From Napkin to Success Story
CheckMate Communications & Electric capitalizes on technology to serve the industry
A lot of great ideas have been born on a napkin. Take, for instance, the design of a portable computer that led to Compaq (now Hewlett-Packard). Also, the chapters for “Harry Potter” and the script for the movie “A Few Good Men.” Even the design of the Super Bowl trophy.
Now enter Leon Davis and his idea for creating an electrical contracting and communications company to serve the construction industry. Davis drew out his plan for his company, CheckMate Communications & Electric (CheckMate), on a napkin three years ago. Today, the firm does $6 million in business, providing commercial and industrial network and electrical services to local and state agencies throughout New Jersey and the tri-state area.
Davis recalls how things came together. “I was listening to the struggles and pain my brother and his best friend were experiencing in the construction business. I realized that the construction companies they work for and other business owners in the industry weren’t capitalizing on technology. They use a plain phone service and redline drawings on paper. Because I understood technology and the pain of scheduling, designing, making progress reports all using pen and paper, I felt I could do the same thing, but more efficiently and effectively, with a leaner team using technology,” he says.
Davis literally scribbled his plan to put technology to use in his business on a napkin. The next day, he went to the courthouse in Trenton, New Jersey, and registered his company name, CheckMate Communications & Electric.
A Career in Telecommunications
The name CheckMate comes from Davis’ early years playing chess on his high school chess team and his response to receiving his first check for computer consulting services after graduating from Colorado State University in the early 1990s. “I would say, ‘checkmate’ when I received payment for my services,” he recalls.
Davis originally attended Colorado State University to study electrical engineering. But his focus shifted as he learned more about the emerging networking and telecommunications field. “I was watching the news one night and saw a story about the hottest careers for the future. Telecommunications was one of them,” he says. After graduating with a degree in computer science, Davis landed a consulting job with Jersey City Medical Center.
At the time, most companies were still using mainframe computer systems. His job was to set up the hospital’s computer(s) and write programs that would allow employees to do calculations and store data. “There weren’t any rules surrounding security, webpages and search engine optimization,” he recalls. “There was no concept of technology/communications and electrical services meeting. There wasn’t a school to teach you advanced knowledge behind communications and networking.”
With the internet taking shape, Davis wanted to build data centers and work with fiber optics and communications. He also saw a need to have an electrical company that understood the telecommunications side of the business. “Many electrical companies get the contract for the communications side of the business. We are a communications- focused entity that understands the delicate nature of communications versus just putting in a wire and plugging it in,” he says, adding, “We understand what happens inside the wire. Data communications is a totally different world than turning on a light switch.”
Between 1997 and 2011, Davis worked a variety of information technology jobs, including Network Engineer for the City of New York, Senior Network Engineer for Lucent Technologies and as a VoIP and Network Engineering Consultant. He also served as Manager of Network Infrastructure and Security for Parsons Brinckerhoff Parsons Brinckerhoff (now WSP), a multinational engineering and design firm, where he assisted the information security director in building a framework of best practices in information technology infrastructure and security management. He traveled around the world providing strategic information to companies on how to build out their communications infrastructure. When the industry started to slow down, Davis began looking at the construction industry as a fertile field for introducing technology. That’s when he had dinner with his brother, Andre, and decided to start an electrical contracting and communications company to fill a need that construction projects and owners had for certified minority telecommunications and electrical contractors in the New York and New Jersey areas. CheckMate became certified as a minority-owned and veteran-owned business enterprise (MBE and VOB) and Disadvantaged and Small Business enterprise (DBE and SBE), and doors for new business have been opening ever since.
Meeting Customer Needs
Whether a project involves installing electrical lighting, data infrastructure in a multistory office building or conduit and fiber optics on bridges, CheckMate provides a variety of services, including:
- - Support for design-build projects servicing electrical/telecommunications equipment builds.
- - Fiber optic, data and voice services.
- - Full electrical and low-voltage data center communications services.
- - Heavy construction electrical services.
- - Complete industrial electrical distribution systems.
- - Ongoing maintenance, including emergency repairs.
Davis’ first contract was an $800,000 job developing a pay-and-ride system for Citi Bike, the nation’s largest bike share program, with 12,000 bikes and 750 stations across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey City. “The pay-and-ride system reports back to a central database for all payments from people who check out a bicycle to ride from various locations across the city,” he says.
From there, the business has continued to build. Davis targets companies he’d like to do business with and works to develop relationships with them. “If you try to get a project without developing a relationship first, it will never be fruitful. I believe in reaching out, getting to know the client to understand their pain points and how we can be of service so we can become an extension to their operations,” he says.
Integrity is also important to Davis. “We complete every job, whether we’re making or losing money, to the satisfaction of our customers,” he says.
