Luck Be a Lady

Vince Bailey

August 2007

A good friend of mine shot a hole-in-one last week. Pure chance. Now don’t get me wrong—it’s not that he’s not a good golfer, because he is. But give me a break: He’s a lifelong drywaller, not Tiger Woods. So try to attribute this once-in-a-lifetime feat of whacking a 1.6-ounce ball with a five-iron 200 yards into a 4-inch cup to anything but blind luck, and I’ll be forced to trot out my old, overused adage: "Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than to be good.”

Sometimes. But in commercial estimating, you just better be good because there’s too much riding on the outcome to ever depend on the Fates. That’s what I tell my colleagues who tend to rely too heavily on unit pricing to get them to that magic award number, rather than work through a detailed analysis of each assembly.

Oh, I’ve heard all the arguments in favor of unit pricing: more bid volume and even more sales return on fewer hours invested. Of course there’s no question that if the historical data are current and accurate, a skillful estimator can bring his numbers near or within the cluster of reasonable bidders based solely on unit prices. And it’s tough to defend having meticulously counted every screw, pin and welding rod in every assembly on every plan page, only to lose the project to some hot-shot who slopped his number in based on the square footage price of some similarly constructed job. But I’d still prefer to present an estimate that affords me a high level of confidence on bid day and, more importantly, in the days that follow.

To be fair, unit pricing works just fine on residential jobs where most of the costs are fixed and the assemblies are simple and repetitious. Then too, "swagging” a small TI number using footages is not to be criticized. And even in dealing with more sophisticated commercial work, unit prices have their value as backup guidelines to keep the estimator apprised of his consistency with the market. But all too often, especially when the volume of available work is elevated, the temptation arises to have the tail wag the dog and use unit pricing as a quick-and-dirty approach to arriving at a ballpark figure. And if the Fates are smiling on bid day, one may experience some success with this approach. And with each success comes the greater temptation of tossing the dice just one more time, until one day … .

However, the proficient estimator—the one who weighs each assembly as a distinct condition, and visualizes the labor, material and equipment that go into that effort—can speak more knowledgeably with the general contractor’s estimating team about his scope, thus engendering their confidence in his bid. Moreover, he brings a body of information to his own team that can be utilized effectively when he is handing off the project to his field operations department: a budget, a schedule, a manpower plan, a set of labor productivities, a material takeoff, a products list for submittals. He can go into a pre-job meeting with confidence that he can pass this critical information on to his colleagues because he has created a thoughtful estimate—something much more valuable than just a ballpark figure.

And while nebulous ballpark figures may gain sales quotas, they do little to explain the specific scope of work, or schedule durations, or site conditions, or material availability or a host of particular job-specific requirements. But hey, all of these bothersome issues can be addressed if and when the project is awarded, right?

Maybe … but only if you’re really lucky!

About the Author
Vince Bailey is an estimator/operations manager for Juan Insulation and Drywall, located in Durango, Colo.