Collins Electric: A century of making connections
Wiring the Valley
Collins Electric Marks 100 Years of Making Connections
Bill Collins wants you to look at the Springfield skyline some night.
Note the buildings you see — Monarch Place, Tower Square, One Financial Plaza, the Marriott and Sheraton hotels, City Hall, and the Hampden County Hall of Justice. Collins Electric Co. has installed electrical systems — from lighting and alarms to phone and data lines — in all of them.
That’s an impressive resume for a company that began 100 years ago converting Springfield homes from gas light to electricity.
“In those days, the materials were delivered to the job by horse and buggy, and the workmen got to the site by trolley car,” said Collins, the company chairman who first joined his family’s operation in 1950.
A lot has changed since 1906, both in Greater Springfield and in the business of electricity overall. But Collins Electric, now headquartered in Chicopee, has endured as a family business now boasting four generations of history.
“How does a company stay in business for 100 years?” Collins asked. “It’s rather simple: we give our customers excellent service, and we have awfully good people who are very dedicated. We’ve had some customers for 80 years. Many other companies would like to have those customers, but our service is so good that people are delighted to have us as part of their team.”
This week, BusinessWest sparks up a conversation with a company that has been plugged into success for a century — with no sign of switching off the lights anytime soon.
Century of Change
Collins’ grandfather, John Collins, was the man who first loaded up the buggy and brought electricity into Springfield homes. “He was a good salesman, but not a good businessman,” Bill Collins said, so he persuaded his brother, Timothy, to help run the fledgling business in 1911.
In 1919, Collins Electric became a multi-generational family business, when John Collins’ son, William, joined as general manager.
“He felt there was a great opportunity in having a retail electric store, which he started during the Great Depression,” Bill Collins said. “There was no construction happening at that time, so the store really carried the company through the Depression.” After those years, in the buildup for World War II, construction began booming again, and Collins, now a long-established contractor, was well-positioned to take advantage of the momentum shift.
Over the next several decades, Collins Electric gradually expanded its range of services and scale of projects, becoming a full-service contractor offering both design-build and subcontracting services, depending on the needs of its clients.
The design-build element is especially important, said Larry Eagan, co-president of the company along with fellow fourth-generation officer Joseph Collins.
“We can truly give the best value to the customer by partnering with the owner and working on budgeting even as the construction is going on,” Eagan said. “We can make changes to stay on budget or make additions to the budget; either way, we give them the best value because we’re the installer as well as the designer.”
Not many electrical contractors have licensed engineers in-house to allow for the design-build option, Bill Collins added.
“Design-build work has some real advantages,” he said. “It allows the job to be done faster and at less cost than going with a conventional outside designer and a bidding routine.”
The facilities that have used Collins Electric in this capacity over the years — dozens of major names including the Berkshire County and Hampden County jails, the Wall Street Journal, MassMutual, Mercy Medical Center, Yankee Candle, and many of the Springfield skyline structures — speak to the company’s reach.
“We do work in Connecticut, and on occasion we go to New York, Vermont, or New Hampshire,” Collins said, “but our concentration is primarily in Western Mass.”
Built for Speed
As the largest employer of electrical tradespeople in Western Mass., Collins boasts a definite edge in its ability to respond quickly to large or difficult jobs, Collins said. And make no mistake: the industry has sped up, and customers have heightened their expectations on timelines.
“We find that the fast-tracking of jobs has actually helped our business because, being large, we have the manpower and resources to allocate to jobs,” Eagan noted. “We feel like we’re more responsive than many other contractors, which helps us perform better on a tight schedule when others would be hard-pressed to manage it.”
Bill Collins noted one recent school project in which another company was the low bidder, but could not commit to meeting the tight deadline, and Collins won the job instead.
“Everything is like that nowadays,” Joseph Collins added. “At some colleges, we’ll get an entire dorm renovation that has to be done in two months. Everything has sped up dramatically.”
Eagan said the company also separates itself from its competitors in its knowledge of electrical products on the market — some of it learned from experience. When T5 lights, a high-efficiency form of fluorescent lighting, appeared on the market several years ago, Collins installed them in its own warehouse for six months before determining that it was a reliable new technology for its customers.
“We know firsthand what products are best, and we’re up to speed with product reliability,” Eagan explained, “so we can recommend and install something that’s not only efficient but will also work well.”
A commitment to keeping abreast of industry trends has led Collins to several firsts, including the first fluorescent lighting system in the world, at the Springfield Armory in 1939 — a development so significant in energy efficiency that it helped many abandoned factories return to service to assist the World War II effort.
Bill Collins should know his history — he’s well into his sixth decade with the company. But he’s not the only one. Two employees who had joined Collins Electric out of high school recently retired in their 60s, and the company boasts other, similar lifetime relationships.
“We’ve got a loyal group of people,” Collins said. “They know they’re part of a good operation, and we pay them well. It’s a win-win situation.”
Bill Collins noted that the company’s headquarters, at the east end of Interstate 291, is on geographically high ground, reflecting the fact that Collins Electric has, on several occasions over the past century, been able to help area businesses that were knocked out of service by floods.
But that elevated location also signifies the company’s position in the field of electrical contracting, and a reputation that has grown with each generation of the Collins family that oversees its legacy —even in times when the overall economic health of Western Mass. has ebbed.
“The economy does affect us a little bit; we’ve been through some pretty lean years, and we’ve been able to adjust very well,” Bill Collins said. “Even in those lean years, we’ve always been in the black.”
They’ve done that by keeping the Pioneer Valley in the light.