The 10 Pitfalls of Competitive Bid (Part 1)

S.S. Saucerman / October 2016

If you’ve been in construction contracting awhile, you’re no doubt familiar with “competitive bid.” CB is everywhere in the construction industry. In fact, the majority of us who earn our livings in easily accessible, highly competitive local markets have come to realize that CB is the primary—if not only—award vehicle available to us as we go about trying to fill our construction schedules. So I don’t think it’s exaggerating to state that CB is absolutely vital in maintaining our very business existence. This is what makes the subject is so important.
    
But there’s a problem—a big problem. You see, this popular and universally-wielded award system is also chocked full of contradictory and opposing objectives that can prove frustrating for those who rely on it so heavily. I’m even guessing you’ve experienced some of these yourself.
    
Tell me if this sounds familiar: “I give up. No matter how much I champion the benefit of ‘quality over cost’ to my building clients, my words just seem to fall on deaf ears. In the end, all clients ever want is the lowest cost, and there just isn’t anything I can do to convince them otherwise. It’s hopeless.”

A Call to Arms
Well don’t give up yet. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the fact that an ideology is accepted doesn’t necessarily make it right. There are alternatives to CB, which we’ll discuss later on, and there are communities in other locales around the world that are using alternate construction award methods with notable success—and (soapbox alert!) I do believe if more people truly understood the benefits offered by these alternate methods, then slowly we could build a large enough voice to foster a sincere catalyst for change.
    
But I’m getting ahead of myself. They say the first rule of war is to know your antagonist, so perhaps we should take a moment to see what we’re up against. Let’s explore some key elements of CB and (hopefully) by better understanding the motive force behind these components that make up the process, come away better equipped to address—and remedy—the problem as a whole. As for me, I’ve been in this industry for over 40 years now, working primarily as a commercial construction estimator and project manager. In this time, I’ve come to realize (what I call) the “Holy Trinity of Construction,” the three key players involved in virtually every commercial construction arrangement. They include the following:

  • The client—the person or organization in need of construction services.
     
  • The architectural/engineering—the architects, engineers and specification writers who create the building/bid packages which generally consist of working drawings, specification manuals and relevant project correspondence such as addenda.
     
  • The contractor—most often a general contractor but could be any discipline of contractor, construction manager or subcontractor depending on the project being constructed.

Now I need to get one caveat out of the way. Admittedly, I will be generalizing quite a bit as we move forward. It’s unfortunate but unavoidable given the limited amount of information one can fit onto a handful of magazine pages. Still, I believe we can include enough material to convey a coherent message in the end. Also, please bear in mind that this is the subject as I see it. It’s my own, unique perspective and opinion based on my experiences. I have no doubt that someone in, say, the design profession would form a different take on the subject—and that’s perfectly fine. The important thing is not so much about who’s right as it is about getting a dialogue opened up to address the problem.
    
So with this confession and constraint in mind, let’s examine what I consider to be the 10 greatest pitfalls of competitive bid.

Pitfall #1: The System Isn’t One System.
You don’t have to be a hunter to know it’s a lot easier hitting a target using a shotgun than with a rifle. It also helps when the quarry is standing still. As we set out to combat CB, we’re holding our dad’s old 1953 Sears bolt-action, single-shot .22 with a bent barrel, and CB is a crazed, caffeine-addicted rabbit darting in and out of thickets like a neutrino. It’s a tough, tough shot. One of the reasons it’s so hard is because CB isn’t just one, easily definable, consistently applied project award system. Rather, it exists in ever-changing and unpredictable “versions.” Take just one aspect of the CB process: “method of award.” With few exceptions, the CB proposals I’ve created over the years have been decided via the following methods:

  • Open bid lettings (no restrictions). Bids are read aloud for all to hear. Pretty much anybody with a pickup truck can submit a proposal and (the vast majority of the time) the lowest bid is awarded the work. The client and builder may or may not have previous experience working together.
     
  • Open bid lettings (some restrictions). Bids are read aloud for all to hear, but this time the field of bidders was previously short-listed to include only (as deemed by the screeners) “reputable and reliable participants.” More on this later. This time, it’s more likely the client and builder have had some previous experience together.
     
  • Closed bid lettings. Bids are opened in private. Secrecy abounds, and the results may or may not be disclosed to the participants at a later time. The low bid (and for that matter, the best contractor) may or may not be awarded the work. No one really knows.

