A Case of Jekyll and Hyde: The Industry Faces Its Dark Side

David Hunt

December 2008

Contractors of the wall and ceiling industry might not care to admit it, but in the heat of the moment, they sometimes define what is unacceptable by showing a dark side. But it was generally agreed that the dark side should be kept in check, so how do these AWCI members run a company in a stressful, cutthroat environment without losing their cool? How can you be successful in this business and still be a nice guy?

Jim Keller, executive vice president of Grayhawk, LLC, Louisville, Ky., said the subcontracting business, by its nature, is confrontational. "Someone is always going to put you in a position to try to make you give more than the bid included,” he said. "Certain people will try to take advantage of you.”

Keller said he tries to avoid getting angry with other parties on the job. "The nastiest thing I’ve ever done on a job was to sue someone,” he said.

Though it doesn’t happen much, Keller said he prefers to let an attorney handle serious differences of opinion with a general contractor. He said the first step normally involves an attorney drafting a letter to sum up the company’s position. If the dispute persists, he said, legal action may be necessary.

Keller said legal action might be initiated because of revised drawings that provide no additional revenue for added work. Also, a delay of more than six months—while failing to provide more time for completion—would also raise a red flag.

Keller said these types of incidents don’t happen often—maybe once per year.

The firm, he said, has a long history with a number of general contractors, and other general contractors learn that Grayhawk won’t be pushed around. He said general contractors tend to find out about a subcontractor’s reputation.

Keller emphasized that any sort of confrontation that arises between executive offices should clearly be kept away from the job site.

"Any sort of confrontation has to stay off the job site,” he said. "It doesn’t help morale. It should never show up in the field.”

Good Cop, Bad Cop
Pat Boyd, a Texas structural engineer and cold-formed steel consultant described himself as a normally easy-going person. Boyd, of Ray Boyd Construction Systems, Parker, Texas, said he doesn’t mind "eating” the profit margin on a job if his company is in the wrong. But he added that if another firm creates a problem, then he’s going to "blow up a little.”

Boyd recalled working on a project in Hawaii on which the general contractor kept pushing and pushing to get the job done faster.

"It was the middle of the night and it had just built up to the point where had to I cuss him out like a red-headed stepchild,” Boyd said. "Most of the time I’m respectful, but when stupid gets too stupid, sometimes you’ve just got to go off. You can only fight it for so long. You’ve got to stand up for yourself from time to time or you’ll get run into the ground.”

Boyd, now a consultant, admitted that when he and his family were in the contracting business, they played the game of good cop/bad cop. "We used to say you’re going to be the hot-headed one, and I’m going to be the reasonable one who steps in and tries to solve the problem.”

Hold Your Ground
Rita Aultz, Interior Textures of the Palm Beaches, West Palm Beach, Fla., said she believes that pricing has now become the main source of contention in the industry. When it comes to pricing, she said, wall and ceiling contractors need to remain firm.

"You don’t want to be nasty, especially to a potential customer, but you do have to be firm,” she said.

Aultz emphasized that while she clearly lets others know what is unacceptable, she draws the line on being "nasty.” Aultz said she doesn’t get angry with anyone—including employees, potential customers and suppliers. "I just don’t believe that being rude is going to help things,” she said. "You can catch more bees with honey.”

Aultz went on to say that subcontractors and general contractors should sit down, face to face, to iron out their differences. "You’ve got to talk like adults about it,” she said.

She recalled one incident when, try as she might, a moment of anger could not be avoided. She said another party called and chewed her out. Aultz listened. "After it was over, I just said ‘OK. Thank you,’” and quietly hung up the phone. "You’re not going to get anywhere when someone is that angry,” she recalled.

Thar He Blows
Robert Shortt, vice president of West Star Interiors, Tampa, Fla., said he gets anxious if he knows he’s right and the general contractor is wrong. What makes him even more nervous is if he sees the general contractor moving into a position that will cost him money. Shortt said scenarios like these might have caused him to blow up in his earlier days.

Today, after 26 years in the industry, Shortt controls his emotions more effectively. "Actually, I think now that blowing up shows a certain amount of weakness,” Shortt said.

These days Shortt tries to solve problems by looking at things from all parties’ perspectives.

Shortt sees competitors cutting prices a lot more these days, and said remaining calm is more critical than ever to maintaining a company’s reputation.

