president; Chuck Tomasco, vice president; and Kevin Kilfeather, vice president—industry veterans who all worked together at Truland Systems until that firm filed for bankruptcy in 2014. In spite of the financial collapse of Truland, Tomasco says the four executives maintained a successful book of business in the transportation and infrastructure sectors. “We all liked what we were doing together,” he says. “Our portion of the business did well. We had a good backlog at that point, and we were growing. We wanted to continue what we were doing together.”
Tomasco says his group also was guided by a “conservative and sustainable” approach to business and with Clark it found a like-minded partner. “One reason we’ve been such a good fit as a part of this organization is because we think the same way about risk,” he says. “If we were cowboys, I don’t think we would have thrived here. Likewise, if they were pushing us to make decisions that we didn’t feel were right for our people, we would have had a hard time thriving here.”
C3M officially planted its flag when it was awarded a contract on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Orange and Blue Line Rehabilitation, a multiyear project that spanned 27 miles of track and 23 stations of the Washington, D.C., region’s Metrorail system. C3M’s scope included design-build delivery of traction power work on the project. It received a National Electrical Contractors Association 2019 NECA Project Excellence Award, one of 17 projects across the U.S. to be recognized this year.
In other recent recognitions, C3M was part of the team on the CSX Virginia Avenue Tunnel Reconstruction project, which was named ENR MidAtlantic’s Project of the Year for 2019.
In 2018, the firm completed a diverse array of projects in the MidAtlantic region, including a multiyear modernization of the Personal Rapid Transit system at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Ongoing work includes the Interstate-395 Express Lanes project in northern Virginia and rehabilitation of the train control system for Pittsburgh’s light-rail transit system.
As C3M has grown, so has the size of its projects. The firm recently won its largest project to date, a $69-million rehabilitation of electrical substations for WMATA. Looking at future opportunities, Tomasco says he sees the company as well-positioned to win projects with alternative delivery methods. “We have design-build projects, progressive design-build projects, CM at-risk projects and hard bid,” he says. “We keep it diverse, but we feel alternative delivery is a place where we shine because we bring skills to a team.”
Notably, Tomasco sees multiple opportunities on the horizon for C3M to be the electrical prime contractor on design-build projects. “Typically, these opportunities are GC-led, not electrical contractor-led, but there are a bunch in the market that we are pursuing now and will be next year,” he says.
Phil Sheridan, senior vice president at Clark, says C3M brings a “critical in-house capability to further augment our position in the transit space.”
But while C3M is a Clark Construction Group subsidiary, the majority of C3M’s work has no connection to its parent company. In addition to WMATA, the firm has also recently worked directly for LA Metro in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and the city of Seattle. It also has worked for other general contractors, including Hensel Phelps, Stacy & Witbeck and Herzog Contracting.
C3M is scheduled to modify Hampton Roads Transit system’s overhead contact system next year. “We’re going to install counterweights on each end to control the tension of the wire as it expands and contracts with weather,” says Mark Stemple, the agency’s director of technical services, adding, “I’d put them in the upper echelon of good contractors.”
To keep up with demand, C3M has had to dramatically scale up the size of its workforce. The company started with 10 office staffers and about 50 field employees. Five years later, it has an office staff of 35 with 170 field employees. In addition to its Capitol Heights main office, it maintains jobsite offices in Atlanta, Seattle and Los Angeles.
Throughout its growth spurt, Tomasco says the company has remained focused on attracting and retaining young talent. Its program piggybacks on Clark’s efforts to recruit college grads and interns from leading universities across the U.S. “Many of those interns end up coming back to work for us,” he adds.
C3M also participates in Clark’s management training program, which includes development programs at various stages of career progression, starting with Project Management Boot Camp for those making the transition between engineer and manager roles. Four C3M team members will graduate from that program next year. C3M also draws on Clark’s Darden Executive MBA Program at the University of Virginia, with the aim of graduating one C3M team member per year. Kivins Beecher is two courses away from graduating from the program. The 37-year-old project executive says the classes provide high-level financial, management and negotiating skills that a worker can’t get on the jobsite. “It gives you the tools and the comfort level to take ownership of larger company issues instead of the day-to-day issues you are used to in running a job,” Beecher adds.
In addition to supporting the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ apprenticeship training program, this year C3M started its own Field Development Group, a program to provide electricians professional skills to become supervisors. The inaugural class of six people will graduate next year.
Although C3M’s team members are part of a growing organization within a much larger company, Tomasco says management strives to maintain an atmosphere “where people know each other and have access to all levels of the business. Everyone keeps a pulse on how we’re doing. We were conscious about maintaining that.”
C3M holds monthly all-hands team meetings to share developments within the company, including ongoing pursuits, new projects and current initiatives. All team members are encouraged to share ideas for improvement. One recently implemented suggestion was to hold quarterly events planned and organized by a different employee each quarter. That person takes responsibility for identifying an activity and planning the event. Recently, events included axe throwing and go-kart racing.
C3M also supports charitable efforts and community events, including contributing funds to multiple college scholarship programs, packing toiletry kits for residents of a women’s shelter in Washington, D.C., and contributing funding and time to assist a therapeutic horseback riding program in Northern Virginia with the expansion of its facility.
Although C3M has seen significant growth in a short period of time, Tomasco says the company is committed to taking a conservative approach toward expanding its business. Given the events that led to the formation of C3M, he notes that the management team is acutely focused on how its business decisions could affect employees.
“When people talk about construction, they talk about buildings or highways or facilities,” Tomasco says. “The reality is that when you’re running a business, you produce that stuff, but the business is your people. When I come to work every day, I don’t meet with buildings, I meet with people. That’s the way we think about it. When you let that guide your decisions, you make decisions in a different way.”