Great Southwestern Construction: powering up with EPC

Matt High
|May 18|magazine22 min read

Since 1977, Great Southwestern (GSW) has successfully completed hundreds of substation, transmission line and distribution system projects throughout the United States. During the 1980s company founder and Vietnam War veteran Robert Martinez established the company’s reputation on a series of power delivery projects, securing government contracts with the Western Area Power Authority and Bonneville Electric while performing a substantial role in the Central Arizona Irrigation Project. Expanding into utilities projects, GSW became an operating subsidiary of MYR Group in 2000. MYR Group provides management expertise, resources and financial backing that has allowed GSW to achieve new levels of performance and the ability to take on larger and more complex projects. This led to GSW’s involvement in MYR Group’s largest single project to date – the 235-mile, 345kV Cross Texas Transmission Line, part of Texas’s US$7bn Competitive Renewable Energy Zone (CREZ). 

“The acquisition by MYR helped out a lot because it added the capital resources needed to grow, supporting the ability to buy equipment and bond projects with capital backing,” recalls President Brandon Lark. “Shared resources throughout the group gave us the opportunity to grow rapidly from being a project focused organisation that bounced around the country focusing on single projects all won through competitive hard bid, to an organisation that is now regionally focused with long-term MSA agreements in multiple different regions across the US.” Lark explains GSW is focusing on overall market saturation from a regional aspect and keeping crews local to an area. “In the past our crews would travel nationwide, so this helps with our recruitment and our employee development.”

Recruitment & Training

Since 2005, GSW has focused on increasing the pace of its EPC (Engineer-Procure-Construct) delivery method. “We've prioritised developing project management skills and capabilities throughout our organisation,” confirms Lark. “We have an in-house development programme to develop solid project managers across the board. This has paid dividends in our ability to communicate in a timely and effective way with our clients. We really like to have a very transparent approach and, in order to do that, you have to have a solid means and methods of communication through project management practices.”

Training is a key part of the process at GSW where new hires will go through a week-long orientation to give them a grounding in the values and the foundation of GSW and the organisation’s expectations. Employees receive industry training through MYR Group going through the OSHA (ET&D) best practice course to ensure safety is paramount across all of GSW’s sites. The continuous improvement of its employees is important for GSW. “Our employees have the opportunity to take three paid Department of Labor Bureau-accredited apprenticeship programmes,” adds Lark. GSW’s Transmission Lineman and Distribution Lineman Apprenticeship Programmes are provided through T&D Power Skills, and are geared to instruct electric utility line workers with up-to-date, safety-related work practices and technical skills related to the installation, maintenance and removal of transmission and distribution systems. The company’s Substation Technician Certification Program is provided through the Northwest Lineman’s College (NLC) Power Delivery Program, is most commonly used as the curriculum component of apprenticeship leading to journeyman certification, and is ideal for adoption or endorsement by utility company associations and state-wide organisations. A third course focuses on distribution alignment.

“Despite the fact we've grown tremendously since the 1980s, we've tried to maintain a family feeling, we do that through our people first focus,” says Lark. “We want our employees to feel as though they're part of a large team, in a family where their interests are looked out for, that they're valued. We do that by ensuring everybody has a voice and understands it's not only a right, but an expectation, that if they have questions they get the support they need. We’re committed to helping them improve their skill set to move forward and grow as employees from one day to the next.” Lark believes this approach has helped GSW develop its reputation as a solid organisation to work for. “The transmission distribution industry is a relatively small one, word is spreading and people are seeking us out.” 

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Turnkey Solutions

GSW’s clients are increasingly looking at outsourcing for the kind of specialised expertise unavailable elsewhere or over-committed in-house. “We must be prepared to deliver turnkey solutions to answer their call,” pledges Lark. Delivering these turnkey solutions often comes in the form of EPC agreements, prevalent on more complex projects. EPC agreements allow owners to share more risk and lower overall costs by transferring a project’s engineering design, procurement of equipment and materials, and construction activities to a single contractor. 

