William F. Donahue is the president of Crown Supply Co. in Providence and Milford, Mass., which this year celebrates 30 years in business under Donahue family ownership. He also owns Alarm Devices Supply of Rhode Island in Cranston and The Lighting Shoppe in Providence and Milford.
Donahue spoke with Providence Business News about how his company and the contracting industry have changed in the last 30 years.
PBN: In what ways has Crown Supply Co. evolved since when you began in 1984? How do you see the company continuing to evolve?
DONAHUE: Crown Supply has evolved from a primarily residential products supplier/distributor to the electrical construction industry to a products and services distributor serving the electrical industry, building maintenance industry, and institutional and general contracting industries. We assist customers in the design of systems that utilize several products and product sets from multiple different manufacturers. We can then commission these systems.
The mass notification systems used at military bases, colleges and universities are an example. These systems are basically taking the place of simple fire alarm systems in many facilities and provide safety and notification of much more than fire. Providing a working system like this requires several different products and trained technicians to certify they are working properly. Crown Supply will continue to develop our service set to better serve our customers, addressing the many new and advancing technologies in our industry.
PBN: How has wireless technology changed the electrical contracting industry?
DONAHUE: Wireless technologies are allowing control of electrical devices in ways that were not possible or were very cost prohibitive in the past. The contractors that are embracing wireless products are able to assist their customers in a number of ways affecting energy usage, facility safety and security, and much more. Many electrical contractors have been resistant to wireless technologies based on the fact that contractors traditionally made their money “pulling wire.” Wireless technologies can take the place of pulling those wires, which at first look appears to be counter intuitive.
What’s interesting is that many of the electrical contractor’s customers are asking about wireless answers to complex systems based on their exposure to simple wireless technologies used in their homes. Surprisingly, many wireless answers now exist to address these complex situations. I find that contractors that have embraced wireless technologies are finding new ways to use it and apply it to fix many previously unfixable problems, creating new projects and happier customers.
PBN: What other major changes has the industry weathered in the 30 years that you’ve been a part of it?
DONAHUE: We have seen the emergence of the big box stores (i.e. Home Depot) in the past 30 years. This has been an adjustment for both the traditional distributor like Crown Supply and our electrical contractor customer. The difficult part was adjusting to the end user or customer having an idea of the cost of materials. Not that there was anything to hide in the past, but contractors were not accustomed to explaining why they marked up material and what value is added by the contractor supplying the material.
Another big adjustment has been the dwindling industrial/manufacturer base in the local area. Rhode Island went from being saturated with jewelry manufacturers and their supporting industries in nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut with bustling mill buildings to nearly no local manufacturing. This has been a big adjustment for the construction industry as a whole. Those manufacturers created a steady stream of new construction and maintenance work which is now gone.
A third adjustment has come in the way of industry consolidation – the “Wal-Mart effect,” with the big getting bigger. The smaller distributors in our industry typically referred to as “independents” have not fared well over the past 30 years. When I entered the industry there were more than 22 different distributors in the state of Rhode Island alone, and most were independents that were locally owned. Today there are only four or five locally owned independent distributors and fewer distribution locations overall; most are branches of national or internationally owned conglomerates.
PBN: How has Crown Supply maintained a competitive edge through these changes?
DONAHUE: Crown Supply has developed a set of services to offer to our customer base that assists them in application and installation of a product set that has become a lot more technologically complex. We will continue to develop these services that allow our customers to comfortably offer their customers cutting edge technologies without worrying if they will be able to get the technology to work. These services include trained technicians that are local and will work on-site beside them, ensuring they have the product programmed and working according to manufacturer specifications.
These services appeal not only to our customers but also to the manufacturers we represent. Manufacturers are looking for partners when rolling out higher-tech products to the industry or items that are required to integrate with other manufacturer’s products, and we are able to provide that type of service. Continually creating unique service sets like this along with providing our traditional services from a locally based company have kept us viable and growing.
PBN: This year, Crown Supply and Alarm Devices Supply of Rhode Island have launched the New England Electrical & Alarm Expo, debuting Sept. 11 at Twin River. What does this represent for you, and is this the first expo of its kind in the region?
DONAHUE: We are very excited about sponsoring the Electrical & Alarm Expo with Alarm Devices Supply, a local distributor of low voltage, alarm and security products based out of Cranston. Crown and ADS both primarily serve a contractor base but in different industries, Crown serving the electrical industry and ADS serving the security/alarm and surveillance industry. The expo is the first of its kind in that it was designed for both industries and the supporting design community of architects and engineers.
With the emergence so much new technology, we see people in electrical industry wanting to know more about the items they need to integrate with in the alarm and surveillance area, along with the opposite where alarm and surveillance contractors now have the ability to control and interface with electrical lighting and HVAC systems and temperature control and need to know more. The architects and engineers that design the electrical and alarm/security systems are also asking how these technologies can be used without replication.
The technologies that have been developed in both industries are too many to mention. Many will be on display for contractors and professionals from both industries to see – items they might not otherwise be exposed to. What I hope comes from this expo is more than general exposure to neat products but creative ideas on how the technologies can be used to accomplish different things, benefitting all individuals involved in any phase of construction from design to installation and maintenance.
Registration is open at http://neeae.com and will be available on-site the day of the show.