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Rockin with the Ravens

Oct. 1, 2003
Shepherd Electric Supply scored big when it won a $2 million bid to light up the home of the Baltimore Ravens, the newest stadium in the NFL.Stadium lighting

Shepherd Electric Supply scored big when it won a $2 million bid to light up the home of the Baltimore Ravens, the newest stadium in the NFL.

Stadium lighting jobs are the Big Kahunas in the world of lighting projects. Get a major electrical supply contract at the newest stadium in town, and you have earned yourself some serious bragging rights. Every time you drive past the stadium, your spouse, son, daughter, grandchild or even the most casual of acquaintances will probably have to endure a speech that begins with you saying proudly, "I did the lighting on that building."

While the 12 employees in the lighting department at 106-year-old Shepherd Electric Supply Co., aren't the type to brag obnoxiously about their lighting victories, a visitor to the company's Baltimore, Md., headquarters soon senses the quiet pride they have in the role they have played in relighting much of the Baltimore skyline. Along with lighting the Baltimore Ravens' stadium, the company's lighting team has won lighting jobs for the landmark 1,000-ft- long brick warehouse behind the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yards and, more recently, the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Care Center medical facility now under construction.

High-profile lighting jobs such as the Ravens' stadium put an electrical distributor's customer service to the ultimate test. Satisfy the customer on a job that can easily take two years to complete and you earn the respect of a valuable ally for the next big lighting project in town. Screw up the job and you probably won't get invited to bid on that contractor's lighting work in the future.

Shepherd Electric Supply is still good friends with the folks at Enterprise Electric, the Baltimore-based electrical contractor that did the electrical work at the stadium. Enterprise Electric bought $2 million in lighting equipment from Shepherd Electric Supply for the main stadium lighting, other interior stadium lighting, parking lots and for the stadium's light-rail train station. The company employed up to 145 electricians on the stadium project.

Before the kickoff of the Ravens' opening game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in mid-September, Terry Stout, construction lighting specialist, had already made countless trips to the stadium to work with Enterprise Electric and the various electrical manufacturers that supplied equipment through Shepherd Electric Supply for the job. Many months before ground-breaking, Stout was already working up a bid for the lighting equipment. Enterprise Electric asked three distributors with whom it liked to work to bid the job, and that met the state requirement for competitive bidding: Shepherd Electric Supply; Tristate Electrical Supply Co., Inc., Hagerstown, Md., and Valley Lighting, a Baltimore-based lighting specialist.

"They didn't want to get into the scenario where they opened it up to everybody and weren't comfortable with somebody who lowballed it and never got the job done," he says. "We in-house priced the whole job. We kept the budgetary part of it pretty quiet. We didn't want to get it out that we were doing it. Between Bob Freedman, myself and some other inside people, we priced it. We had a lot of pressure from the reps to get involved, but we just didn't let it happen."

While Shepherd Electric Supply did not do the lighting design on this job, Stout says he did suggest some product substitutions for what was originally specified, such as the lamps for the field lighting, in areas where he felt products would equal or exceed the customer's performance expectations for less cost. Stout says the project put the company's service performance to the test. "The whole job was very tight. Each section of the job had a cutoff date that had to be met no matter what. Even through the hundreds of changes that were made, you still had to perform. At the end, the contractor was very pleased with how we handled it."

One reason the job went well, says Bob Freedman, manager of the company's commercial lighting department, is that Shepherd Electric Supply had one person devoted exclusively to the project to ensure that nothing fell through the cracks. Lisa Johnson, now one of the company's outside salespeople, was the job's project manager and worked on the Ravens stadium for almost 18 months.

"They took everything else away from me, and I dedicated all of my time to the stadium for a year and a half," she says. "I had to enter all of the orders, make sure they had the lamps and replacement parts when necessary."

To keep the project on track, she was on the telephone every day with the electrical contractor and various lighting reps, making sure that all equipment was on site when scheduled. She spent much of her time tracking the job with a date schedule that listed when the different types of fixtures had to be on the job.

"They did it in a lot of different releases. It wasn't just one big release," she says. "They sent me a date schedule and all of the fixtures had to be there in a specific time frame."