To achieve this, Lark explains that GSW takes an approach of partnerships across the board. “When we’re working towards turnkey delivery methods with our clients we want to have subcontractors, vendors and staff that are working with us repeatedly rather than going out for the lowest bid on every project. The best way to show steady improvement over time with a client is by having a complete team that's all in and understands their key drivers.” GSW’s in-house construction capabilities secure the turnkey approach, offering the opportunity for early stage constructability analysis and the chance to optimise value and enhance efficiency to deliver the best overall design. By directly managing all stakeholders GSW enhances communication to minimise impact on project schedules.

Supporting sustainability

As an industry-leading provider of electrical construction services, GSW delivers optimal value while ensuring sustainability that depends on its ability to prioritise economic, social, cultural, ethical and environmental considerations generated throughout day-to-day operations.

“When we look at how Great Southwestern promotes sustainability and energy efficiency, it's through supporting renewable energy projects,” confirms Lark. “We seek out and partner with renewable energy developers to help bring solar and wind energy projects to market. We come into play to get their green energy projects connected to the grid. We'll work on the high voltage side, and the interconnection with the host utility.” Driven by client expectations and specifications, GSW has constructed substations, transmission lines and collector systems for solar and wind farms throughout the US. The Magic Valley wind farm in Texas (completed in 2013) was an EPC project consisting of the construction of 258,000 circuit feet of a 34.5kV underground collection system and a new 138kV substation including two 138kV breakers, eight 34.5KV breakers, all related steel, bus, conduits, grounding, foundations, cable trench, control building and site work.

“We're seeing a huge drive on the energy delivery front,” says Lark, highlighting the chance for GSW to capitalise on its expertise. “There’s a big push to move away from coal and towards more renewable, sustainable energy. With that, there's a lot of different complexities that come into it. One of the areas we really want to focus on is that these renewable projects generally drive much tighter timeframes and therefore a higher degree of need for solid project management. We've got to be much more flexible, be able to think out of the box and accelerate projects to a pace that are outside of normal utility delivery. We really see an opportunity to be the bridge between the developer and the interconnecting utilities to help make that happen.”

Growth mindset

“We’ve experienced steady and sustainable growth,” says Lark proudly. “Through that growth, we've been able to offer opportunities for our employees to grow too and improve their positions within the organisation. We're in a growth mindset, which allows our teams to set high goals and ultimately go and achieve them.” Lark believes that this mindset, coupled with GSW’s commitment to safety and the value that individual employees can bring, has contributed to the company taking an industry-leading role to become best in class. “We've got a solid team of very dedicated leaders across the organisation and to me that's a huge success.”

2020 vision

“Projects like the Cross Texas Transmission Line are huge undertakings and show the industry what we’re capable of,” says Lark. “When you look at where we're at today, we’re excited about utilising those capabilities to develop long-term relationships with the likes of Oncor Electrics in Texas. “We're one of their primary contractors and we have several hundred employees on their system supporting them day in and day out. It’s alliances like these that we’re looking forward to forging across the US.”

Looking to the future, Lark believes the EPC model is going to be crucial in bridging the gap to ensure deliverable timeframes are met across a range of projects, especially renewable energy. “This not only helps from a developer perspective, so they're successful in making sure that the timelines are met; but also when dealing with the interconnecting utility and ensuring all the studies and standards of construction are also met.”

“We’re reaching a point where a lot of utilities don't have the same in-house capabilities that they used to have, due to recruitment issues and staff retiring. They're looking at the EPC model as a method of augmenting their project delivery for their own capital projects. That's the other area where we’re looking to fill the needs across the board, and a lot of that is ensuring that we're bringing on that expertise in-house to meet client expectations. We’re aiming to balance the needs of both sides of the fence and I think we are in a very good position to be able to do that moving forward.”

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