It’s no secret that, in difficult economic times, being able to count on repeat business is critical, so having a history with general contractors (GCs) who know your name can be the key to maintaining your own liquidity.

With the building industry in scramble mode, historic lines of competition are constantly being crossed, as smaller contractors make inroads into what was once the province of medium-sized contractors and vice-versa. So an established identity with satisfied customers helps the electrical contractor considerably when scattergun bids come in from unknown players and the GC might be tempted to consider some of the “smoking low numbers” being quoted these days.

If you visit, they will share ...

“If you want to have a long-term relationship with a GC, you have to establish a personal presence with him,” said John McDaniel, president of Dollar Electric Inc., Lake Charles, La. “I make a point of visiting my GCs on a semimonthly basis to see what they’re bid-ding and working on and to ask if there are any jobs they need pricing on. The idea is to let them know you don’t intend to get out of touch and miss out on a job they pick up. And if you visit, they will share with you what they’re working on.”

McDaniel noted that while all public work has to be listed and considerable information can be gleaned from Internet sources, there are many more projects that go directly to general contractors, such as jobs for banks and churches. It’s part of the electrical contrac-tor’s job to make the personal added effort to find the business that’s not listed.

And availability on an emergency basis is another capability that goes a long way with GCs, McDaniel said.

“The local municipality took over an abandoned ball field and turned it into a historical renovation project,” he said. “The stands were rebuilt, new sod and grass was put down, and new lights were put up. They planned a grand reopening at a night game with the mayor coming to cut the ribbon. But when they tested the lights, two of the poles didn’t work because the grass folks had cut two pipes with wiring. The city called us and we went right out, rigged a temporary solution for the ceremony, and we were asked to come back and fix things permanently. If they know that they can call and you will respond, that means an awful lot for any relationship.”

Presentation, proactivity and persistence

Reaching out to the appropriate people at the GC’s company is another crucial element in relationship building, according to a number of electrical contractors. The importance of getting in to talk to project managers can’t be overemphasized. A presentation should include a profile of past projects, an outline of major field capabilities, funding details and resumes of key individuals in the company. After making such a presentation, it is important to call back and follow up instead of waiting for the phone to ring.

Another tactical point is to get involved with the GC before the bid is awarded and even before he is in the midst of heated competition. Offer him advice on value-engineering or how better pricing might be achieved by teaming up with a group of proven subcontractors. Re-member that the GC is a generalist who depends on specialty subcontractors, so if the electrical contractor is there to offer insights, his assistance isn’t likely to be forgotten, and he will have differentiated himself from other subs by offering his support and thought-provoking insights before the bid is awarded.

And outside of the bidding time frame, the electrical contractor can further amplify the relationship by introducing the general con-tractor to architects or real estate contacts he may have as a basis for exploring new business prospects.

Also, the EC should make a practice of responding to as many of a GC’s requests for bids as possible and not simply cherry--pick the most lucrative ones. If you aren’t able in some instances, you should be direct and straightforward, stating the time constraints or issues that make your participation infeasible, and make this known immediately.

Making the GC’s life easier

In a constricted market, with everyone in the chain looking to cut costs and save time, quick and efficient solutions get attention.

“Whatever you did to get into the relationship you have with the general contractor, you better keep doing it,” said Pat McMillan, president of McMillan Electric in San Francisco. “Especially in these times, a lot of people tend to lose interest in what you did for them yesterday. It’s what you can do for them right now today. You have to constantly reprove yourself in a down market and maintain a high profile with the quality of your work that will constantly remind the GC that the reason he prefers to work with you is because you make his life easier.”

Of course, keeping your eye on your own bottom line and his is especially essential in these times, McMillan said.

“We try to work with general contractors who want to make money and who want to make us money,” he said. “There has to be this alignment. The GC has to have a record of doing good business. Otherwise, I’m not going to get paid.”

Many contractors, who are especially wary given the current construction market, share this practical counsel.

“Particularly in this continuing strained period, electrical contractors have to tighten up on their own internal disciplines, whether they’re looking at jobs in the public or the private sector, whether they’re courting general contractors or building owners,” said Ernie Ulibarri, president of Barri Electric Co. Inc. in San Francisco.

“Especially in these times, we have to focus on profitability, not volume,” he said. “You have to concentrate on cost reductions through in-house efficiency and making the maximum use of the latest technologies available that will help the customer save money.”

A number of sources note that there is a tendency to get rattled, if not panicked, these days; this tempts some to take low-cost work, but this can be a self-defeating, short-term tactic.

“Be careful when you quote a job,” Ulibarri said, “because there is no general contractor too big or too influential to fail. Your pro-posal has to be clearly written and detailed to eliminate any misunderstandings down the line.”

The anticipation aspect

While top-quality service is essential for attracting and retaining the GC’s attention, there is a strong argument to be made for drawing on long experience in the field to help head off problems before they have time to materialize.

“You can’t set a price on anticipating and avoiding surprises,” said Steve Gianotti, president of Arcadia Electrical Contractors LLC in Ridgewood, N.Y. “If we see a break in the chain of progress, something missing down the road, whether at bid time or when the job has started, we let everybody know ahead of time so that matters can be resolved with minimal interruption. General contractors recognize this and will come back on a regular basis and will pay more. Without workmanship, service and the ability to head off problems, you just fall into the ‘anybody’ category.”

Sorting out the subs

When electrical contractors begin the process of selecting subs for work on a job, essentially they’re looking for the same kind profes-sionalism and dependability that they provide to the general contractor.

“For the sub, I’m the client and I expect to be treated that way,” said McMillan at McMillan Electric. “When I make promises to the GC, I have to follow through, and I need the same commitment from my subs. I need them to help me perform at my optimum level.”

The company typically subs out fire alarm and lighting work, which usually are installed late in the project, and therein can lie a problem.

“You can do 100 things right, but if at the end of the job, the lighting comes in late, that’s all the GC is going to remember,” McMillan said. “You have to have the right vendor and the right sub who delivers. If there is a problem, how he responds to it is how he distin-guishes himself. I expect answers and for him to take responsibility for extra costs. Everybody on the job has to demonstrate account-ability.”

The abilities to interact as a team player and to show an interest in an ongoing affiliation are qualities that the more circumspect electrical contractor is looking for in a sub.

“We’re not interested in subs who are one-shot wonders and come in with a super-low bid,” said Gianotti at Arcadia. “We want to build a relationship with subs the way we do with GCs. We’re not looking for a homerun each time up. We’re looking for subs who can keep hitting singles to keep the bases loaded and bring the runs home with continuing business.”

QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and mirabel@snet.net.