To keep a steady flow of equipment to the job, Shepherd Electric Supply dedicated one driver to run a shuttle truck to the stadium three times a day. The company also kept a rented trailer in its headquarters' parking lot to stockpile all of the lamps needed for the job, says Johnson.

The trailer held 21/2 truckloads of lamps, she says. Whenever we needed lamps all we had to do was take them from the trailer and send them down."

As with any job of this size, Shepherd Electric Supply had to finish strong, and the lighting department had to handle some last-minute brushfires to keep the project on deadline. Sometimes the speed with which an electrical distributor solves problems, such as missing fixture lenses, lost locknuts and other nitsy details, spells the difference between a satisfied customer and a good relationship gone bad, says Freedman.

"Lisa was busy eight to five when it was wrapping up," says Freedman, a former Thomas Industries' rep. "Sometimes it would take four hours to handle a bag of locknuts. It gets hairy."

One example was a last-minute crisis with the parking lot lighting. The manufacturer that was supposed to provide the lighting poles for the parking lot missed its delivery deadlines just days before the stadium's first event, an evening affair where parking lot lighting was going to be absolutely critical.

"We really had to do a lot of expediting," says Freedman. "The manufacturer that we ordered from wasn't going to be able to meet schedule. We had to change the manufacturer. We put in a lot of phone calls and found lighting poles and heads in stock. We got a dedicated truck and had them up there the next day."

"It's nothing personal to the manufacturer, but when you have an owner that has a deadline, that has priority," says Spencer Vogel, manager of the company's new branch in Beltsville, Md. "You have to do it."

Now that the job is complete, the employees who worked on the project enjoy visiting the stadium and realizing that they played a key role in its construction.

"It's huge," says Lisa Johnson. "It just amazes me. When you go down there and you look and you say, 'My year-and-a-half worth of work did pay off."

Lighting the way.

Shepherd Electric Supply first moved into the large-scale lighting-project business during the mid-1980s because the Baltimore economy was slowly but surely moving away from its traditional industrial base toward a more service-oriented economy, says Stuart Vogel, the company's senior vice president.

"A lot of industry has left Baltimore, and it has become more of a service-type town," he says. "We migrated to the commercial business. We wanted to grow, and commercial lighting was a way that Shepherd could grow. We saw a good opportunity to hire people with expertise."

The company's move into the commercial lighting market was the subject of a 1987 Electrical Wholesaling cover story. At that time, the company was doing about $2 million annually in commercial lighting. Today, commercial lighting will account for about $10 million of the two-location company's sales, which Vogel says will be near $50 million in 1998.

Shepherd Electric Supply now has 12 employees dedicated to lighting projects between its Baltimore headquarters and its new facility in Beltsville, Md., which opened in July. Most of the employees in the lighting department learned the business by working for lighting-equipment manufacturers or lighting reps before coming to Shepherd Electric Supply. While employees learn lighting through manufacturer-sponsored training programs, the lighting business runs at such a fast pace that they have learned even more through on-the-job training, says Freedman. It's not unusual for some jobs to be completed just six weeks after the award of the contract, and that doesn't leave much time for errors, he says.

"In the lighting business you are not given a lot of time," he says. "It's fast-track. At the time of the bid you are already behind. It's do-it-now type of work. All the salespeople are ex-reps, and they have the product and pricing knowledge. The service group has worked their way up."

Spencer Vogel says the timeframe for the lighting end of any job gets compressed even more because lighting is usually one of the last electrical products installed, and the contractors installing lighting systems are often among the last tradespeople on the job.

"That's another reason it's so important to have experienced people," he says. "These jobs turn around so quick. You don't have a lot of time to play around."

Freedman says while the experienced lighting team knows the products and pricing, the company's focus on service sets it apart from the competition.

"We could probably sell $20 million in lighting, but the biggest part of it is the service. I can't stress that enough," he says. "We have grown the last eight to ten years because of our service level. I think our service is probably close to the best if not the best in Baltimore.

"It really isn't always about low price. Sure it is half the time. But the other half the customer will say, 'This is a job I want to work with you guys on because of the relationships we have established.'"

