Tom Anderson’s Retirement: Looking Back at the Career of a Bergelectric Legend
With a unique perspective that has always lived far outside the box that was Bergelectric and a “glass half full” mindset that would seem absurd if it wasn’t contagious, Tom Anderson’s career at Bergelectric has paralleled the company’s rise to national prominence. A true visionary to say the least, Tom has been able to maximize his abilities as a natural-born leader and paired it with grit to rise to the top of Bergelectric’s upper management and eventually take the helm. After a remarkable career that spanned over four decades, seven U.S. presidents, multiple recessions, and an ever-changing industry landscape, Bergelectric’s clairvoyant leader has retired from the Board of Directors. He leaves with Bergelectric on an upward trajectory of innovation, growth, and success.
In the late 1960s, a young Tom Anderson had two choices: college or Vietnam. After enrolling in college, he became an editor on his college newspaper with his eye on a career in journalism. It was during this time, however, that Tom started a family—and his life got more complicated. Married with two children after his junior year, Tom was forced to put the brakes on school in order to provide for his growing family.
In 1974, Bergelectric was a union contractor, new to San Diego, and eager to take on the more established contractors in the area. Bergelectric’s future President, Bob Drinkward—who founded the San Diego office— received a phone call from the local union business manager who said he had a hardworking second-year apprentice named Tom with a young family and struggling to get enough hours due to the carpenters strike. He inquired if Mr. Drinkward would be willing to give him a shot (and a consistent 40 hours a week). Bob agreed to meet the young apprentice and offered him a job on the spot—a decision that would forever change the future of Bergelectric.
At the beginning of his career at Bergelectric, Tom had the good fortune of working under veteran foreman Ken Drinkward. Ken (Bob Drinkward’s younger brother) was one of Bergelectric’s first foremen in the San Diego region and a great mentor to Tom. In fact, Tom still credits Ken with being the best foreman he had ever seen (words he stands by to this day). After taking in all he could from mentors in the field like Ken, Bob Drinkward gave him a chance to lead as a foreman—bypassing the journeyman position altogether. His first project as the lead man was a success—coming in at under 25% labor hours—and his career was off and running.
In 1979, Bergelectric was starting to grow and gain a strong reputation in the San Diego region. Bob Drinkward and John Stratton (general superintendent at the time) deemed it necessary to bring in a second superintendent. When mulling over their choice of candidates from Bergelectric’s impressive list of field leaders, Bob had the foresight to promote a candidate who wouldn’t necessarily be the best superintendent at the time, but the best superintendent for the future—and Tom was the guy. “There were other foremen who were more qualified for the job,” said Drinkward, “but I thought that after a couple of years, Tom would be the best candidate for the future and stability of the company,” he continued. “Berg has always promoted men and women who performed and saw a long-term horizon…I was lucky to be one of those employees,” said Tom. After landing the superintendent role, a very green Tom Anderson was met with adversity right away at the American Airlines terminal expansion project in Lindbergh Field (now known as San Diego International Airport). The project was running the risk of falling short on labor hours. Tasked with “fixing the problem” by Bob Drinkward, Tom was forced to decrease his field crew and challenge the remaining electricians to meet the demanding schedule. This did not go over well, however, as the rest of the crew quit and went back to the union hall. Scared and a little over his head, Tom assigned mentor Ken Drinkward to the project. Armed with only four electricians new to the job and veteran foreman Ken Drinkward, Tom worked hard by studying plans at night and led crews alongside Ken during the day. With proper leadership and a sheer will to succeed, he was able to finish the project on schedule and under budget despite the dissipated crew. The project showcased Tom’s leadership and willingness to do what it takes to overcome a challenge. It was a real highlight in Tom’s young career and gave him, as well as Bergelectric’s upper management, plenty of confidence in his abilities moving forward. “This project taught me how to dig in and manage,” said Tom.
Moving Through the Decades
Tom was promoted to a project management position in 1982 after a successful stint as superintendent where Tom oversaw projects including schools, shopping centers, supermarkets, military BEQs, public facilities, and commercial projects. It was during this time that Bergelectric had to battle their first major recession in San Diego.
“The early ‘80s were tough,” Tom recalled. “Bob Drinkward was able to retain our employees during this difficult time by negotiating a conversion of all FedMart stores to Target stores throughout San Diego County. He was able to arrange a cost-plus contract for these projects that really helped keep us afloat during those trying times,” Tom continued.
In 1986, Tom’s position became more robust as he worked under Bob Drinkward developing, negotiating, and managing a wide swath of business. It was at this time—only four years after becoming a project manager—that a 36-year-old Tom Anderson was invited to become a stockholder of Bergelectric. “I was very proud to stand for Tom and recommend him to be a stockholder—he was very deserving,” said Drinkward. Together, Tom and Bob formed a great team founded in respect for each other and dedication to growing Bergelectric.
“Tom was always very loyal to me and gave me great support during my career,” said Drinkward. “He was very aggressive at acquiring new work and taking care of customers, while I focused on the operations side of the business—it was a great match,” Bob continued.
Tom and Bob also decided to break ties with the local IBEW in 1986. Though it was considered a major risk at the time, Tom played a key role in shaping a plan that took Bergelectric’s San Diego operation from a union contractor to a “merit-based” contractor. The move sent shockwaves across the industry and set the stage for Bergelectric to expand regionally. “With Tom’s hard work and efforts, the transition away from the union proved to be very positive for the company,” said Drinkward. Bergelectric’s merit-based electricians were able to see a great future, and it opened doors for a more diverse range of project endeavors. “Becoming a merit shop was a true turning point for Bergelectric—it allowed us to grow while others shrank—and it took a lot of guts,” said Tom.
