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Matthew Romanoff Talks About Taking Risks, Building His Own Open Shop Business and Attracting Young People to the Construction Industry

Matthew Romanoff is a go-getter. In his words, he likes to work hard and play hard. It’s the main reason he’s had success as a college graduate turned electrician turned business owner. That’s not to say there haven’t been a few missteps along his 30-year career in the construction industry, but with his never-fail attitude, he prefers to focus his attention on the positives.

For example, his company—Romanoff Group, headquartered just outside Columbus, Ohio—did about $65 million in sales this year with a workforce of about 400 employees. It’s a considerable jump from the dozen craft professionals he started out with in 1993, not to mention the family-owned electrical business he grew up around.

Matt RomanoffRomanoff’s grandfather came to the United States from Russia in 1917, settled in Cleveland and completed electrical training with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). In 1927, he moved to Toledo, Ohio, and started Romanoff Electric. Romanoff’s father took over the business in 1976, and four years later opened an office in Columbus to work on the first Honda plant to be built in Marysville, Ohio.

After earning a business degree from Arizona State University in the mid-1980s, Romanoff returned to Toledo to go through the IBEW’s electrical apprenticeship program and learn estimating, project management and purchasing through the family business. In 1990, he moved to Columbus with the expectation he would run the operation a few years down the line.

But about three years in, Romanoff realized a union company just wasn’t the right fit for Columbus. “I went to my dad and said, ‘this is a merit shop city and my future is in the merit shop.’ I let him know I wanted to leave and buy a company named GE Miller Electric. He was very understanding and even allowed me to piggyback off the name, so we became Miller/Romanoff.”

The new venture—which eventually became Romanoff Group—focused on smaller commercial projects at first, but it didn’t take long for Romanoff to get the urge to expand. “My dad started some other companies (doing development, commercial and industrial work) and never wanted to sit still, so I’m like him but on steroids.”

Romanoff opened a residential unit in 1998, but it was far different from what he knew on the commercial side and made virtually no money for the first few years. Looking back, sticking with that business was one of the best decisions he’s ever made. “We eventually figured out how to be profitable on the residential side, and it has been very beneficial,” Romanoff says. “When residential is down, commercial is up, and vice versa.”

Not every diversification strategy was quite so successful. Romanoff tried a commercial HVAC business in 2001 and a residential plumbing business in 2004, both of which “failed miserably.” Not to be deterred, in 2003 he set his sights on opening a residential HVAC business that remains profitable today. In fact, residential electrical and HVAC work accounts for about 60 percent of the Romanoff Group’s projects today.

Expansion took a geographic turn in 2007, when Romanoff opened new offices in Charlotte, N.C., and Louisville, Ky., in order to perform additional work for existing clients. The same strategy has brought the firm to Nashville and Raleigh, N.C., as well. All the ups and downs beg the question: Wouldn’t it have been easier for Romanoff to just build the family business instead?

“I learned so much going out on my own, like sweating payroll and having to meet with banks. If I had stayed with my dad’s company, all of those relationships would have been built for me,” he says. “Even if I would have failed, which I never thought of, I never would have been sorry for what I attempted.”

Making a Difference Through Mentorship and Training
In his role as chief executive officer, Romanoff is content to leave his tools behind and focus on mentoring his team of general managers. He speaks with them on a daily basis and visits each office monthly.

“I’m fairly hands off. I give my general managers the tools they need to be successful and I focus more on the strategy of how we’re going to grow and what we need to make that happen,” he says.

A lot of the employees who are running operations came up through the ranks, due in part to the company’s commitment to hiring from within and ensuring staff gets the proper schooling and training needed to advance their careers. Romanoff describes his team as an energetic bunch with a lot of longevity—essentially, they are the nuts and bolts of the firm’s success.

Despite recently being named one of Columbus’ best places to work by CEO Magazine, Romanoff Group faces the same workforce pressures as every other U.S. contractor; namely a severe shortage of craft professionals. True to form, Romanoff refuses to sit around and do nothing about that problem.

“We’re having trouble recruiting like I’ve never experienced before,” he says. Anticipating this shortfall, two years ago the management team literally sat in a room together for hours until they came up with a way to bring more electricians and HVAC apprentices into the industry. The plan is simple, albeit quite a financial investment: pay for apprentices’ training and 100 percent of their housing costs for the first year.

To start, the firm’s HR recruiter reached out to every career and technical school in Ohio and met with a dozen that expressed interest, many of which were in rural areas. “Young people often want to move to Columbus from southern Ohio, but they don’t have enough money without a job in place. Now they have no excuse,” Romanoff says. “We put them up in apartments, they work for us, and we pay for them to go to school.”
For the second year of training, students get a housing stipend, and all school costs remain covered by Romanoff Group. Last year, 34 students started off in the program and 25 finished—a huge success compared to the numbers Romanoff would have had using traditionalrecruiting methods. This year, about 50 people started in June and only a couple have dropped off.

“It has been revolutionary,” Romanoff says. “Obviously there’s a cost to us, but we’ve been able to figure it out, and we know we’ll be paid back tenfold once these students are fully trained. They know we stuck our necks out for them and will be loyal; plus our recruiter is a bit of a mother hen to them.”

Romanoff Group uses the apprenticeship program offered by Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) Central Ohio Chapter. Additionally, students come to the office for a couple hours each week during the first six months for in-house training to make sure they learn certain skills the “Romanoff way.”

The company joined ABC back in 1993, when Romanoff was first trading in his union background for the open shop philosophy, and he later served as a board member for a few years. “I needed to learn the essence of what it meant to be a merit shop contractor,” he says. “My goal was to be the most sophisticated merit shop electrical contractor in Columbus, and being involved in ABC greatly helped my learning curve and my ability to meet that goal.”

Know a Good Success Story?
Construction Executive is on the lookout for young entrepreneurs, as well as craft professionals who have worked their way up to leadership positions or started their own business. They must own (or be employed by) a company that is a member of Associated Builders and Contractors. Please send profile recommendations to Joanna Masterson at masterson@abc.org.

Joanna Masterson is editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org, visit www.constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.

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