Whether it’s a bid, design/build or design/assist, the relationship you create with the builder determines how likely it is you will work together in the future. Responsiveness, a positive attitude and a sense of teamwork all are traits a general contractor (GC) appreciates from subcontractors and other construction stakeholders. Subcontractors appreciate the same from those they work with. Unfortunately, obstacles can emerge when attempting to build that good working relationship. Fostering open communication, preplanning and a mutual desire for a project well done smooths out the rough patches and brings out the best in everyone.
“Everyone has to feel a sense of responsibility on a project for teamwork to jell,” said Paul McCluskey, president of Boston-based Edward G. Sawyer Co. Inc. “Project managers, mechanical and architectural trade foremen all have to work together. It’s vital. Be smart, professional and prompt, and you’ll win.” Having been in business 142 years, Edward G. Sawyer is advertised as the “oldest continuously operated electrical contracting business.”
Dan Schaeffer, president of Schaeffer Electric Co. Inc., a 70-year-old St. Louis contracting firm, added that there always is room for improvement in contractor relations. “Understand that while a GC works to be fair to all contractor parties, he has the client’s interest at heart. If you earn the GC’s confidence, your interests will not be neglected. Bend over backwards to get the project done right and on time. We keep letters that tell us we went beyond the call of duty. We may get the next job based on our performance with the last one.”
Richard “Dick” Nogleberg and Lynne Harker formed Placer Electric Inc. in 1978. The electrical contracting firm outside Sacramento serves central California. For them, it cuts both ways when cultivating a working relationship between Placer and a general contractor.
“When we bid, we prefer a prior relationship with that GC,” said Nogleberg, Placer Electric’s president. “If not, we seek references or information from subs who may have worked with the contractor. … You soon learn who you want [or don’t want] to work for.” Nogleberg and Harker look for shared values between themselves, and the GC such as honesty, teamwork, respect and integrity.
“We value the GC who expects us to make a profit and appreciates business confidentiality,” Harker said. “We do our homework, so we end up working with someone we want to work with.”
“A strong relationship often comes from repeat business and years of working together,” Schaeffer said. “Unfortunately, we are seeing lower dollar wins, and that’s a tough fight. So we try to bring value. Sometimes we’ll sit down with builders just to let them know what we’re up to, be it new services or a project of note that speaks well of our talent. You want to be the first person that GC thinks of when they need an electrical contractor [EC].”
In design/build situations, Placer Electric presents its clients with a matrix of costs—a pie chart illustration. “We sit down with the GC, showing how we bid out electrical components (three bids), our costs, markup and labor,” Nogleberg said. “We want to show the GC and their customer that we have everything covered down to miscellaneous materials. Our customers really appreciate this effort.”
Nogleberg added that even in the case of the low bid (private work) where the firm came in second, the company often has gotten the work by showing how Placer Electric will look out for the client and the project’s interests. Sometimes the company avoids bidding altogether.
“Often our work is negotiated with the GCs who know us and have worked successfully with us preceding any bidding,” Nogleberg said.
“Because of the working relationships we’ve established, GCs come to us first because they know they won’t be ripped off,” Harker said. “We’ve built mutual respect.”
Lead though preplanning
For ECs, the planning phase is a key opportunity to take the lead. “Mechanical contractors are central on a job site,” Nogleberg said. “Try to identify conflicts on the drawings, things that don’t make sense during the bid phase. Identify jurisdiction issues, so one sub is not stepping on the toes of another. Clarity upfront on who is going to do what can help avoid issues brought on by union business reps.”
In a design/build situation, preplanning is a must.
“On a design/build project, we met months before with the GC, other subs and project superintendents to deal with material procurement, selection and coordination,” McCluskey said. “Another project provided only 120 man-hours to complete, so we had every detail nailed down before we started. We worked 24 hours, seven days a week. The short timeframe required ultimate coordination between all of us. A fast track can strangely foster teamwork where everyone feels a sense of responsibility.”
The growth in design/assist contract work is another leadership opportunity for electrical contractors.