“Our culture is a blend of corporate America and family environment. Our employees are concerned with the company’s well-being and growth. We’re very professional and use technology to stay lean and nimble. We pay attention to detail and go over everything with a fine-tooth comb.” Lee Tardivel, Chief Operating Officer, CheckMate Communications & Electric
CheckMate has done multiple projects for the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY), which develops, finances and builds health and education infrastructure for New York State. The company has completed electrical build-outs for a new dormitory wing at LaGuardia Community College and for the Robert E. Marshak Science Building at the City College of New York. “Full electrical build-outs include all communications, audio and visual services, security and networking,” Davis says.
Other recent jobs have included the electrical build-out of a new tactical facility for the U.S. Coast Guard in Bayonne, New Jersey, and public address system wiring and installation for the new extension for Delta Air Lines at LaGuardia Airport.
But the project he’s most proud of to date is the work the company recently performed on the George Washington Bridge, a double-deck suspension bridge spanning the Hudson River connecting Manhattan and New Jersey. CheckMate provided upgrades to the electrical and fiber optic communications system that The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey uses to manage infrastructure. “I never knew how much technology could go into a bridge. They have weight and wind sensors. A bridge requires a lot of fiber optic and electric work,” he says.
The $3.7 million contract—CheckMate’s largest to date—has catapulted the firm into opportunities to bid on even larger projects.
Technology Rules the Day
The worlds of technology and construction join together to make CheckMate’s operation lean and nimble. “It made perfect sense for me as a technologist to bring my experience into the construction world. Smaller companies can no longer stick with pencil and paper. They need to get into collaborative communication, instant messaging and video conferencing with teams of people,” Davis says.
He uses cloud-based collaboration tools to stay connected to the field. “We do a lot of video conferencing between the field and our management and administration teams. These meetings allow us to go over designs and address situations that need our engineering support in real time, rather than sending out an email or making a phone call and waiting for an answer. We can reach solutions or address challenges much quicker,” Davis says.
When bidding on state and federal jobs, Davis knows he’s competing for work in which the lowest qualified bid will be accepted. He uses technology to prepare competitive bid packages that often rule the day. “We don’t use spreadsheets to do our estimating. Instead, we use a software application made by ConEst that allows us to do a detailed breakout of the job so we know our actual costs,” he says.
Oftentimes, CheckMate won’t be the lowest bidder, but when other bidders are disqualified for turning in incomplete bid packages, the company does end up getting the job. “We pride ourselves on having a complete bid, and when we win a job, we’re confident that we can do the job at a cost that is beneficial to both the client and to us,” he says.
The Blue Book Network® has been instrumental in helping CheckMate find projects. “New Style Contractors, Inc. was our very first client that we helped with a DASNY project,” Davis says. “They found our profile in The Blue Book and invited us to bid on the job, which has led us to win about five more DASNY projects. We have three active projects with New Style right now.”
CheckMate has 30-plus employees, with 10 people in administration and 23 to 25 in the field. The majority of CheckMate’s field employees are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union No. 3 and Local 164 in New Jersey.
“Our culture is a blend of corporate America and family environment,” says Chief Operating Officer Lee Tardivel. “Our employees are concerned with the company’s well-being and growth. We’re very professional and use technology to stay lean and nimble. We pay attention to detail and go over everything with a fine-tooth comb.”
To help employees understand the various aspects of company operations, CheckMate does team-building sessions and enables employees to experience different company roles. “We move different people around so they learn all sides of the business,” Tardivel says.
Safety is paramount at CheckMate. All employees are Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) 30-hour training certified and the company’s safety program works in conjunction with that of IBEW Local Union No. 3. “Safety is at the forefront of our company.
I personally go and meet every new employee who works in the field for us,” Davis says. “I want to shake their hands, know who they are and put a name to a face. I want them to know I’m an employee of the company just like they are. There’s no difference in my title and that of an electrician’s title. We’re all employees here.”
CheckMate is involved in the Police Athletic League (PAL), sponsoring the same Golden Gloves boxing programs that Davis grew up participating in. In fact, Davis recalls his employment interview with Operations Manager Paul Dunleavy. They were reminiscing about growing up in Jersey City, and Dunleavy recalled a kid that was the fastest fighter on his boxing team. Davis was able to finish the story because he was that young fighter. “Talk about the world being small. We didn’t realize we had crossed each other’s paths, and now it’s come full circle and we’re working together,” he says. Davis and Dunleavy, who grew up only blocks from each other, now host quarterly boxing matches for breast cancer awareness with the theme “Beating the odds and boxing for a cure.”
Davis also is on the board of directors for the Northern New Jersey Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) and a board member of the Bright Minds Institute for Autism-New Jersey. He sponsors the Liberty All Stars in Jersey City, a competitive cheerleading program.
Where does he hope to be five years from now? “I see myself with continued happy customers, but in different markets, including Texas and Chicago. We’re focused on organic growth, but are also looking for similar companies we can acquire to standardize and introduce technology platforms across the board to gain economies of scale and add new markets,” Davis says.