Early Measures

Vince Bailey

December 2009

Planning and preparation prevent poor performance.
—Construction folk-wisdom

The well-worn adage above has been the motto of superintendents, operations managers, and field foremen for as long as I have been in construction (way long!). But it obviously applies universally to all fields of endeavor—even to that curious segment of humanity known as construction estimators.

Many of us have historically enjoyed the comfort of working with a small, familiar group of general contractors. Our "friends,” as we called them, were always willing to "work with us” on bids, as long as our number was within a reasonable proximity of their budget and somewhere near the center of the clustered bidders.

But unless you have just snapped out of a year-long coma, you will have noticed that times have changed. The gloomy economic climate has not only forced our "friends” to focus less on proven performance and more strictly on low-ball numbers, but we too have been forced out of our comfort zone and into the uncharted waters of out-of-the-way markets and unfamiliar (unfriendly?) general contractors. To compound the problem, many of us have been lulled by our cozy relationships into the habit of simply preparing a takeoff, composing a scope letter, submitting a proposal, and sitting back to wait for the job to drop in our lap. Since it no longer happens that way, we are now either nursing an acute case of estimator’s angst, or scrambling for a silver-bullet remedy.

Fortunately, there is one. The seed of it lies in the core of the above-cited adage, but more specifically it has to do with pre-bid communication, which translates into creating new (and cementing old) contractor relationships.

It starts early in the process by opening a dialogue with each GC participating in the prospective project. You can cross that threshold on the day after receiving the bid documents by carefully reviewing the plans, specs and bid instructions, and then generating a slate of questions, comments and suggestions before you even start the takeoff.

Once you feel confident that you can speak knowledgeably about the project, set up a telephone conversation with each GC’s estimating department. One note: This isn’t always easy, as I’ve found that estimators in general are very guarded about their time and will be naturally skeptical about some stranger’s intrusion. Be persistent. Do not fall into the soft trap of faxing or e-mailing your gems en masse. Stay focused on your objectives—they are manifold. Not only are you helping your counterpart identify and clarify all the dozens of ambiguities that the current crop of bid documents inevitably yields, but you are connecting your voice—your humanity, if you will—to an otherwise cold collection of figures and qualifications. In addition, you are inquiring into his interpretation of the documents. Every GC has a unique take on how to approach a project—what to include, what to assume, what to qualify—and you need to take this opportunity to conform your work to his or her individual spin on things.

As part of this "face-to-face” process, you may be able to assist the GC in filling holes or eliminating overlap. For instance, one GC may want you to include plywood sheathing and/or wood blocking because he is lacking a rough carpentry bid (of course, you will provide this in a separate line item to keep your base bid lean). Or perhaps another GC will ask you to provide building wrap, and you can helpfully point out that this item traditionally falls in the mason’s scope, thus sparing him a doubling of costs at bid time.

Another measure you might employ would be to submit a blank (sans dollar amount) scope letter to each GC 48 hours before bid time and follow up with another phone call to verify that you are including and excluding items according to his individual preference. This approach will help your proposal stand out in clarity during the haze and confusion of bid day.

If you practice these methods of providing early individual attention to each potential client, you will foster an appreciation for your professionalism among those who do not have the benefit of your past performance. You may even find that you no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/operations manager for San Juan Insulation and Drywall, Durango, Colo.