On the Move

PJM Mechanical Contractors, Inc.

PJM Mechanical Contractors, Inc. is growing. Since Construction in Focus last profiled the firm in late 2017, the company has expanded its workforce, increased its market reach, and enhanced its existing services.

Some things remain the same. This full-service, unionized contractor is still based in Ewing, New Jersey, where it performs construction and installation, plumbing, refrigeration, design-build, service and repair, heating and cooling, maintenance, fabrication, piping, boom truck services, welding, building automation, and backflow preventer testing to the manufacturing, commercial, healthcare, aerospace, industrial, pharmaceutical and institutional markets.

Beyond that, much is different at PJM.

“We’ve expanded even further with refrigeration and taking on dehumidification as a specialty area. We’ve done a lot more design-build,” states Bruce Buchholz, President of PJM Mechanical Contractors, Inc. “We’re expanding our plumbing services to a large degree, doing things like adding remote camera capabilities in pipes and sewer lines to assist in cleaning them out or finding issues.

“We had a strategic goal to grow our service business in particular. We’ve grown it by a factor of five over the last three years. My objective is to continue that growth rate – doubling it again in very short order,” he adds.

And the company is examining further options for growth. “We are looking at some acquisitions that would essentially create subsidiaries. These branches would be north, south, and west of us. I can’t go east. I’d be in the Atlantic Ocean,” laughs Buchholz.

Until recently, most of PJM’s work was based in central New Jersey. While this part of this state is still a vital service area, new territory is being covered. “We’ve expanded further north. We’ve made major inroads into north New Jersey and moved into south New Jersey. Also, we’re now registered in Pennsylvania and moved into eastern Pennsylvania as well,” he adds.

Perhaps the single biggest change since the last profile is the fact that the state of New Jersey has certified the company as a minority business enterprise (MBE). This certification, granted in 2018, allows PJM to apply for certain set-aside contracts and has been good for the bottom line.

“There’s no question [MBE certification] does assist companies that have it. In turn, as an MBE, we’re encouraged to hire subs who are also MBEs or small businesses or women-owned or veteran-based. We try to do that as best we can,” says Buchholz. The company occasionally uses subcontractors for tasks such as carpentry and remediation assignments that involve hazardous materials.

Another change is that the company joined the local branch of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), an industry group. “We decided it was time to join, both for networking and interfacing on a technical basis and being able to lobby on an industry basis as well. We just joined, and so far, it’s been a very enlightening experience and good for the business,” he states.

The size and scope of the firm’s services, with expertise in so many different construction and contracting segments, help PJM stand out. “We are larger than a lot of the competitors in the state. There are four or five of us that can take on larger projects,” in New Jersey, he says. It has its own service group and sheet-metal shop, a substantial plumbing segment, and its own boom trucks.

In addition, the company has “arguably, one of the better management teams, who have a lot of industry experience and background with major [original equipment manufacturers]. This lets us be agnostic in terms of putting in virtually anybody’s equipment,” he explains.

Because the company has such a broad range of skills, it can take on technically complex multi-step jobs with design-build components that might be beyond the capability of other contractors.

According to Buchholz, the company’s “fairly rapid growth really says we’ve been able to accomplish strategically what we set out to do. And the objective is to continue to grow.” The company currently employs 150 people, up from approximately one hundred workers a few years ago.

The steady growth it has enjoyed is being driven by a few factors. It has invested heavily in its infrastructure, with new offices added and a push to renew its corporate fleet. “We’ve got well over fifty vehicles, and probably more than forty percent are new,” he says. The vehicles were “purchased in the last two or three years. We’ve also invested in our sheet metal shop; we’ve invested in our piping operations, and we’ve done a lot of investing in our people.”

Frontline workers are unionized, primarily belonging to unions representing sheet metal workers, plumbers, and pipefitters, which means they are already well-trained when they join the company. However, PJM likes to put its workers through additional training. This extends to engineers and project managers, who are encouraged to take supplemental technical training courses.

On top of these measures, the company has switched banks, which enabled it to expand its line of credit.

PJM performs top-notch work, and has received industry kudos for its efforts. It was named top mechanical contractor in 2019, for example, by the Princeton Award Program of Princeton, New Jersey.

“We were, and we weren’t,” Buchholz says or whether the company was surprised it won this award. “We clearly think we are a leader in the central part of the state, but it was nice to get independent recognition of that. It was a nice honor.”

The company promotes itself by attending industry shows, running advertisements in trade magazines and other publications, and it publishes its own quarterly newsletter, The Pipeline, for customers and potential customers. This newsletter contains updates on PJM projects and personnel, and “has articles on difficult problems we might have solved,” he notes.

The company also employs marketing staff who cold-call potential clients and do other forms of in-person promotion. Of course, its excellent reputation is probably its most important promotional tool.

Safety is closely linked with quality here. The company has an extensive safety program and tries to impart a stay-safe philosophy to its staff. It is not enough for workers to “just know the safety manual. They have to know what’s behind it as well. Our foremen have daily briefings with all the guys on site. We have weekly ‘lunch box learning’ sessions [in which] a topic is discussed,” says Buchholz. “When we work with some of our larger [general contractors], safety is a requirement, and you have to have daily, weekly project objectives for safety.”

On a more basic level, the company also makes sure all workers have new, updated safety gear, including goggles, hard-hats, boots, and other paraphernalia. “We invest fairly heavily in new tools and the maintenance of those tools. [We also emphasize] paying attention to details, like the proper use of ladders or lifts. We try to go out of way to make sure everyone is well trained and knows how to deal with confined spaces, et cetera,” he adds.

The company’s concern for the well-being of its workers extends into the charitable sector. PJM supports specific union scholarships and has contributed to several hospital funds.

One pesky problem that has endured since the previous profile is the difficulty in finding competent, skilled staff. This is an industry-wide issue, as the existing experienced workforce approaches retirement age and not enough young people are entering the sector to replace them.

“As you grow on the organic side, the toughest thing is finding enough skilled people in the industry. That includes everyone from engineers all the way down to our union workforce. It is really tough to grow. For example, this summer was a good summer. In central New Jersey, we had full employment for multiple months. Which says there aren’t any additional people,” he says. “At that point, if you’re at full employment, it’s tough to find people.”

Many companies have coped with the labor crunch by working hard to enhance their existing services. This is precisely what PJM is doing right now and plans to keep doing as it moves into the future.

Instead of introducing new services, it is looking to “expand some of the things we’ve initiated. I’d like to do more in the control sector and building automation sector. We pretty much service all [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] and plumbing as it stands, but we’re doing more with refrigeration, dehumidification. We’re also doing a lot more with design-build,” says Buchholz.

Despite difficulties in sometimes finding qualified workers, growth is very much on the agenda at PJM Mechanical Contractors. This might consist of organic growth or corporate acquisitions.

“We basically have a plan to be a much larger regional competitor. That will mean expanding into multiple states and continuing to expand all our capabilities, whether it be construction, design-build, or the service segment,” he states.

July 9, 2020, 1:55 AM EDT