No Special Effects Behind Florida Contractor’s Success – ACHR NEWS
When Todd Morgan decided to start a mechanical contracting firm, he had only $10,000 cash in his pocket and no line of credit. He’s the first to admit that this is way too little to be starting a mechanical contracting business.
Today, Orlando, Florida-based Comprehensive Energy Services Inc. (CES) is proudly celebrating its 25th year in business. The company now ranks among Inc. magazine’s Inc. 5000 and operates as one of Florida’s largest mechanical and plumbing contractors.
“In 1992, I left the top-five mechanical contracting company I started with right after college,” Morgan said. “I got the entrepreneurial bug and went off on my own. Our first job was $135. Then, within the year, we did our first half million dollar job. By our second year, we took on a multi-million dollar attraction at Universal Studios. We had 12 people total, including myself, my wife, our secretary, and one other vice president. This was nothing close to the amount of field people it took to perform the job, but the general contractor had a lot of confidence in us, and it turned out to be extremely successful. From that point on, we continued to grow and dominate the attraction business in central Florida. We have a lot of other niches, but that’s how the company started.”
With a degree in civil engineering, Morgan has always been on the innovation side of the business. Ever since completing that first Universal attraction, “Terminator 2,” CES has become known for its comfort and special effects offerings.
“Most of the things we do are specialty, niche-type work,” Morgan said. We do the mechanical work — the HVAC, plumbing, and building automation — as well as some of the special effects. That niche usually includes different mechanical systems, like liquid nitrogen, steam, hydraulics, natural gas for flame effects, compressed air, and those types of things. That is something most mechanical contractors don’t do, but it’s the type of thing we really enjoy doing.”
Today, CES boasts 295 employees, 92 fleet vehicles, and its revenue in 2016 was $48 million.
“Our plan is to continue to grow,” Morgan said. “Our 2020 goal is to be at $100 million, and our 2025 BHAG — or big, hairy, audacious goal — is to be $250 million. When I left the large company I worked for, I wanted a very personal company, where everybody knew everybody. I had planned on growing the company to $5 million. But, as we grew year after year, I realized I really enjoyed growing the company, so I started focusing on that. I still enjoy it today. Growing our business and our people is what keeps me excited every day.”
CES’s 44,000-square-foot headquarters office is comprised of 14,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of shop area utilized for pipe and sheet metal fabrication and temporary staging of equipment, materials, and tools. Additionally, CES now operates four regional Florida branch offices in Gainesville, Melbourne, Pompano Beach, and Tampa.
In addition to design build services, CES offers service and maintenance as well as building automation and refrigeration services to customers.
“Service and maintenance are key,” Morgan said. “They’re about 25 percent of our business, which includes our building automation controls and environmental work and indoor environmental testing for commercial spaces, pharmaceutical companies, and theme parks, where they might have exhibits with animals that might require routine testing and normal inspections.”
CES’s service area covers the entire Florida state. The company is also involved with Associated Builders & Contractors Inc. (ABC) and ASHRAE.
BEST PLACE TO WORK
CES has received numerous ABC awards, including three Eagle Awards for outstanding HVAC work at Disney’s Hollywood Studios® Sound Stage, NBC Media Lab at Universal Studios, and the FedEx Ground Package Distribution Center in 2016.
Also, for the second consecutive year, CES won the second place award in the Large Business Category in Bright House Networks’ 2016 Regional Business Awards in Greater Orlando. In addition, CES was named for the seventh straight year among Orlando Business Journal’s 2016 Best Places to Work.
“We’ve been growing constantly since day one, but the recession took us down from $24 million to about $14 million,” Morgan said. “Florida was hit pretty hard during the recession, unlike Texas and a few other states that faired a lot better. We were down to under 100 people at that time after peaking at about 180. But, we came out really strong, and we’ve grown rapidly ever since. We have a pretty good formula for success, and it has become our motto. We’re relationship-based and performance-driven. They go hand in hand. You can’t do it all or have as much success when you have one without the other. Relationships alone won’t make you successful and performance alone won’t make you successful.”
Morgan pointed to the Best Place to Work Award as to one of the reasons for the company’s success.
“We take a lot of pride in that because it’s part of our mission statement — to provide the very best place to work,” he said. “And, I’ve had people ask why that is so important to me, and the answer is: When you have a best place to work, you attract, hire, and retain the very best people in the industry. Without people, you don’t have much.”
