‘It’s a rag-to-riches story. It’s a story about Trenton. It’s quite a story, and the story continues,” says Bill Goodwin, executive vice president of Franklin-Griffith. His office looks out on the landmark flatiron building on South Broad Street in Trenton, the one that is emblazoned with the Griffith Electric logo. It is a business that has survived a number of challenges, including an evolving customer base and national economic turmoil.
Last January the latest chapter in Griffith Electric’s history unfolded when the company was purchased by Franklin Electric of Moorestown in Burlington County. Franklin was as established in the Philadelphia and South Jersey area as Griffith was in Mercer County. Yet one of the things that has made the sale work is that while the principals in both companies knew each other, the territories of the two companies did not overlap very much.
William Griffith started his electrical supply business in 1938, when the nation had not yet escaped the clutches of the Great Depression. Trenton’s manufacturing economy still had decades of vibrant life ahead of it and Griffith thrived even with wartime rationing because, as Goodwin points out, the company supplied various factories in the area that were considered essential to the war effort.
Griffith and his wife, Meta, were partners in life and business. The Griffiths both worked at an electrical supply shop across the street from the current location. One day William Griffith stepped across the street and opened his own place and his wife went with him.
Griffith was 64 when he died in 1971 and Meta took over, running the company until she hired Goodwin as general manager in 1998. She was active in the business until she died in 2010 at age 101.
The walls outside Goodwin’s office are covered by many of the civic awards she received over the years. Goodwin speaks with fondness about her and clearly enjoys telling the story of a family business that is still an important part of the community.
“She was the first woman elected to the board of the Trenton Chamber of Commerce,” he says. “Then she was elected the first woman president.” The Boy Scouts even gave their “Good Guy Award” to Meta Griffith one year.
“There have been several awards like that over the years,” Goodwin says. “She was involved with all aspects of the business from day one.”
Goodwin, 64, grew up in and lives in Horsham, Pennsylvania. He and his wife — a registered nurse — have been married 42 years. They’ve had four sons; one is deceased, one is with PNC Bank, one works in information technology, and one is in real estate.
Goodwin adds he is a Villanova grad and after worked for the FBI when the Bureau was first computerizing its trove of fingerprints. He says computer imaging was not even a figment of the imagination at the time. Instead, alpha-numeric codes were given to any number of characteristics. If you had a fingerprint with a certain tell-tale feature, there was a code that could be entered to find fingerprints with similar characteristics. With any luck, a fingerprint belonging to the perpetrator you had in mind just might come up. “That seems like the Dark Ages now, but that’s where computers were in the mid-’70s,” Goodwin says.
During the 1970s, Goodwin says, he got into sales with electrical distributors, even with some that sold to Griffith. When a management opening came up at Griffith, he was hired as general manager; 18 years later he is executive vice president.
As its industrial contracts ebbed and slipped away in the 1980s, Griffith Electric turned more to some of the large institutional customers of electrical equipment in the Trenton-metro area: the State of New Jersey, Princeton University, Rider University, and Mercer County Community College.
“Those are all great accounts,” Goodwin says. Time went on and Griffith diversified further.
“We have a sales force that just sells to towns and counties,” he says. “We produce half commercial, half institutional sales — municipalities, school boards, hospitals.”
Goodwin knows that the kinds of contacts that can make a difference for a company like Franklin-Griffith don’t only take place within four walls. That is why he belongs to a group of golfing buddies who call themselves “the Philadelphia Tin Hats.” There is a tacit agreement that when the Tin Hats get together for a round of golf, it’s not supposed to be about business. But, it seems, tacit agreements were made to be flouted.
“If you’re in the electrical industry in the Philadelphia area, you want to be part of that group,” Goodwin says.
Nevertheless, when Goodwin looks out of his office windows past the flatiron building at Second and South Broad, he’s not only thinking about golf. He can see the Roebling Works buildings, which are slowly being redeveloped. The Sun Arena is nearby and the new New Jersey Association of Realtors building looms at the intersection of South Broad and Hamilton Avenue. Griffith, and now Franklin-Griffith, has been part of all of it.
Bill Walker is president and CEO of Franklin, a 90-year-old company.
“Bill and I are friends,” Goodwin says. “We belong to the same buying group, so I would see him at those meetings. We became friends. We come from the same culture, family-run businesses, dedicated employees.”
As happens so often, the deal that created Franklin-Griffith got its start socially, over a drink.
The purchase has yielded some advantages. The Griffith part was in Trenton’s urban enterprise zone, which was recently scrapped by Christie administration. There is free delivery and about 100 employees, most of whom live in New Jersey or right across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Customers, besides the large institutional clients, are electrical contractors in the area. The retail space is still open for contractors needing a part or a gadget and do-it-yourselfers at home.
“Two things I required,” Goodwin says about the merger. “I needed the Griffith name to survive and no layoffs. I just couldn’t see that happening to our people.
There was a transition for the two companies. They’ve been on the same computer system since May. In addition to the computers, the phone systems needed to connect with each other. Consolidation of security systems yielded some savings.
“There’s a lot of things we spend money on every month and when you combine with another company there’s a savings,” Goodwin says.
In the near future, the plan is to improve the company website and make it more oriented to business-to-business. There are issues, however.
“A big piece of that is the catalog,” Goodwin says. “We’re not an Amazon or an eBay.” For example, he says, electrical contractors use myriad common names for standard items. All of those generic names have to become part of the search engine. Tracking numbers have to match up with the many catalog items. “The electrical industry is behind in that regard,” Goodwin says. “We’re always looking for ways to automate this process and save money.”
Relative bigness may have its advantages, he says.
“We’re a small market team,” he says. “We’re well known in Trenton, but if you go out to Piscataway or Newark, we’re not as well known.
Goodwin says the company’s commitment to Trenton will remain.
“I don’t think it’s changing that much,” he says. “I like what I see in the new mayor. Anything local, we want to be part of. That’s the way local government can help — put local businesses in touch with winning contractors.”
Franklin Griffith, 5 Second Street, Trenton. (609) 695-6121.