Information: How Much Do You Need?

Ulf Wolf / June 2015

Francis Bacon said it first: “Knowledge is power.”
    
Robert Staughton Lynd, the American sociologist, cleverly amplified this: “Knowledge is power only if a man knows what facts not to bother with.”
    
These days, some see information overload, a massive pileup on the infobahn.
    
Obviously, to construct a building and to run a business you need to know how to do it, and what you don’t know, you need to discover. But how much information do you need, and where do you find it?
    
As a contractor, you might view information as falling into four categories:

  • What you can do without.
  • What might be nice to have, though not vital.
  • What would give you a competitive edge.
  • What you cannot survive without.

As always, some members of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry shed their individual lights on what information goes where, and, where applicable, where to find it—although some information insists on finding you.

The Irritating Kind
This is information you can become lost in if you’re not careful—the kind that, as a rule, wastes your time.
    
“I can definitely do without telemarketing,” says John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California.
    
Says Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, “Our email inboxes are hammered by unnecessary messages and it seems that replying ‘unsubscribe’ has no effect. Sorting through these takes precious time away from what matters.
    
“Also, bid invites are becoming a form of spam, too. While we welcome invites from our trusted GCs, we now receive more and more invites from GCs we’ve never heard of and for jobs hundreds of miles away.”
    
Stephen Baker, president of Baker Drywall, Ltd. in Texas, concurs: “The multitude of emails that push the latest product or service is an overload of irrelevant information. Luckily, we have a great IT department creating stronger and stronger email spam filters.”
    
Chuck Taylor, director of operations at Englewood Construction Management in Illinois, a general contractor, elaborates, “I cleaned out my deleted emails folder last night. Now, as we speak, I have another 182 emails that I have had to delete since last night. Still, I cannot ignore these emails as they come in. I have to scan them for anything that is important to us.”
    
To this, Robert Sutton, estimator and project manager at Reitter Stucco and Supply in Ohio, adds, “When it comes to all these emails, we must take the time to go through the garbage to find what’s important. Scanning the subject headings alone may not be enough.”
    
Gerald Roach, owner of Forks Lath & Plaster, Inc. in North Dakota, says he can “definitely live without all these requests for budget pricing.”
    
Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland, sometimes has to battle with “the mammoth contracts given for small jobs that burden the subcontractor with unnecessary data and wastes his time.”
    
“The key,” says Kevin Biddle, president of Mader Construction Co., Inc. in New York, “is not to be swallowed by the minutia and to keep the big picture in mind.”
    
Kenny LaDuke, senior estimator/project manager at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc. in Texas, says that he can “easily do without solicitations from those who don’t do their homework to determine what business I’m in and so waste my time finding out that we don’t perform their scope of work or need their products.”
    
The problem with the avalanche of data that hits us on a daily basis is that buried in it are the one or two nuggets we actually need, and we cannot afford to toss them out with the bath water.
    
Learn to scan and screen this information in such a way that you don’t get absorbed by the irrelevant while you still discover the valuable.
    
Or as Frank Nunes, executive director of the Wall And Ceiling Alliance in California, puts it: “How do you filter garbage? You have to be a speed reader and speed listener. Also, you have to build a level of trust in those you deal with and know who will be both knowledgeable and honest with you, those who mean what they say.”

Nice to Know
This is the type of information you might peruse if your attention is not required elsewhere.
    
One thing, according to Baker, that would be nice to know is “the amount of work our competitors have in our market.”
    
Ed Davis, chief estimator at Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, suggests that “knowing what a project will sell for before we invest the time to bid it” would come in handy.
    
Sutton says that “keeping up-to-date on various projects outside of your market is a good way of staying in tune with others in your industry. This also gives you some insight into the well-being of our industry as a whole, which in turn affects our industry regionally.”
    
Stephen Eckstrom, vice president at California Drywall Co., feels that “the contractor who gathers accurate information from the highest level players always wins. Communication that helps identify upstream indicators ultimately helps you.”
    
According to Greg Smith, vice president of Mowery-Thomason, Inc. in California, “Photos of the site and any existing structure or services that we may have to work around would be very helpful, though not vital.
    
“Also, I’d like to have any scheduling information I can gather. That really helps in establishing labor rates, materials costs and phasing, and gives us an opportunity to put together a bid that is as accurate as possible.”
    
Lee G. Jones, AWCI’s director of technical services, sheds this very helpful light on the various categories of information: “The larger, more diverse the operation, the more comprehensive is its need for all of the types of information. Conversely, smaller specialty contractors will likely need only the information that directly impacts their piece of the job (like sequencing, safety considerations, contract obligations, etc.), and they can ignore the ‘noise’ that the larger guys cannot.”