“In design/assist, the owner retains an electrical engineer, but only provides an outline scope, not a full design,” Nogleberg said. “The selected electrical contractor is expected to finish the design with engineers. Everybody is depending on each others’ expertise to accomplish the job, but you can lead the effort with the expertise you provide.”
Keeping up from office to job site
“Today, things can’t sit on your desk for days at a time,” McCluskey said. “If we get a phone call, we follow up in a timely way. We keep a record of all discussions. We don’t want someone to say, ‘We never heard from you,’ or ‘you didn’t get back to us.’
“Additionally, e-mail, PDAs and other mobile devices drive instant response time,” McCluskey said. “Communication is fast. The flow of information is quicker, and hopefully, we become more productive. A consequence is less and less time to bid and build. You really have to be on the ball.”
Schaeffer added that the entire job site crew also needs to attend job site meetings to stay on top of things, and while documenting all communication, have all pertinent documents at your disposal.
All four contractors agree staffing a job site is part of it.
“It’s critical to have a good, positive attitude,” Schaeffer said. “We are picky about sending the right foreman and superintendent to the job. If we know the GC and his crew, we can avoid personality mismatches by selecting the right people from our house. Another thing we do is have a ‘riding boss’ that goes from job to job to check in and can sometimes serve as a buffer if problems arise. Try to avoid problems by establishing open communication with the site project manager.”
“You have to take ownership of your own work and mistakes, and sometimes that means removing one of your people at the site,” Nogleberg said. “Maybe it’s your foreman not getting along with a key manager. Get the right person in there, so you don’t sour the relationship with the builder.”
A well-managed job site doesn’t just happen, but it can be organic. It begins with leadership from the general and subs.
“The superintendent of the site has to be well organized with a plan,” McCluskey said. “He’s the one that knows the milestones and broad strokes of the project. He also knows when each subcontractor has to be in place. If you have worked with that person in the past, you know how to work for them. Each job site is unique. An EC has to be prepared for any contingency. You need to be detailed, even if the plans you’re looking at are incomplete.”
McCluskey related that his project managers’ shared experience have resulted in an informal code of best practices. “It’s not a textbook but rather a collection of viable problem/solution guidelines we learned along the way that works for us. In addition, every one of my product managers has received training in project managing and scheduling through NECA.”
Though many firms may have similarly unwritten best practices passed down from senior contractors to newly apprenticed workers, there are best practices put to paper that serve as a guide for the construction industry.
“Folks were and are looking for guidance,” said Chris Monek, senior executive director for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) based in Arlington, Va. “That’s why over the past 25 or more years, our organization, NECA and other subcontractor organizations have been putting best practices guidelines down on paper and making them available to the industry. The guidelines are an attempt to provide project and job site guidance before, during and at the completion of a project.”
“Guidelines for a Successful Construction Project,” located at www.constructionguidelines.org, were put together by three organizations: AGC, the American Subcontractors Association, Inc. (ASA) and the Associated Specialty Contractors (ASC). This document covers best practices as they apply to bidding processes, preconstruction planning and project execution.
Achieving contractual uniformity
According to Dan Walter, vice president and chief operating officer of NECA, “Guidelines for a Successful Construction Project” sparked a progression called ConsensusDOCS set to debut in September 2007. These 100-plus contract documents will be composed of construction contracts and forms pertaining to design/bid/build, design/build, and construction management at-risk. They also will address triparty collaboration and the use of building information modeling (BIM) (see sidebar on page 64 for more information).
“The point of the ConsensusDOCS is to provide the builder and all parties with more consistency and ultimately a more cost effective entry into project work and doing business with each other,” Walter said.
A diverse sampling of other stakeholders involved in creating the documents include the Construction Industry Round Table (CIRT), Engineers Joint Contract Documents Committee (EJCDC), Mason Contractors Association of America, and the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA), among 16 other construction organizations.
The ConsensusDOCS will go a long way in fostering and maintaining a healthy and productive relationship between two parties that need each other to succeed—the general and the sub construction contractor. EC
GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction and the landscaping industries. He writes trend, design and other business articles.