The economy started to move along as the decade progressed. Bergelectric began to grow in the late 1980s and into the next decade until they were stymied by another recession in the early to mid-1990s. To push through this challenging time, Bergelectric was forced to develop more efficient approaches to their installation practices. One of these new practices championed by Tom was an in-house Detailing Division where experienced foremen like Ken Drinkward could coordinate with other trades and detail electrical layouts before the installation. Bergelectric’s Prefabrication Division was developed around this time as well—allowing Berg to streamline and standardize assemblies off site in a controlled environment. Embracing these two departments—so new to the industry at the time—brought Berg to the next level of productivity and efficiency. Tom’s role was essential in developing these innovative practices and making them become standard applications.
Another way Tom pushed Bergelectric through the challenging economy of the ‘90s was to further diversify Bergelectric’s markets and territories. For example, Bergelectric pursued prison projects in remote locations like Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Sherwood, Oregon and the California State Penitentiary Corcoran in Corcoran, California—territories that were very remote and completely off Bergelectric’s radar at the time. “I believe these ‘risky’ projects were necessary to survive and keep a stable management team and our world-class electricians intact,” said Tom. “We paid more attention to high-risk projects and had generally good results.” These large-scale/remote projects not only helped to keep Bergelectric afloat during the poor economic times, they created even more opportunities for Bergelectric moving forward.
Berg’s success on projects outside of Southern California helped sharpen Tom’s vision of developing a national presence for the company. In the late ‘90s, Tom became focused on the possibility of opening regional offices in cities outside of California. He got pushback from Berg’s board at the time, as they did not initially share his aggressive manner of expansion. However, with Bob Drinkward’s backing, he was able to open the Las Vegas office in 1999—Bergelectric’s first regional office outside of the state. “The Vegas office was a test for me,” said Tom. “We were able to land a profitable project, showed success, and the board gave me a greenlight to expand…maybe it was more of a yellow light. Bob Drinkward supported the effort and we were able to pull it off.”
As the new century began, Bergelectric started to grow both in gross revenue and national footprint. Under the leadership of Tom, Bergelectric opened up regional offices in Portland, OR, Denver, CO, and Orlando, FL. Tom was promoted to executive vice president around this time—continuing to push Bergelectric to have a greater national presence. Bergelectric acquired projects in new markets too, including several large-scale tribal gaming facilities in Southern California and the acquisition of various projects in Arizona that prompted Bergelectric to open another regional office in the Phoenix area. The early 2000s saw an upward trajectory of growth, and in a few short years, Bergelectric went from $200 million/year in gross revenue to a $500 million/year. Everything was looking up…until the economic crash of 2008.
The 2008 crash once again inspired Tom to find creative ways to push Berg through the tough economic times. He continued to expand nationally during the recession—opening offices in Austin, TX, Raleigh, NC, and Sacramento, CA. Tom pursued projects from coast to coast and was again willing to take on riskier endeavors. Berg also acquired large-scale projects with lengthy project durations capable of outlasting the economic slowdown. Key projects during this time included multiple facilities at Fort Bliss, TX and the $101 million Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, CA. “We were able to stand tall during the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, which decimated our industry,” said Tom.
Much of the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis still lingered into the 2010s. Market and financial challenges included tight margins on projects, a sluggish private sector, a shrinking federal-project sector, and increased costs for healthcare. Despite these obstacles, Berg experienced growth with sales reaching $600 million in 2012. Through Tom’s optimistic leadership, Bergelectric remained innovators during this tough time. The continued focus on productivity and efficiency led to a high level of service to both their employees and clients.
2012 also saw the changing of the guard as long-time Bergelectric President Don Briscoe retired and Tom Anderson became the new president/CEO of the company—quite a title for the young apprentice just trying to “make hours.” As president/CEO, Tom continued his push for new ways to grow Bergelectric. He initiated joint venture projects with competitors—once again breaking away from Bergelectric’s typical approach and leading them into unchartered territory. Joint venture projects included large-scale military facilities in remote areas like the massive Offutt Air Force Base Replacement Facility in Nebraska and the Fort Bliss Replacement Hospital in Texas. By teaming with the competition, Tom was able to reduce Berg’s financial risks and expand the size of projects Berg could successfully manage and complete anywhere in the U.S. To date, Bergelectric has grossed in excess of $400 million in joint venture contracts.
Improving the Industry
In 2007 Tom became president of the Associated General Contractors (AGC) San Diego Chapter. Throughout his career, Tom set aside time to get involved with organizations like the AGC and was passionate about advancing the construction industry. During his year as AGC San Diego president, Tom was proud to offer internships to lower- income high school students and help lay the groundwork for industry scholarships. He always sought to create more opportunities through education and saw it as essential to advancing the construction industry as a whole.
Towards the end of his career, Tom participated in an electrical contractor peer group—made up of executives from similarly sized electrical contractor companies from around the country. Showing his willingness to reach out to his competition, Tom and the executives in this group were able to exchange ideas and share best practices/approaches—improving Bergelectric’s means and methods, and helping to move the electrical contracting industry forward.
Tom stepped down from his duties as president/CEO in 2015 and has since held a position as chairman of the board. As he slowly steps away from Bergelectric, Tom’s story—rising up the ranks as a young apprentice, leading during trying times, using creativity to push boundaries—will forever define the culture of Bergelectric.
Performance is always recognized, even if it takes a while. Dedicate yourself to the long road…it is impossible to measure the impact of stability and loyalty on a career. Use adversity as a challenge to overcome and a stronger, more confident person will emerge. Make as many friends as you can along the way…they will provide a welcome refuge from the rigors of the industry. Lastly, put your family first and your career will follow as a close second—one enhancing the other. Thanks to all in the industry who helped push me to the finish line.”
–Thomas R. Anderson