The Competitive Edge
At bid time, most contractors are presented with the same set of data. What intelligence, over and above this, could you gather that will give you a competitive edge?
    
Says Baker, “Knowing who is the ultimate decision maker with the GC and owner, and what he/she looks for in making a decision, would certainly give us an edge.”
    
Suggests Taylor, “If you can glean info regarding potential real estate deals and potential lease deals before they hit the street, that’ll give you an edge.”
    
Todd Lawrie, president of Delta Contracting Service, Inc. in Michigan, weighs in with this observation: “The competitive edge consists of knowing the product, knowing the process, and of being able to assure the customer that the end result will be no less than anticipated and likely better.”
    
“It is amazing,” he adds, “how low the standards bar is set when people justify the savings they believe they will realize when selecting the lowest bidder.”
    
Joe Johnson, president of Prestige Drywall Inc. in Minnesota, provides this perspective: “I don’t know if any particular information gives you an edge; however, how you decipher and implement it in your bid might be where the edge lies.”
    
Suggests Sutton, “We should always keep our finger on the pulse of our competitors’ successes and failures and on advancements being made in our industry. This allows us to streamline our approach to projects, to staff and to business in general. This means keeping up with news and trade magazines, as well as keeping an eye on the Internet.”
    
Dennis McDonnell, vice president of T.J. McCartney, Inc. in New Hampshire, points out that “knowing the owner or architect of a project can give you an edge. If you’ve worked for the same owner or owner’s rep in the past, then you know what’s important to them and what’s not.”
    
“Anything to do with dollars and cents,” says Joseph J. Brazil, president of Brazil Inc. dba Mainline Construction in New York. “We have some flexibility with our labor force and, if allocated properly, we’re tough to beat. If you stay in touch with the GC during the bidding process, you might discover that some items can be listed as additions or alternatives, which bring your base bid down.”
    
Smith suggests that “reading the bid addenda and bulletins carefully can impact how you put together a bid. Sometimes spec items and addenda are worded in such a way that you can exclude them or carry them as alternates or allowances. I often bring in a vendor or sub-subcontractor to discuss a project prior to submitting the bid, and they may well offer some great ideas on how to approach something that I may not have considered.”

The Survival Stuff
This is the information without which you might be closing up shop.
    
According to Dusty Barrick, president of Diversified Interiors of Amarillo, Ltd. in Texas, “A realistic schedule is probably the single most critical piece of information we can ever ask for on a project, and it is typically the most difficult piece of information to attain.”
    
Giles Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, considers it crucial to gather “competition intelligence. You need to keep up with your competitors and know what they are doing.”
    
“Bid tabulations are crucial,” says Baker. “Were we competitive? Five percent high or low? If it wasn’t price, why were we not awarded the job? Or, better still, why were we awarded the job?”
    
As a GC, Taylor says he cannot live without “accurate information from our subs. The last things we want to hear from a sub is that they didn’t cover such-and-such in the scope. The quote has to be accurate.”
    
“These days,” says Johnson, “the start and end dates are probably the two things that we must know in order to decide whether or not the project is a good fit given our current workload. This info impacts how aggressively we will bid.”
    
According to McDonnell, “You need accurate job site production rates. You estimated certain numbers in the bid. Are you meeting those estimates? Also, you need to know this from day one so that if you need to make changes, you can make them early enough to affect your bottom line.
    
“Lastly, you need feedback on your unsuccessful bids. How close or far off were you?”
    
Aird adds a very practical fundamental: “You need proof that owner funds are in place to pay the GC and/or subs.”
    
“I could not survive without the art of negotiation,” says Biddle. “You have to develop a feel for when you can fight and when you need to step back in order to secure a job. If you can’t land a job, all other information becomes irrelevant, doesn’t it?”

BIM—Now
Building Information Modeling, as the name implies, should hold the key to accurate information for both planning and execution of a project. Does it live up to this promise?
    
For Baker and his business, “BIM is crucial. It provides critical information on scheduling and cooperation/coordination with other trades.”
    
“Ideally,” says Davis, “BIM will provide us with an improved stocking list, which in turn can translate to very refined bids.”
    
Says Dick Mettler, executive director of Northwest Wall & Ceiling Contractors’ Association in Washington, “BIM is gaining more acceptance here. At this time, at least four or five GCs are working with it. Still, only in the larger markets though.”
    
Walter Scarborough, architect/specifier at HALL Building Information Group, LLC in Texas, shares the architect’s view: “As an architect and specifier, I expect BIM to be persuasive in the future because it offers so much to contractors: cost control, clash detection, information sharing among subcontractors, etc. It will be the communication tool for design, construction documentation and for construction management, and my impression is that contractors are now really embracing BIM.”
    
