Have you ever dreaded something but then once it was over said, “Wow, that wasn't nearly as bad as I expected”? You know, like the first time you attended a family gathering with the future in-laws? Okay, this example might not work for everyone, but stick with me.

I worried about meeting my wife's family well in advance of it taking place and played out a million different painful scenarios in my mind. “Survival” was the word of the day. You see, I grew up in a quiet, reserved family setting, but I was set to enter a huge Italian-Irish party fest. I was terrified. Yet, somehow, when all was said and done, I managed to come out the other side of this encounter better off than when I entered. I think many of this year's Top 50 electrical contracting firms know exactly how this feels.

A look back at last year's Top 50 report revealed some interesting statements from our participants.

  • “Many electrical construction firms are hanging on by their fingernails.”
  • “There is not enough work out there for all the competitors.”
  • “Owners are still holding back.”

Based on those responses, many of these big contractors were going into 2004 with the same queasy feeling I had when meeting the in-laws. Half had just come off a year in which they'd suffered sales losses, and as a group they realized a meager overall average rise in revenue of just 1.4%. In fact, most predicted a flat market in 2004 with insubstantial gains at best. In other words, many of them were hoping to limit their damage and live for another day.

But just as my encounter with my new extended family turned out much better than expected, so did the 2004 performance of this year's Top 50. This year's list of contracting giants posted an overall average gain of 11.6% in electrical and datacom sales. Nearly three-quarters saw a rise in revenue, with 11 companies posting increases of more than 25%. Not bad, considering more than half of this group went into the year viewing the economy as “stagnant.”

So what happened? Why did these big companies fare better than they had originally anticipated? Some were more aggressive in the bidding arena. Others pushed into new markets and expanded their service territories. And a few didn't change a thing, but still benefited from an improving economy. For the full story, turn to page 34 and let our new staff writer Beck Finley give you the goods on how this year's Top 50 got their businesses back on track and how they think this year is shaping up.

Expectations are a funny thing. Sure, Grandma Lena pinched the hell out of my cheeks and made me eat more food that I thought was humanly possible, and Grandpa Ray got drunk and tried to dance with me, but in the end I had a great time. Maybe it's because I went into the event with such low expectations. But the fact is, despite what we might be thinking ahead of time, sometimes we just don't get it right due to a number of unknown factors.

Almost one third of this year's Top 50 expects their sales to increase by more than 10% in 2005. Let's hope their internal gauges are properly tuned this year.