Climbing the Ladder

Vince Bailey / March 2023

A few years ago, you, a successful exactimator, surrendered to the clarion call of your entrepreneurial spirit and started up your own commercial drywall business. This was no impulsive decision. You worked for a number of other outfits, climbing the ladder from framer to foreman, to superintendent, to estimator/project manager in over a decade of steady employment. You were always driven by a strong yen for self-improvement—one that never diminished but in fact intensified over the years.
Now you find yourself the proud owner of a small, but quite profitable, commercial wall and ceiling business, a lifetime achievement by any measure. And, up to now, you’ve done your own estimating and field management while developing your own policies and protocols that have proven to be well-received by clients and employees alike. More to the point, they’ve earned you a steady profit, a condition that will now allow you to plow some capital back into the business in an effort to increase volume and possibly scope.
But that ambitious spirit that drove you this far is beginning to prod you in an upward direction once again. You’ve established yourself thus far by bidding and performing small tenant buildouts and commercial remodels as your current bread and butter. But not so long ago you were the senior estimator for a pretty large and well-established firm that performed a broad spectrum of scopes related to drywall. Your multi-level experience, but especially your stint as an estimator, allowed you to gain some insight into the upper-level operation of a medium to large commercial drywall business. And so you are aware of several hurdles you will have to leap in order to expand in any significant manner. They include broadening your scope, seeking out bonding status, increasing insurance levels, completing financial statements and, perhaps most importantly, growing a friendly familiarity with a number of favored general contractors who will provide you with invitations to bid work of substantially greater value than you currently perform.
Taking the first matter first, you look into the starting costs of taking on some additional scopes of work. As stated in previous columns, a number of construction services run complementary to commercial framing and drywall, some of which are pretty easily added to a sub’s performance. For instance, painting, ACT, caulking and insulation present few barriers to entry, and the addition of one or more of them can make your bundled bid package more attractive to any GC you might be courting, in addition to increasing your volume.
Of all the above mentioned scopes of work, the advantages of adding paint to your repertoire are multiple. Just in terms of interior finish, the benefits you will gain with performing the entire finish installation is a serious no-brainer. Consider the control you can harness on schedule, sequence and quality assurance, simply because the drywall finishing and the painting are so closely related and interdependent.
Adding acoustical ceilings to a commercial drywall program comes with similar advantages to adding paint. However, an acquired knowledge of a bazillion different tile types from several manufacturers is necessary to complete an informed estimate of a grid ceiling. You take some comfort in having a working familiarity with tile types and a general knowledge regarding a number of specialty ceilings, such as stretch fabric clouds, metal ceilings, wood ceilings and tectum panels, due to your exposure during previous employment as an estimator.
You now focus your attention on the most serious consideration involved with expansion: ferreting out a number of general contractors who will help you shepherd your growth. You start by concentrating on the list of GCs you already do work for, albeit small jobs to date. You note that there are a few that perform larger commercial projects in addition to the small tenant improvements and retrofits that you’ve done for them. You have already built up a degree of trust with them through past performance. They know your estimates are accurate and complete, and that your execution is reliable. Then too, there are those larger outfits you cultivated working relationships with as an estimator/PM while working for previous employers. They too will recall your professional expertise. You compose a letter to those few that fit the bill but hesitate to send it. No, better to meet with each in turn, face-to-face, over lunch or during a round of golf to let them know what your future intentions are.
You smile as you arrange the meetings, secure in the knowledge that your previous experience as an estimator has given you the tools to grasp this next rung of the ladder to prosperity.

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager in the Phoenix area.