LaDuke agrees: “BIM is a great tool that allows all trades to see how each contractor’s scope of work molds into a finished product and so allows you to fix problems before your feet hit the ground.”

BIM—2020
Where do you see BIM in 2020? Will it follow the development curve of the transistor, which since its inception has grown increasingly smaller, efficient and inexpensive?
    
Says Daley, “BIM use has grown over the past few years, and I feel it won’t be long before BIM produces exact and detailed material lists that will eliminate much cutting and fitting on the job site.”
    
“By 2020,” says Baker, “BIM will be as everyday a tool as cellphones, iPads and emails are today.”
    
“Eventually,” says Davis, “BIM and estimating software will merge and will even incorporate scheduling.”
    
Sutton sees BIM in 2020 “as a mainstay. It will become as ordinary as performing take-off or developing shop drawings. I believe it will be required on almost all commercial projects.”
    
“I don’t know how long it will take for BIM to become mainstream,” says Brazil, “but the sooner, the better. The key is to have all levels of construction communication go through the software. We find discrepancies with plans all the time that could easily have been dealt with long before construction.”
    
Adds Smith, “BIM has the potential to grow into a full-blown estimating and design tool, and if you add scheduling to the equation, you will gain accurate costing analyses as well. This may even allow you to consider pre-fabrication options in some cases.”

Networking
Networking is often touted as a good source of valuable information. True or false?
    
“We try to attend as many industry social functions as we can,” says Daley, “often meeting with several of our clients at some friendly place. You can’t do it all by email.”
    
“Networking,” says Baker, “is critical in benchmarking how your company is doing versus your peers, and in finding out what works for them, and to hear about their struggles and successes.”
    
“Always network,” says Taylor. “Networking may not be immediately beneficial, but eventually, with enough people in your network, you may become the go-to person for their business.”
    
Quips Johnson, “It’s always nice to know what other companies’ workloads are and where their heads are at with their bidding. Not that you ever really receive a straight answer from a contractor.”
    
Networking should be viewed as a tool,” says Mettler. “There are not a lot of secrets out there to protect; coming together and talking about ideas and how to implement them is beneficial for all. Why not learn from each other?”
    
Says Kurt Mehrer, president of Mehrer Drywall, Inc. in Washington, “You need to take networking with a grain of salt. The rumor mill features both truth and exaggeration.”
    
“Networking events,” says Scott Robinson, manager of public affairs at the EIFS Industry Members Association, “no matter the size, allow individuals to learn from others in their field. It’s another form of information gathering that we all benefit from, no matter what our role.”
    
Succinctly summed up by Eckstrom: “It has always been about the Rolodex and always will be.”

Trade Associations
What role do they play in keeping the contractor informed?
    
“To me,” says Turgeon, “the trade association is the best place for current information through great articles on all aspects of the contracting business.”
    
Says Daley, “We depend on AWCI and our local associations to filter out our industry news from general news and to let us know what will affect us.”
    
“Trade associations,” says Baker, “are critical in keeping us current on the economy, labor trends and other market factors.”
    
Taylor believes that “current and accurate information is their main responsibility. The problem I see with some associations is that they take on a life of their own and become a machine that has to be fed with functions, subscriptions, membership dues, etc. Of course, it’s a big challenge to keep current members happy while attracting new members; still, their first responsibility is to keep members well and truly informed.”
    
“For me,” says Jerry Reicks, president of JARCO Builders, Ltd. in Iowa, “AWCI’s business forums have been essential for the changes I have implemented.” (AWCI’s business forums bring noncompeting contractors together to discuss their businesses.)

Information Management
Perhaps the most critical aspect of information is its flow and digestion. How do you manage it?
    
“A huge part of information management,” says Nunes, “is to know who to go to for the correct information—you can’t know it all yourself. There’s the business side, the technical side and the labor side, and you can’t be expert in all of them. In fact, some contractors I know have law degrees, yet still they hire legal consultants.
    
“Information management can make or break a business, so when and who to go to for information is crucial. Some contractors wait too long to get help, and things spiral out of control.
    
“And in evaluating information you have to be very nimble, agile and open-minded. You should listen to different perspectives and be able to accept what you hear as true while reserving the right to change your mind.”
    
“It’s all about managing the information flow,” says Mettler. “A foreman has to have a tablet or a laptop these days to allow immediate feedback on RFIs, etc. Your true edge is your business and information management skills.”

Evaluation
Harking back to Staughton Lynd’s advice, filtering this river of data often calls for immediate and adroit evaluation. Does the data in fact pertain to you and, if so, to what degree?
    
If it doesn’t, skip it. If it does, keep it, then amplify and clarify as needed.
    
Information: You can’t live without it, but by being smart about it, you can quite happily live with it.
    
California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.