Shortt shakes his head when he sees subcontractors cutting prices by $3 million or $4 million on a job, and added that he’s advising general contractors to understand why.

"General contractors need to be careful right now,” Shortt said. "Some residential subcontractors are naturally moving into commercial work. They’ve got to put food on the table. But commercial work is a lot different from residential. When you’re in commercial work, you’ve got to deal with inspectors, OSHA and shop drawings. It isn’t like working on a house.”

Still, Shortt recalls one scenario where he just couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. Shortt said he was prepared to reason with a lath and stucco contractor he had hired to complete $2.4 million worth of work. Unfortunately, the lath and stucco subcontractor "was just not performing,” Shortt said.

Shortt assigned his own personnel to help with the lath and stucco work in order to advance the project—a move that eventually cost his firm almost $200,000. At that point, he had to sit down and discuss the issue with the subcontractor. In the process of the discussion, the subcontractor kept asking about when he was going to get paid, and at that point, "it just turned into a screaming match.” Finally, Shortt said he ended the conversation, and took the money out of the subcontractor’s payment.

Shortt learned a lesson, here, about carefully assessing whether or not a subcontractor can do what he says he will do. Looking back, he feels the subcontractor wasn’t capable of completing the work, and said he won’t use that subcontractor again.

Just Chill, Dude. Chill.
Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Summerhill, Pa., said he doesn’t like getting angry because it has a negative impact on his well being. "Getting mean and nasty carries over into your personal life, and it just isn’t worth it,” he said.

Bernstein said it is critical to treat others well, and that kindness often comes back and allows a company to reap rewards. Kind of like karma.

Bernstein added that fine interpretations of a contract can easily numb the mind, and said getting angry with a general contractor "stirs a toxic stew.”

So how can someone who is obviously laid-back, calm and kind be successful in this industry? Wouldn’t someone like Bernstein really lose his cool when "the big one” dropped?

Bernstein said that a number of key people recently announced they were leaving his firm to strike out on their own—and he kept his cool and didn’t raise his voice. He wished his former employees well, and tried hard not to "burn any bridges.” He said this stance would allow both parties to reconnect if the new venture fails to get off the ground.

Ouch! Why?

Bernstein said people in the industry have become immune to the blowups that sometimes occur. He recalled a time when he and his wife were hosting another couple who they didn’t know very well. Then, one of his foremen called. Bernstein excused himself, and the conversation became heated. After he hung up, Bernstein reverted to the role of cheerful host.

He was shocked to find his new friends shuffling toward the door, obviously shaken. Bernstein was able to explain that this sort of conversation happens all too frequently in construction. Eventually, he said, the group was able to "laugh it off.” But Bernstein believes that many in the industry, including himself, "have become numb to these kinds of conversations tinged with anger.”

"Sadly,” he reflected, "after so many years, these conversations are just not memorable.”

Just Walk Away
Mike Piolla, president of J.P. Phillips of Franklin Park, Ill., said schedules can be a perennial source of contention, but added that he prefers to avoid angry conversations. And while he guards his own ground over scheduling, he doesn’t lose control.

"If someone wants to hold us to an unworkable schedule, then we send them a letter saying that if the workmanship fails, they are responsible,” Piolla said.

Piolla went on to say that pricing, a current source of contention, is getting more cutthroat on projects in the Chicagoland region. "If the bid number is unworkable, and we can’t do it, then we walk away from the project,” he said.

Piolla said he is troubled by the fact that some projects in the region are being bid for 10 to 15 percent under his company’s cost. He said this is a sign that the industry is in for a rough patch in the months ahead. Several area firms in Piolla’s area have gone out of business in the past year because they mistakenly thought they could "do it cheaper than everyone else.”

Piolla said his firm doesn’t have a large number of problems with general contractors because they mostly deal with a small number of firms with whom they have a long track record. However, Piolla said it is much better to sit down with a general contractor—when differences arise—to work things out. With scheduling, he said, it is better to cooperate. "We try to reason with them if we need more time,” he said.

While some contractors see "blowing up” as an eventual outlet for their frustration, still others believe it is better to be firm, but not rude.

Most executives believe that a good deal of restraint is in order. To brighten a firm’s prospects, they advise control over "the dark side.”

David Hunt writes for the business community from Hershey, Pa.