Morgan said the status as a Best Place to Work has definitely helped the company find employees.
“Over 15 percent of our people come as referrals from existing employees,” he said. “That has given us a great advantage over our competitors, because it is a tight labor market. We have a great reputation, and we do cool stuff.”
Judy Ellis, human resources director for CES, has been with the company for 16 years and said the reason she stays is the owners, the people she works with, the company culture, and its integrity.
“I interview people almost every day,” said Ellis. “Almost every one of them says that when you walk into an office, you can tell if the environment’s cold, if people are stressed, or if it’s warm. They tell me all the time that they can feel the warmth. People are having fun here. We try to maintain that with integrity. We have to recruit great people and retain them. So we provide a great place to work with a great culture.
“With the shortage of talent now, we have to do things differently than we did before,” she continued. “I reach out to trade schools, we go to high schools, and we get a lot of our people from employee referrals. That’s a big plus. If somebody is referring somebody to work here, it means they like working here, and that’s a positive. And we’ve been able to work with different trade schools and high schools’ ACT [Academy of Construction Technologies] programs. And we have our own plumbing apprenticeship program; we’ve also put employees through ACCA’s apprenticeship program, as well. We hire helpers that are ambitious and put them through a boot camp before we allow them in the field. The sky is the limit for people who are ambitious. We like to promote from within, which we do quite frequently. One of our employees who went through the four-year plumbing apprenticeship program became a foreman within a year of graduation. That’s pretty awesome.”
When Ellis first started with CES, there were 40 employees. But all the growth since the recession has kept her busy.
“It’s very exciting,” she said. “I added more than 190 people last year. It was nonstop, very busy. We added some great talent. We have some really strong, good people here.”
One of the newcomers is P.J. Goodwin, the company’s new COO. Goodwin began his new role with CES about a year ago, but had consulted with the company for about six months prior to accepting the position.
“I was with a large mechanical firm and actually served as a partner and president with the company for several years,” Goodwin said. “We had some things break down amongst the partnership, and I soured on the industry when I left.
“Everybody knows everybody here, so when Shelly Morgan heard I was no longer with the company, she reached out and told me what was going on with CES,” he continued. “Initially, I told her I wasn’t interested. She just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
The thing Goodwin likes most about CES is the culture and atmosphere.
“At my previous firm, it was very much a corporate culture,” he said. “It was bottom line, bottom line, bottom line. You were really kind of a pawn. At CES, it’s completely different. It’s a family culture, and it’s not all about the bottom line. There’s a sincere interest in the employees and a sincere desire to get to know them and take care of them. That was unique from what I had previously experienced.”
Goodwin’s prior experience makes him a perfect fit to help grow CES.
“I had grown my previous company to around $90 million and had offices throughout the state of Florida,” he said. “CES was just starting to seriously grow, and now we’re looking at some geographic and market growth. I started up the Gainesville office last year, and we’re looking to expand our construction services to the West Coast, Southern Florida, and also to the East Coast. We’re also looking to diversify a little bit, too. We’re looking to get more involved with health care, life science, and higher education.”
Eventually, Morgan plans to transition from his current position as president and CEO of the company to chairman of the board.
“I was advised that, eventually, that’s where you want to be,” he said. “To get to the point where you have your management team in place and you’re not involved in the day-to-day stuff. My wife and I like to travel a lot. We also enjoy growing the company and being part of that day-to-day stuff, but at some point in time, we have to start thinking about what we’re going to do and how it’s going to be structured when we’re not there every day, which is a challenge. That’s one of the things I’m working on now to ensure we keep the culture, keep the company growing, and keep providing opportunities for our people. The management team we’ve added this past year has been a big part of that. My long-term goal is to get to that point.”
One thing the company will continue to focus on is keeping up with new technology, Morgan noted. “Technology is getting to a point where things are changing constantly. It’s really a necessity to keep up with technology, because you can be left behind if you don’t. Everything is changing, from business processes to software systems to innovative products out there today. Staying current is a real necessity for contractors in order to be successful. My COO did remind me that we want to be on the leading edge, not the cutting edge. The cutting edge can cut you, and we don’t want to bleed. We love leading-edge technology and innovation, and we plan to continue that love down the line.”
Publication date: 6/19/2017
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