Bruce & Merrilees Keeps Its Youthful Energy

NEW CASTLE, Pa. – Seventy years ago, J. Howard Bruce returned to New Castle, Pa., after spending the previous four years helping to repair damaged warships anchored at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Bruce, employed by the U.S. military in 1944 as a civilian electrician and assigned to Hawaii, adjusted to the postwar world by plying his trade as a private contractor. In 1948, an opportunity presented itself through J.P. Merrilees, at that time the owner of Merrilees Electric, an appliance repair and electrical installation shop. Because Merrilees was looking to retire, he struck a deal for Bruce to assume control of the company.

“Then, Mr. Merrilees unexpectedly died,” says Justin Bruce, grandson of J. Howard Bruce and today the executive vice president of Bruce & Merrilees Electric Co. As a promise to Merrilees’ widow, the elder Bruce vowed that the new company would forever bear the Merrilees name, and the firm Bruce & Merrilees was established.

“It was an almost instant start for my grandfather,” says Bruce, now part of the third generation to operate the company. “It wasn’t easy to obtain credit during the 1940s, so it helped to have an existing business with established credit. He was able to leverage that.”

What began as a regional residential, commercial and industrial electrical installation and appliance repair shop is today a company that serves several business segments and is engaged in projects all across the country, Bruce says. As the second generation of the Bruce family – his father and uncle – took control of the business in the 1960s and 1970s, the company broadened its reach to encompass the high voltage and transportation markets.

“During the 1980s, the transportation market really grew, and we were able to leverage that,” Bruce says. At first, the work consisted of basic electrical services such as installing traffic signals and highway signs. That market has evolved into more sophisticated “smart” connectivity systems that are redirecting the course of new transportation networks.

Bruce and his two older brothers – Jay is company president and CEO and Jonathan is chief operating officer – run the daily operations. Their father, Robert, is chairman and is often in the office.

“We’re looking to expand through intelligent transportation systems,” Justin Bruce says. New highway systems incorporate fiber optic connections, closed-circuit TV and wireless communications to enhance safety on highways in the region.

Pictured: Dustin Marciante, first-year apprentice, assembles outlets with USB ports.

“We’re doing a lot of our transportation work in Pennsylvania and Maryland,” he says, noting this market represents between 35% and 40% of the company’s business. Other transportation-related projects are runway lighting for major airports and various roadway projects.

The balance of Bruce & Merrilees’ work, however, is spread among other projects that involve the industrial sector – steel mills, for example – and the oil and gas and electrical generation markets.

“Our fastest-growing segment is the high-voltage work,” Bruce says, as the company has carved out a specialty for installing power substations to support the region’s electrical grid. “We’re doing high-voltage utility work from Indiana to Virginia,” he says.

The need to upgrade the country’s aging electrical grid is encouraging giant companies such as American Electrical Power, or AEP, and FirstEnergy to allocate billions of dollars in adapting their networks and systems. “Primarily,” Bruce says, “we’ll handle the installation and management” of construction of new substations that are necessary to distribute power to communities across the region.

Another robust market for Bruce & Merrilees is in the prefabrication of electrical components, such as small switch and connection boxes that can be installed in a variety of building projects. Other prefabrication components are larger – such as light poles that come with the tools and parts necessary for on-site assembly.

On a recent morning in March, the prefab department is busy with union electricians assembling metal boxes with the appropriate wiring for a customer that the company secured several months ago. In this case, these components, available through its catalog, are assembled and shipped directly to the customer.

“We’re preassembling these here, so it makes it easier for contractors on the job to install,” says electrician Frank Telesz. Once a part is finished and shipped, the contractor orders it and has it sent directly to the project. There, the contractor simply installs the fixture into the wall, saving hours of labor that would otherwise drive up costs for the project.

Pictured: Frank Telesz says preassembling makes it easier for contractors on the job.

“With our prefab products, these companies can save a lot on projects,” Bruce says.

On this day, some 350 tradesmen are out in the field working on various Bruce & Merrilees projects, Bruce says. The company employs between 75 and 80 full-time at its main offices on Cass Avenue in New Castle.

Company growth, he says, is intentionally gradual because the family-owned business enjoys strategic, measured expansions that it can manage.

“A lot of times, companies grow for growth’s sake,” Bruce says. “That’s not our model. We’ve generally been in the 8% to 15% range each year. We want to grow in a manageable way.”

New projects underway in which the company is involved include the $863 million Hickory Run Power Plant in North Beaver Township in Lawrence County, Pa., Bruce notes.

The plant uses a combined cycle of natural gas and steam to generate electricity and is one of several high-efficiency plants that recently went online, are under construction, or planned for northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. “The transition from coal-fired to natural gas-fueled plants is helping our business, too,” Bruce says. “This is an exciting one. It’s a large investment.”

Among the challenges going forward is finding enough skilled tradesmen to fill the projected retirees in the electrical trade, Bruce says. “We see that getting worse,” he says.

The company enjoys a robust backlog of work for this year but there’s always opportunity to win new business. “As my grandfather used to say, Bruce says, “There’s always room for one more profitable job.”

Pictured at top: Brothers Justin and Jay Bruce are third-generation owners of the company founded by their grandfather, J. Howard Bruce.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.