A Staffing Matrix for Every Mid-size, Midwest Contractor Office
… and Some Background on How I Turned Out Like I Did
S.S. Saucerman / October 2018
I (along with many former employers) am pleased as punch to announce that I recently retired after four-plus decades in the construction industry. There were many reasons behind the decision but suffice it to say that my main motivations were 1) I’m getting up there in age, 2) my resting blood-pressure is 520/490 and 3) like many in my stage of life, I needed to answer that existential question that every mortal man comes to ask himself at some key time: I wonder what would it be like to live with no money, no insurance, zero motivation and a complete lack of shame regarding personal hygiene. And let me tell you, it’s not the hootenanny you’d imagine.
Not that it’s all bad; there is an upside. After years of systematically weighing and self-editing my sometimes spirited opinions regarding persons of authority in charge of my employment at a given time, I’m now remarkably free to express pretty much any thought or opinion that forms in my head without the requisite fear that such sentiment may come back to sabotage, for instance, a future job interview or reference. This emancipation of expression is liberating and dangerous, for it also happens that I was born with no social filter, no “tact” gene if you will. I blame Mom for smoking during pregnancy.
Background: Climbing My Way to the Bottom
If you’ve chosen to take time out from your busy schedule to read this piece, it’s only fair that you know a little about me. My legendary career in construction was—well, darn it—destiny. I knew the course my illustrious life would take at the fledgling age of 18. I remember it was at the exact moment Ann Bittner in the Montgomery Ward® HR department perfunctorily asked (without once looking up from her “Cosmo”), which of the remaining store departments I wished to work in, Women’s Wear or Home Improvement.
Well my dear readers, I think you know which one I chose.
Two weeks later and as a result of nebulous and unproven complaints focused on 1) myself, 2) a hole in the wall of changing room number two and 3) a drill with 3/4” auger bit missing from hardware, I was transferred to Home Improvement.
Work Ethic and Other Make-Believe Things
Now most men would shrink from such adversity, but not me. I gathered myself and focused on the challenge ahead. I buckled down and studied the product lines, obeyed department policies and went on to become the best home improvement clerk Montgomery Ward ever had. [Snoorrrrrtt! No, wait. I can’t. Sorry. Oh my gosh that was fun.]
OK. Here’s what really happened:
- Came in late pretty much every shift and spent the first 15 minutes flirting with the girls in jewelry.
- Played with pricing sticker gun until it broke.
- Spent most of my shift spinning in the manager’s desk chair and setting a record of 23 full revolutions with only one push-off—a record that (I’m pretty sure) stands to this day.
- Fled like a tweaking chipmunk (Note to Pulitzer Committee: My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org) to the storeroom whenever any potential customer came within 50 feet of my department.
It was a cushy gig and one well-suited for my temperament, until one night. You see, part-timers like me were mostly relegated to working only the evening shifts, when there were no customers in the store and after all the “real” employees had gone home. On one particularly slow night, Andy, the new junior store manager still worried about making an impression, busted Daryl (sporting goods) and me midway through a game we’d invented called “Plunger-Suck.”
Keep in mind that we were allowed (by law) to drive, vote and drink at the time.
The game involved affixing bathroom plungers onto designated colored floor tiles some 20 feet away with a strict proviso they flip twice in the air before landing on the sucky-part (I believe that’s the proper technical term). And I have to tell you, it was truly inspiring how accomplished we’d become at our game (there were a lot of slow nights). It was a source of tremendous personal pride for both Daryl and myself. It turned out Andy didn’t see it that way.
In his best scolding-manager tone (he’d been rehearsing in the mirror; he was getting good), Andy challenged both of us to explain exactly why customers and co-workers alike were reporting plungers whirling and spiraling wildly up over store displays (in some cases taking out ceiling lights) back toward the home improvement department. Incredibly, neither myself nor Daryl could produce a plausible explanation. My hours were reduced to 9 per week, and they took away my discount card.
A Blind Squirrel
But time passed and against all odds and every one of my high school teacher’s predictions, I did go on to better myself. I parlayed [def: verb (Latin) - “to extricate from one’s nether region”] my vast home improvement experience with Ward into just enough of a bluff to land a clerk job at a local lumber yard. This eventually melded into full-time building material sales over time.
After a handful of years forgetting to include screens and extension jambs in virtually every window order I submitted to the factory, I felt myself compelled (picture an angry mob with pitchforks/torches tracking Frankenstein’s monster) to leave material sales behind. With the help of a few material sales contacts who also happened to be builders, I found an entirely new calling in the new and exhilarating world of residential construction.
Residential construction consisted of churning out the same 1,150 rectangular, vinyl-covered ranch home available in the same gray or beige built on the same identical flat, barren (think Death Valley but without all the cheeriness), subdivided lot with the same 68 feet of curbed frontage—day after day after day. And this alone didn’t suck every last atom of hope from your soul, these subdivisions also often came with Architectural Control Committees. This was a group of citizens, often unemployed and/or retired patrons living within the subdivision itself, who owned obscene amounts of free time, snotty little Pekinese dogs and passionate and unalterably steadfast positions on plastic gable-end louvers.
Just Like Alexander the Great
But still I soldiered on. I compromised, adapted and assimilated into the industry, but after a while (stop getting ahead of me), there was a problem. Unbeknownst to me in the beginning, most mid-size, residential construction contracting offices face fierce local competition (particularly after factory layoffs where pretty much anybody with a pickup truck and a cousin becomes “X&X Builders”—and this tends to keep profit margins razor thin. This in turn meant that there wasn’t a whole lot of cash floating around for silly, superfluous things like office staff, expense accounts or oxygen. This environment compelled employees like myself to wear many hats, so at any given time I could be called upon to perform all manner of duties including estimating, project management or even sales.
