Subcontractors Skittish About Prospects for Work in 2009

(To view a list of the top mechanical subcontractors, click here. A list of the top electrical subcontractors can be viewed by clicking here. Spreadsheet versions of the mechanical and electrical subcontractor lists are also available.)

The revenue numbers belie the apprehension many Arkansas mechanical and electrical subcontractors are feeling.

Most firms who provided information for the annual list of the state's largest electrical and mechanical subcontractors reported 2008 revenue totals near those reported for 2007.

But several company executives said forecasting results for 2009 has been tough. Few projects are currently out to bid and those that are receive unprecedented numbers of bidders, the executives report. Many worried what business would look like after their companies finished existing backlogs of work.

"As we begin 2009, we are definitely seeing lesser opportunities," said Clyde A. Jester, president of Comfort Systems USA (Arkansas) Inc. The company ranked second on the mechanical list, posting $38.6 million in revenue for 2008. "We are seeing fewer opportunities, so I don't know how 2009 will end up looking."

He later added, "I don't have any major projects on my radar."

This year may be looking shaky, but most subcontractors survyed reported 2008 revenue comparable to 2007 numbers.

Only one company made a move in the rankings: Multi-Craft Contractors Inc. of Springdale is now No. 2 on the electrical list, posting $19 million in 2008 revenue. The total inched Multi-Craft past Central Industrial Electrical Co. of North Little Rock, which reported $18.2 million in 2008 revenue. Multi-Craft also claimed the mechanical top spot, posting $43 million in 2008 revenue.

Koontz Electric Co. Inc. of Morrilton retained its spot atop the electrical list, reporting $32.5 million in 2008 revenue.

The lists' totals are reported by the companies and can't be verified.

Competition Increasing
A common concern among executives was that new business is hard to come by.

"This is the smallest backlog we have had going into the year for several years," Mike Hocutt, president and CEO of Clark Power Corp. of Little Rock, said.

Marrs Electric Inc. of Arkansas, which is headquartered in Springdale, began experiencing the decrease in mid-2008, resulting in 2008 revenue falling to $5.2 million from $8.4 million in 2007, Robert C. Killion, president and CEO, said.

"People have just put projects on hold, so that's really the big part of it," Killion said. "They are just waiting to see what the market is going to do."

With fewer projects out for bid, the competition for existing projects is becoming fiercer. In good times, only five contractors might bid for a project. Robert Unwer, president of Nabco Mechanical & Electrical Contractors Inc. of Conway, said he has seen more than 20 bidders for one project.

Unwer recently visited San Diego and met with contractors from across the nation, he said. Those contractors had worse tales to tell.

"They are seeing as many as 40 general contractors on a single project," Unwer said.

With so much competition, specialized contractors are bidding on projects outside their strengths, Unwer said.

"With residential down, we're seeing contractors move up, and I'm not sure they possess the skill set or financial resources for something like that," Unwer said.

Jester, of Comfort Systems, said the new competition is only to be expected.

"I think that is a natural progression; when work slows down, people have to make a living," Jester said.

Knowing that work will be hard to come by unless the economy improves makes contractors more conscious of existing projects, Hocutt said.

"If you do end up with a project, you are always thinking, 'What have I left out?'" Hocutt said. "It's a competitive market right now, and in my opinion it will be that at least through 2009."

Marrs has Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art under contract until 2011 and has billed less than $1 million of the $14.7 million contract, Killion said.

"That job will run through 2011," Killion said. "That particular project right now is a premium."