Pitfall #2: There Is No Relationship.
You can likely sense that we’re not off to a good start. In pitfall #1, we can already see that the rules of CB are “fluid” and thereby subject to the individual and colloquial whims, predispositions and prejudices of the myriad assortment of personalities that administer them. Given this unpredictable environment—and also knowing that all humans possess a certain amount of skepticism and neurosis—it’s not a huge leap to suppose that the subject of trust is going to play a critical and recurring role as we delve deeper into the subject.
    
But here we run into another problem: Trust can only be earned, not administrated. If no sincere effort has been made to build a universally trusting atmosphere through genuine dedication and cooperation, then the very opportunity to create a real relationship will be forever out of reach. Or to put it another way, as builders we understand the importance of a good foundation. With CB there is no foundation (because no one has made the effort to build it), so it should come as no surprise that anything built on CB is doomed to crumble in time.

Pitfall #3: Who Invited You?
I referred to short-listing earlier. This is the practice of allowing only selected, pre-qualified contracting firms to submit proposals on a project out for bid. On the surface this appears sound. One assumes this implies that only reputable, proven and financially stable companies are invited to the party and that all ne’er-do-wells are forced to the curb. It seems reasonable, and it would be a good system if this were actually the case, but (do you see a theme here?) this isn’t the case with CB. Once again, a laudable idea finds itself twisted, warped and distorted according to the biases and agendas of those chosen to administer the process.
    
And in our case, this short-listing responsibility (and all the partialities that go with it) most often falls on the A/E firms that act as agents to the building client during the construction process. It can start innocently enough and likely with good intentions. Contractor names are gathered, calls are made, references collected and before long a short list of five (why is it always five?) clean, squeaky contractors is compiled and sealed. All is well and everyone’s happy—right up until the next bid.
    
You see, there’s a little hitch with the latest client. Before signing the design agreement, he needed assurance that his brother-in-law’s construction company be allowed to bid on his project. So the list grows to six. That same week, the owner of the A/E firm plays poker with an influential, local bank president who just happens to mention between hands that the bank will be building another branch soon—and (wouldn’t you know it?) they’ll need a designer. The next day a new name (coincidentally, one suggested by the banker) makes its way onto the list. This makes seven.
    
Now at about this time a few of the list’s original members, the builders with actual pedigree and experience, notice the list growing larger and start wondering if there’s favoritism going on. The next award (to one of the Johnny-come-latelies) all but bear out their suspicions. These “good” builders who have plenty of other work because they’re, well, good builders, start ignoring bid invites from this A/E. Time goes on and soon the cream of short-list crop has left to pursue more viable ventures. The list plummets to three.
    
Here’s where the magic happens. To look good for the next client, the A/E now hastily adds two more contractors (without nearly the scrutiny and exclusivity of the original short-listing process), and the list suddenly pops back up to the acceptable five names (albeit of greatly diluted overall quality). More time passes and before long the screening regimen that started out so nobly is nothing more than an unstable stable of place-holders that satisfy the numbers but fall woefully short of delivering reliable and quality service to the building client. (Remember him?)

Pitfall #4: All Bid Packages Are Not Created Equal.
But just for the sake of argument, let’s say we come up with five responsible, equally qualified bidders for our project. The next hurdle we encounter regarding the CB process (and a huge misconception to the man on the street) are the bid documents themselves. A warning here: I’m about to get a little hard on the design community but I assure you, I have a very good reason for it: They deserve it. Yes, there are many excellent design firms out there but my personal observation over lo these many years is that a primary obstacle to CB ever becoming a universally viable project award system has to do with an almost epidemic lack of consistent quality in the architectural plans and specifications—the bid package—that form the basis for the process.
    
Yes, I fully admit my conviction is likely colored in that most of my construction experience has been as an estimator and project manager. I’m OK with that. I credit you, the readers, with being intelligent enough to weigh this consideration as you draw your own conclusion. But I can confidently attest that—in my experience—I have suffered through hundreds of bid packages and have come to realize a tremendous disparity between the best and the worst of the architectural/engineering field. The problem is real. I cannot relate how many times I’ve found myself hip-deep in the competitive bid process only to realize that due to the incoherent and/or incomplete state of the bid documents, the only avenue available to me to arrive at a reasonably responsible projected cost for my work was through surmising the intended scope. In short, I was guessing. Yes, it was an educated guess, but still a guess—and I think we all know that’s not a good thing.
    
