Familiarity Breeds Contentment

Vince Bailey / March 2015

If you listen close I’ll tell you why: Home is where the heart is.—Lynyrd Skynyrd

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune (or misfortune) of working in several of the great or gritty cities of our proud nation. For whatever reason—necessity, opportunity or just plain wanderlust—my itchy feet have taken me to work in Atlanta, Aspen, Madison, Macon, Jacksonville, Denver, Durango, Colorado Springs, Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso, and finally back to Phoenix, where I grew up. The obvious advantage of having worked, not just visited, in a variety of places, is that it lends a certain insight into the various similarities and differences—palpable comparisons and contrasts—among working Americans hailing from different ZIP codes. It has given me a unique perspective on people and places that I would not trade for the accumulative security of having stayed in one place for life.
That said, there are serious handicaps that may befall those who choose to uproot themselves and trade the familiar for an environment where the grass seems greener—hurdles that can prove particularly troublesome for migrating estimators. And since the current state of the industry is such that certain geographical pockets now enjoy greater opportunity than others, the enticement for estimators in less active areas to jump the fence is intense. Thus, a competing case should be made for familiarity—for the advantages of knowing one’s own market.
Knowledge of the predominant type of project. A proficient commercial exactimator has a good understanding of a variety of project types—office space, health care, hospitality, retail, entertainment, etc. Certain geographic areas, however, are concentrated pockets of a certain type of construction that dominates the local market. A good example is Las Vegas, where gaming enjoys the lion’s share of the construction market, and a successful quantifier better know where framing and drywall leave off and theming begins, or trouble will surely ensue. Clearly, knowledge like this comes from time spent in the territory.
Knowledge of the labor pool. It is commonly held among estimators that productivity is the wild card variable in the bidmeister’s formula for accurately predicting costs. Estimators who have worked in more than one market know that the general performance of field crews can vary greatly between geographical areas. Another gem of knowledge is that wage levels can differ significantly as well. And while it is generally true that productivity follows wage level to some degree—i.e., where there is a pool that receives half again the wage of your home base pool, you can probably expect the productivity to be 150 percent of what you’re accustomed to—you may not want to bet your new boss’s vacation on that formula before you learn the eccentricities of the local labor pool. Nothing beats experience with the familiar when it comes to predicting unpredictable labor costs.
Knowledge of the general contractors. This may be the greatest advantage of having a healthy history in a particular market. We know that GCs run the gamut from the fair arbiters who know how to coordinate a project effectively to the villainous incompetents who couldn’t bring the renovation of a lemonade stand to fruition. Knowledge of who’s who in the GC book informs an estimator in a way that enables him to prioritize his bids, adjust his labors or even add/deduct a difficulty factor to/from the margin. Then, too, there is the same kind of knowledge in the reverse order that is a product of a history: how well the GCs know you. Most estimators spend years building up a storehouse of goodwill with preferred general contractors, a sort of valuable trump card that’s hard to put a price on. This kind of mutual knowledge—of separating the heroes from the hacks—only comes with time and experience in a certain geographic area.
Knowledge of the material suppliers. As with general contractors, this is a two-way street. In time, one becomes acquainted with each supplier’s unique approach to his/her promise and performance. One knows which sales rep delivers, not just material, but service—who will go the extra mile to visit the site, so his delivery crew is advised of the project layout, special equipment needed or any job-specific stocking challenges or safety issues that may crop up. One also gets to know which outfit consistently fails to incorporate their job-quoted prices into their invoices (strange how the honest error is always in their favor). Conversely, as suppliers get to know the sub they’re dealing with, they’re more likely to be more helpful to one who behaves honestly, honors his commitments and makes awards even-handedly on the basis of price, service and integrity.
Now, to those impulsive bidmeisters who are champing at the bit to graze in greener pastures, I must sound a bit like Judy Garland at the end of The Wizard of Oz movie: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire, I won’t look any further than my own back yard.” And I’m sure that sounds rather contradictory, coming from one who’s done his share of state-hopping. But the heart of the message is not intended as a discouragement to moving in the direction of betterment; it is only to point out those home-field advantages that we take for granted by being too familiar—advantages that will have to be reconstructed on a new playing field.

Vince Bailey is senior estimator at Berg Drywall of Phoenix.