It was this last duty that would inevitably see my residential career come crashing down around me. As it happens, owners of residential construction companies place a particular emphasis (i.e., threat of future employment) on sales. This makes sense because sales are indeed the lifeblood of successful operations. Therefore, it wasn’t long before I was devoting huge chunks of my day to sales duties alone. But (and here’s the funny part) it turns out that a sane and rational salesperson can spend only so long in a room with faulty air-conditioning, poor ventilation and two trust-fund-bestowed, hopelessly entitled, 20-something newlyweds pettily arguing over (what appears to be) 15 different versions of the exact same beige Formica® color chip before this same sane and rational salesperson begins to fanaticize about forcing said sample chips one by one down the entitled windpipes of the darling young couple! Ah. OK, let’s continue.
Suffice it say, I grew disillusioned and even a little depressed. But everyone knows the only difference between depression and full-blown mental illness is in the level of commitment, so there was only one direction my life could take: commercial construction contracting—and it was here I would stay for the next quarter-century.
Fun with Extrapolation
Over the course of my commercial construction tenure, I worked with no less than five different Midwest, mid-size commercial general contractors, primarily in the role of cost estimator and project manager. The work was fulfilling (either that or I’d just stopped caring), but it wasn’t long before I came to realize remarkable consistencies from company to company that were, well, enlightening. Perhaps the most intriguing of these observations had to do with the home office itself. It was the same no matter where I went. It turned out that those occupying positions of authority were alarmingly similar—and not in a good way. So, based on my expansive experience, I’d like to introduce you to “Saucerman’s Quintessential Corporate Office Staffing Matrix For Every Mid-Size, Midwest Contractor Office—Ever.”
The Founder. This guy is a bona fide, charter-member, nails-for-breakfast-eating stud. He built the business from the ground up using his bare hands and the pickup truck he saved up for as a teenager. He achieved success through hard work, long days and a fierce dedication to his clients, employees and trade. He charged honest fees, paid his bills on time and put his house up for mortgage to cover payroll during lean times. He retired eight years ago after passing the business to his son, and people still reminisce about his unmatched character, unparalleled work ethic and a level of drive and determination simply not found in today’s workers.
The Founder’s First Son.
- Cries at stop signs.
- Claps when pancakes arrive at Denny’s®.
- Cares way too much about which generation iPhone® he owns.
- Has state-college business degree (fully funded by parents) hanging prominently in his office next to the portrait of him shaking hands with the governor. Despite this, he still managed to come away from the college with a 2.6 grade point average, no appreciable skills or business acumen, and a sense of personal entitlement that would make Paris Hilton say, “Oh, that’s just wrong.”
- Typical work week includes sending calls to voicemail; glomming and intercepting sporting and event tickets from vendors/clients for the upcoming weekend (none are passed on to coworkers); and exchanging subcontracts and purchase orders for work on his personal residence.
- Is genuinely bewildered at staff meetings when he asks why the company isn’t doing better.
The Founder’s First Daughter. This “character” is based on the bewildering yet apparently universally accepted doctrine that prohibits women in construction from
- Holding any position other than receptionist, secretary or bookkeeper.
- Being extended a living wage corresponding to their actual value to the company.
- Being acknowledged as the heart and soul of the operation and receiving even an iota of credit for holding things together during the numerous times upper management slips away for golf outings, trade shows (with hospitality rooms) and sporting events with box seats.
But then again, what can you do? I’m pretty sure it science or something.
The Founder’s Second Son.
- Way more fun to be around than the Founder’s First Son, but a raging alcoholic.
- Thrice divorced.
- Loathes First Son with every fiber of his being and spends and inordinate level of daydream time constructing “accidents” in his head.
- Resents working at all but realizes there are few other places who will shell out $175k/year and still allow him to hobble in every morning around 10:30 a.m. in assorted levels of sobriety.
- Is the central figure in a company tale (based on real events) involving the following:
- Himself and a lady of negotiable affection.
- Being discovered by Las Vegas police in the wee hours of the morning locked inside the trunk of a stolen taxicab located at the outskirts of town just shy of the desert.
- Both captives being found completely unharmed but—apparently oblivious to any police presence whatsoever—continuing to hoover up what was later to be described as “an absolutely legendary amount” of a popular recreational coca-plant derivative.
- In charge of company golf outings.
The Founder’s, First Son’s & Second Son’s Wives.
- Come in once every month to use the copier. Never refills paper trays and dares you to say anything.
- Wander hallway while copier is running, peering in office doors with aloof yet highly menacing stare.
- Need you to know they could break you “like that” if they wanted to.
The Founder’s Grandson.
- Sweeps warehouse at age 14 because dad and grandpa (out loud, once a week so everyone can hear), “want him to come up through the ranks like everyone else.”
- Sweeps for 2.5 hours on Tuesday and Thursday and still makes 1.5 times your current salary.
- Periodically called upon to turn off the caps-lock key on dad’s computer so the rest of office doesn’t think he’s yelling in his emails. Once talked his dad out of ordering “Ethernet fluid” for his router.
- Aware from an early age that he’s won the genetic lottery, but has learned from dad’s and uncle’s mistakes to mask intolerance of non-family members with a false humility.
- Will be your boss before you retire.
Everyone Else Employed with Company. Who?
There you have it. By my reckoning, I’ve just taught you 99.8 percent of everything you will ever need to know about the construction industry. You’re welcome. OK, maybe I did leave a few things out, like everything pertaining the industry itself, but hey, I’m retired now and I can only afford so much ink. Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some kids on my lawn, and I have to go charge the water cannon.
S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager in the Midwest. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.