From left: Brothers Rick Trunnell, Lee Trunnell and Jack Trunnel, pictured with Lee’s son Brad, rear, own and operate Trunnell Electric in Rockville. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Reporter

Little 80-year-old Trunnell Electric of Rockville has mirrored the region’s history since its founder literally turned on the lights for the leaders of the free world in 1943.

At the depths of World War II, Ken Trunnell’s home emergency phone rang one evening in Friendship Heights. There was music in the background on the other end. A party, he thought.

His personal services were requested at a home on a dirt road in Kensington, a couple of miles north. When he arrived at the two brick pillars signaling the entrance to the road, several dark-clothed men carrying flashlights surrounded the vehicle.

A couple of them jumped on the truck, and they drove up the road to a mansion, past men patrolling with more flashlights. The house was dark, save for the candlelight that illuminated a room full of well-dressed men and women.

Ken found an overloaded circuit, fixed the problem, and the lights came back on.

Trunnell Electric workers install electricity features at an office building in Wheaton, Md. on Feb. 23. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

As Ken then made his way through the large room, past now-dancing men and women, he noticed two familiar faces off in a corner together: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were having a chat.

“It is part of our family’s verbal lore,” said Jack Trunnell, whose mother showed him a newspaper clipping confirming the encounter.

In the postwar economy, the company flourished, wiring new homes in Chevy Chase, Bethesda and Northwest Washington as an inexorable expansion washed over farms and peach orchards in lower Montgomery County, turning them into prosperous bedroom communities.

As the local economy expanded beyond government from the 1970s onward, Trunnell Electric morphed into an enterprise that also served businesses. It weathered downturns, and sacrificed to stay alive when the Great Recession hit in 2008.

Today, Trunnell Electric employs 20 people and will gross $2.3 million for the fiscal year ending this month.

It is still digging out of the detritus caused by the financial crisis. You hear about the sufferings of big corporations, but small businesses like Trunnell Electric — which has about half the employees it had in 2007 — were hit hard too.

This one survived.

Many of these smaller enterprises are the lifeblood of their communities, providing volunteers and donations to charities, as well as servicing and patronizing other local businesses including insurance agencies, caterers and car dealerships. They knit together networks of local small businesses, hold breakfast and lunch meetings, join associations.

Trunnell Electric worked with some of the biggest area builders, such as Coakley & Williams Construction; Matthews and Schwartz, which built Mohican Hills; and J. Edmund Bennett Associates, which built the 275-home Carderock Springs, a major development in the late 1960s.

“Nothing struck us like the recession,” said Jack, 64, one of three second-generation brothers who run the company. “Both sides of our business, commercial and residential, collapsed.”

Trunnell Electric had been steaming along for nearly a decade with revenue averaging around $4.2 million a year before collapsing to $1.7 million in 2010.

Gross margins slid by half, down to 16 percent from more than 30 percent.

Trunnell Electric suffered back-to-back losses in 2009 and 2010. It was headed toward more red in 2011 when rescue efforts finally kicked in.

The three brothers personally loaned the business $300,000. They cut wages for their 30-some employees by 10 percent, deferred purchases of new trucks and computers, reduced the 401(k) match and scrapped their payments on employee life insurance.

The Trunnells have taken no salary for five years.

“We lived on our wives’ incomes,” Jack said. “My two brothers’ wives work for the federal government. My wife works for a defense contractor. They all make pretty good money.”

Like their father and uncle before them, the Trunnells turned scrappy, branching out from traditional jobs in home repair and commercial jobs. They found new revenue streams installing electrical vehicle charging stations. They partnered with Pepco and Dominion Power on energy-saving programs. They upgraded shopping centers, condominiums, small manufacturing plans and offices with new LED lights.

They took smaller projects to reduce risk. They hired a business adviser and improved efficiencies by using computer-based estimating. They advertised more and became more aggressive sellers on the telephone.

Revenue has slowly climbed to $2.3 million for the fiscal year ending in February. Gross margins are back to more than 30 percent.

The company has restored employee wages to pre-crisis levels and it has bought several new trucks. Employee life insurance has been restored, Jack said.

The brothers are not taking salaries just yet, but the business is repaying, in stages, the $300,000 they loaned it. Once the loan is paid off, with interest, the brothers will begin collecting their salaries once more.

“We have to find ways to put our names in front of potential new customers,” he said.

Their name has been on the company since 1936, when Ken Trunnell founded W.K. Trunnell Inc. in then-rural Bethesda. It mostly did home repairs and some new construction for residents and builders in lower Montgomery County. Ken was joined two years later by his brother, Leroy “Dutch” Trunnell.

Ken and Dutch grew up in a working-class family in Georgetown, back when it was warehouses and waterfront.

This is a business that can date itself by milestones such as the construction of the Pentagon back in the early 1940s. That’s when a Trunnell electrician was arrested and held for questioning as he disconnected wiring for an ice cream vendor at the former Hoover Airfield along the Potomac River, where the military puzzle palace would eventually rise.

The brothers ambled through the war, but the postwar boom ignited the Trunnell Electric business, just as it did everything else in the country.

“Trunnell wired more than 65 percent of the new homes in Chevy Chase, Bethesda and the Upper Northwest D.C.,” Jack said.

The business was predominantly based on residential repairs and new homes until the 1960s, when companies of one or two electricians working out of garages started to take market share. The tiny firms had very little overhead, so they could undercut the midsize firms such as Trunnell.

Dutch purchased the company from Ken in 1968 and accelerated the commercial side of the business.

That same year, the company closed the Bethesda showroom and moved the headquarters to Rockville. The company wired many of the local icons, including Bethesda’s first high-rise — the Air Rights Building (now Center) — and Asbury Methodist Village retirement home, as well as playing a part in the renovation of the National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle in Northwest Washington and doing work for a slew of other churches, temples and schools.

“Needless to say, we’ve witnessed many changes over the decades,” Jack said. His goal now is to push revenue back up to the $4 million-a-year range.

So I had to know: Did they know who owned the Kensington mansion where Ken saw Roosevelt and Churchill?

“We don’t know for sure whose estate it was,” Jack said. “We have always done work for [former secretary of defense] Clark Clifford. It’s possible it was him.”