One of the fastest-growing areas of Shepherd Electric Supply's lighting emphasis is its lighting design. The company's sales team is equipped with laptop computers loaded with lighting-design software so that salespeople can lay out lighting jobs right in a customer's office.

While Shepherd Electric Supply didn't get into the design end of the Ravens' stadium project, it does a lot of lighting design for offices, warehouses and parking lots. The company did the lighting for much of the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yards complex, including parking lots and the restaurants, shops and other office space in the former B&O warehouse that sits behind the baseball stadium. These lighting jobs were actually worth more than the stadium's field lighting, which was done by another company, says Freedman.

Along with lighting design, Shepherd Electric Supply offers other value-added services such as a 24-hour emergency hot line, open access to the company's senior management and the cell-phone and home-phone numbers of all key salespeople and managers involved in any lighting project.

To ensure that the lighting department provides even more than this level of service, its managers meet with other department heads every Tuesday to discuss how to improve its performance in job management, delivery and expediting, says Stuart Vogel. "We have worked to better our procedures on the project-management side. Anybody can take a job, but you have to follow through properly."

Designed by noted sports architects HOK, Inc., Kansas City, Mo., the Ravens' stadium in Baltimore, Md., offers excellent sight lines from every seat, an LED-lit scoreboard billed as the largest and clearest in the world and a state-of-the-art drainage and irrigation system. It even has three jail cells for fans that get out-of-hand.

With a top-shelf sports facility, the lighting can be nothing short of the very best, says Terry Stout, construction lighting specialist for Shepherd Electric Supply, who lived with this project for almost two years. In the early stages, the lighting designer, M&E Design, Denver, Colo., worked with the television networks to ensure that the stadium's lighting system met the necessary television requirements. Before the construction of the Ravens' stadium, Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium and Giants Stadium were considered to have the best sports lighting in the NFL, says Stout.

ESPN requires 250 footcandles across most of the playing field, higher than the NFL base requirement of 180 footcandles. The field lighting system lights the field up to ESPN's standards. It consists of 564 Sportlighters from Hubbell Lighting, Inc., Christiansburg, Va., equipped with 1,500 metal-halide lamps manufactured by Venture Lighting International, Solon, Ohio.

Stout was fascinated with the installation of the lighting system. A 250-ft crane lifted the racks of lighting fixtures to the lighting standards atop the stadium. Once installed, a crew from Hubbell Lighting had to aim the lighting fixtures so that the playing surface would be uniformly lit to the 250-footcandle standard. Part of the aiming process was breaking down the field into 3-ft square grids, marking those grids with flags and aiming each fixture so that it lit its assigned area.

Two other interesting features of the stadium's lighting systems are the emergency lighting system and the computerized lighting control of the stadium's skyboxes. An instant re-start feature on the 48 of the field-lighting fixtures wired to an emergency backup generator provides fast start-up if the power goes out.

The lighting systems for the skyboxes offer those fans an unusual convenience, says Stout. "People can actually get to their skyboxes 365 days a year. They punch in a number on their telephone and it will turn on a corridor of lights up to their skybox."

About the Author

Jim Lucy | Editor-in-Chief of Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing

Jim Lucy has been wandering through the electrical market for more than 40 years, most of the time as an editor for Electrical Wholesaling and Electrical Marketing newsletter, and as a contributing writer for EC&M magazine During that time he and the editorial team for the publications have won numerous national awards for their coverage of the electrical business. He showed an early interest in electricity, when as a youth he had an idea for a hot dog cooker. Unfortunately, the first crude prototype malfunctioned and the arc nearly blew him out of his parents' basement.

Before becoming an editor for Electrical Wholesaling  and Electrical Marketing, he earned a BA degree in journalism and a MA in communications from Glassboro State College, Glassboro, NJ., which is formerly best known as the site of the 1967 summit meeting between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Nikolayevich Kosygin, and now best known as the New Jersey state college that changed its name in 1992 to Rowan University because of a generous $100 million donation by N.J. zillionaire industrialist Henry Rowan. Jim is a Brooklyn-born Jersey Guy happily transplanted with his wife and three sons in the fertile plains of Kansas for the past 30 years. 

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