I’ve also spoken with countless fellow contractors and estimators over the years who tell you similar tales so I know I’m not alone. I’ve even had occasion to discuss the subject with design professionals (yes believe it or not, I do have friends in the architectural/engineering community) and many have confessed to this dark side of the industry. They blame economics, competition/market forces, government/regulations and even unrealistic client expectations. A few have even come out to decry a new generation of designer who values self-aggrandizement and personal profit over professional purpose. Who knows? What I do know is that 25 years ago I rarely—if ever—saw an A/E firm:

  • Omit mechanical/electrical pages/specs from architectural working drawings and then
     
  • Refer to those omitted responsibilities as ‘design/build’, thereby imposing the concept, design and continuity onto the bidding contractors while (coincidence I’m sure) saving the A/E the cost of hiring outside mechanical/electrical engineering firms and/or adding in-house design staff.

Nowadays, at least where I’m from, this is common practice. But here’s the scary part: Regardless of why the information is lacking, what do you suppose the odds are that the design/build bidders and their estimators are interpreting this missing information the same way? Ever heard of “apples and oranges?” And yes, before you say it, I am well aware that somewhere in the cacophony of Division 1 in the specification it says that we should “notify the architect of any mistakes, omissions or discrepancies we find in the bid documents” or something similar. I’m sure this passage sounded wonderful to the optimistic soul who created it, but the reality is that NONE of us (the bidding contractor) has the budget or staff to address every ambiguity or discrepancy in the documents. There are simply too many. And even when we do call (and we call a lot) with questions or request clarification, the odds are evenly spread that we’ll receive any one of the following:

  • The right answer to our question.
     
  • The wrong answer to our question.
     
  • The architect’s voice mail (he/she will not call back).
     
  • The receptionist who relates that the architect is out today (the bid is due at 2 p.m.).
     
  • And lastly, my personal favorite: The right answer to our question, but not before we are made well aware (by the nasal, condescending tone at the other end of the line) that we are “nowhere near qualified” and have “nowhere near the credentials” to question the hallowed, sacred architectural tablets.

Alright, so I got some shots in, but it’s to make a point: I think the general public assumes that bidders in a typical competitive bid situation receive and bid off of complete, pristine and professionally drafted bid documents when the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. I’d personally estimate that 15 percent of the bid packages I price are clear and complete enough to genuinely offer the client fair competition among the bidders. Fifteen percent are absolute folly, and the remaining percentage makes up the middle ground between the best and worst. This means that more often than we care to admit, the low bid on a CB project is derived through a means other than a thorough and precise understanding of the construction documents. Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t what the founding fathers of construction had in mind.

Pitfall #5: On Your Mark! Get Set! We’re Enemies!
But with all its variations and vagaries, rest assured there is one ever-present, rock-steady commonality in all CB arrangements and that is this: From the moment the ink dries on any contractual agreement resulting from the CB process, the dynamic between yourself, the architect/engineer and the client has changed forever. You are now adversaries.
    
Sugar-coat it, corporate-speak it and dance around reality all you want, but there’s no other way to describe it. In the nanosecond following a competitive bid deal being struck, an invisible but very real “feeding trough” filled with the designated, finite construction funds springs suddenly into existence—and remains evenly spaced at arm’s length among all the players throughout the construction process. Now it’s every man (and woman) for themselves. In short time a natural incumbency falls on all the combatants to snatch and grab and, yes, steal the greatest share of the treasured and limited booty for their given firms.
    
Is this moral or justifiable? Nope. Is it good business? Not even close—but it is who we are. It’s instinctive, accepted and, frankly, a little embarrassing. And just like the client who blindly clambers after the lowest dollar at bid time (with little to no thought over future ramifications), the construction “team” members revert to a group of self-righteous mercenaries whose only interest includes improving their immediate situations. We’ve all read the business books, and if sacrificing a future relationship means gaining a little extra profit right now, well we’ll call it “collateral damage.” We can repair it later, right?
    
Selective morality is a terrific weapon when it works in your favor. The trick is to not think about it for too long.
    
So now that we’re half-way through, let’s take inventory of the competitive bid process. So far we know this:

  • The rules of the game are pretty much made up as we go along.
     
  • The persons administering these rules can often be less than suited to do so.
     
  • The contractors can range in quality from Einstein to “Ernest Goes to Hollywood.”
     
  •  The very documents that CB proposals are based upon are often incomplete and unreliable.
     
  • The players in a CB arrangement are automatically arch-enemies before the first shovel of dirt is turned over.

    
What could possibly go wrong? (Spoiler alert: Plenty!) To find out the rest, pick up the next issue of this magazine for part 2.

S.S. Saucerman is a full-time commercial construction estimator and project manager for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years. In addition to construction and writing, Saucerman also taught building construction technology part-time for 11 years at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.