J. F. Electric is all about creating connections. As a diversified electrical contractor, making electrical connections is the job, but making personal connections with customers, between employees, and within the community is the foundation of the company’s approach to providing a valuable service.
The company was officially established under the name J. F. Electric in 1969, but its roots reach much further back to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. James Fowler was a twenty-year-old plumber from Pennsylvania who had moved to St. Louis to take advantage of the many opportunities for work at the world’s largest exposition. The World’s Fair provided Fowler continuous work for many good years. In 1925, after more than two decades of a successful plumbing career, he purchased a truck and painted ‘The Fowler Company’ on its side. This was the beginning of the Fowler family legacy.
The Fowler Company provided sewering and gas fitting services to customers in the St. Louis area. For a while, business was good, and the company was beginning to build a reputation in the region, but as the 1920s ended, the Great Depression set in, and as with so many businesses of the era, progress slowed significantly. Things were looking dire until an opportunity in Illinois caught the attention of one of James Fowler’s sons.
Charles Fowler was a combination pipefitter and plumber who, alongside his two brothers Fenton and Fred, worked at his father’s company. His varied skill set enabled him to find work at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Illinois. This helped him get his business going, and he soon opened a branch office in Centralia, Illinois. Despite the state of the economy, Charles Fowler embraced the risk of investing in opportunity, and he was rewarded. The new location saw so much success that, within a few years, his two brothers left their positions to join him. Eventually, James Fowler closed the St. Louis branch completely and moved to Centralia himself.
It was Charles Fowler’s son Jim who first directed the company toward electrical work. As electricity became more popular in Illinois, the Fowler Company installed appliances such as heating and air conditioning units to complement its plumbing services. When the Centralia economy fell into a downturn in 1969, Jim believed that he could lead the company through it. Following the example of his father, he embraced the risk and bought out all of the jobs he was managing at the time, the entire electric division of the Fowler Company, and moved the operation to Edwardsville, Illinois. He named this new company J.F. Electric.
Until the 1980s, J.F. Electric focused on electrical work in office spaces and retail buildings for commercial customers and manufacturing plants and oil refineries for industrial customers. Jim Fowler’s son Greg approached him with the idea of getting into the utility business. They hired a few linemen, bought some used equipment, and began soliciting utility companies for work. As has so many times been the case with the Fowler family, a tolerance for risk in the pursuit of prosperity ultimately paid off. It took years, but growth in the utilities division propelled the company into what it has become.
Today, J.F. Electric employs over eight hundred mostly union workers, earns more than two hundred million dollars a year in revenue, and is mainly concentrated on utility construction. In that area, the company’s technicians work on every aspect of utility power. After the electricity is generated at a power plant, it is sent over heavy-gauge, high-voltage transmission lines to substations. From those substations, the power is sent over smaller-gauge distribution lines to end users. J.F. Electric works on substations and every component of the infrastructure that connects those stations to power plants and end users.
While utility infrastructure makes up the bulk of its work, the company also takes on commercial and industrial jobs. Currently, it has more than sixty electricians working in an oil refinery and one hundred in a steel plant. In the commercial sector, the company takes on electric contracting jobs throughout Illinois and Missouri. It worked on two large Amazon facilities in 2016 and is currently designing one for Worldwide Technologies.
J.F. Electric also has a division specializing in telecommunications. Currently, the company is in the process of rolling out a project in Illinois and Missouri where existing power poles are being taken down and replaced by poles with antenna equipment. These new poles are meant to serve as miniature cellular towers, reducing the need to construct much larger towers.
The company’s headquarters is located in Edwardsville, twenty miles outside of St Louis. It has a small office in Centralia which covers southern Illinois for the commercial and industrial division. It has offices in Joliet Illinois, near Chicago, as well as one in Kansas and another in Ohio for managing the utility department. “We have daily work in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio,” says Jonathan Fowler, vice president of J. F. Electric, “but we work across the United States, especially when there is a storm or disaster of some sort.”
Last year, during major hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate, J.F. Electric sent three hundred linemen to work in Florida and Texas. It had people in New York for Hurricane Sandy and in Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina. For every hurricane that happens in the United States, J.F. Electric is a part of the group that helps to restore power in the affected areas.
Severe weather conditions, high voltages, and being high off the ground are but a few examples of the many dangers with which J.F. Electric’s employees regularly face. To ensure the safety of its workforce, the company has created a dedicated safety division with its vice president and a fifteen employee team. “Our number one goal overall for every division is safety,” says Fowler. “We set that goal toward the end of 2016, and in 2017, we were able to reduce our recordable incidents by fifty percent.” Keeping employees safe is a priority for J.F. Electric. “We’re a family, and we treat our employees like family.”
Over the last two years, J.F. Electric has been rebranding after leadership believed that it was time for some self-examination. It upgraded the company logo from the one that Jim Fowler had designed in 1969 and began to discuss ways to enhance company’s value. It interviewed past, current, and potential customers, as well as employees.
The answer it found through these conversations was that what set J.F. Electric apart from competitors was exactly the sort of approach to business that leads it to have these conversations in the first place: a commitment to listening to customers and building relationships. “It’s the family atmosphere,” says Fowler. “Our customers enjoy working with our people, so our new tagline became ‘Creating connections. Delivering value.’”
The most significant challenge facing the company is a lack of qualified labor available in the field. J.F. Electric is a union contractor, meaning that when they are trying to hire workers for a job they look to the local union to supply workforce. Currently, the unions are unable to fill the positions. This labor shortage is a severe hindrance across the country for companies that depend on skilled tradespeople. J.F. Electric’s leadership is working with the Leadership Council of Southwest Illinois to combat this problem and is visiting high schools and talking to students about career options. So far it has spoken to 23,000 people and has made a significant impact.
Fowler is also working with local unions on a plan to hold events that mirror National College Signing Day. The first Wednesday of every February, when graduating high school football players commit to a college, they make it a media event. The best of the best players sit surrounded by news station cameras and reveal their decision by putting on their chosen college’s hat. It has become a cultural phenomenon, and Fowler is working to create a similar event, but for students who select a trade rather than a college. J.F. Electric is committed to bringing talent into the industry because it understands that having the right people is the key to success.
J.F. Electric is a diverse electrical contractor offering a wide range of services with a high level of expertise in each. “We do everything,” says Fowler, “but we don’t do anything without the right people on staff who are experts in their field and have been doing that type of work for thirty-plus years. Everything we do, we have an experienced management staff and experienced field personnel that have been doing it their whole lives.”
J.F. Electric understands the value of making connections, not just by electrically connecting wires but by connecting people. It establishes relationships and build bonds with its employees and with its customers. “That’s the feedback we’ve received,” says Fowler, “from the people who have worked with our competitors and found that our people are better to work with. They make better accommodations, and they deliver a better project.”