The Joy of Being Second

Bidding and Award in the Construction Industry

S.S. Saucerman / July 2020

It’s 11 minutes to 2 o’clock as you race from the torrid August afternoon heat and into city hall. You’re drenched in sweat and you reek of tardiness. You’re clutching a large, yellow envelope in your hand, saturated from your runoff. At this point, you realize you hadn’t factored in the security screening process when calculating how long it would take to get to the bid letting, and the seeds of a fresh panic attack begin to sprout in your chest. You breathe deep and fight it off with the anxiety chants you learned in therapy. Those sessions were worth every penny.

Good news. The security line is short. You’re no rookie, so you strip off your belt, shoes and empty your pocket contents into the plastic security tray without instruction. You make it through the portal on the second try (pull tab; don’t ask) and sensing you’re behind, you hurriedly scoop up the contents in the tray and race up the stairs (no time for elevators!) to room 201A, the site of the bid letting. It’s four minutes to 2 when you enter the room.
There’s also no time to call back to the office now to check on any last-minute sub/supplier bids, so head straight for the front table waving your envelope and clamping your security tray contents between your elbows. You reach the table. Adjust your cargo to your left side, you seal the envelope with your free right hand and place it on top of an already substantial pile of envelopes resting in front of a mousy, bespectacled administrative-type brimming with protocol. “Cutting it pretty short!” he quips, pleased with his cleverness. You can tell he’s disappointed you made it on time.
You want to respond with something witty (you’ll think of something later tonight, while you try to sleep), but your mind is too tired. Besides, you also sense something uncomfortably pathological in the manner he takes his “envelope-pile-guarding” responsibilities, so you decide it’s best not to test him. “Yeah, rough morning,” you reply before turning and making your way to the back of the room. You glance around for a chair, but you know better. The city sets out only a handful of folding chairs for these events, and you’re sure those are long gone. It’s at this point you become aware the room is staring at you. You’re the last one in.

Doing your best to remain invisible, you reach the back wall and apologetically shoehorn your body—cargo and all—in between two standing patrons. Staring at the carpet, you pause long enough to be sure all eyes are off you—and slowly look up. The room is packed. The survey the room and notice the line in which you’re standing extends in a continuous human chain around the perimeter of the room, fully encircling the seated patrons. You see all the regulars. Beside the normal general contractors (your competitors), you recognized familiar subcontractors, suppliers, utility representatives and even city officials. You’ve worked with most of them.
You relax your shoulders and exhale for what seems to be the first time in days. It’s immediately apparent the room is no cooler than the August heat outside. You recall something in the evening paper about city hall workers complaining the A/C hasn’t worked since before the last mayoral election. You get why they’re upset now. There must be over 100 heat-generating biological furnaces jammed into this tight, claustrophobic space. The air is dead still, and the room’s south-facing windows are all painted shut.
You cautiously breathe in a suffocating amalgamation of clearance cologne, human odor and a moist feeling of anxiety. Breathing through your mouth seems to help a little. You’re returning to yourself now. It seems like a tremendous turnout for something as pedestrian as a rural school addition. Sure, it was a nice job ($2,567,500 worth by your count), but nothing to write home about. You were genuinely surprised by the number of envelopes on the table. And why so many people at the letting? It must be true. Maybe people are getting desperate.

There are five people seated at the front table. The lone woman is Gigi Hadid, the architect for the project. Beside Gigi is Kyle, her assistant and junior draftsman at the firm. Tom, the school superintendent, sits next to Kyle, and the table is rounded out with two representatives from the school’s building committee, one of which, our noble knight of the Sacred Envelope Pile, was previously introduced. As the hour draws near, the superintendent ceremoniously checks his watch and glances around the table. “Well, I have 2 o’clock exactly,” he declares.
On cue, the remaining table residents check their watches in an exercise that implies everyone at the table had dutifully synchronized their watches prior to this moment. Of course, this was not—and never has been—the case. In reality, the actual times read:

  • 2:00 p.m. (Superintendent Tim)
  • 2:06 p.m. (Building Committee Member)
  • 1:56 p.m. (Pile Guardian)
  • 1:59 p.m. (Gigi)
  • 7:27 a.m. (Kyle)

The table nods their assent. “We shall now read the bids!,” declares the superintendent.

For those readers not indoctrinated, I should explain something here: There is a huge downside to being the last envelope on the pile at a bid letting. Unless the pile is sorted before the letting (which it sometimes is, particularly if there are multiple bids being let that day), the last envelope on the pile will be the first to be read aloud. There was no sorting for this bid letting. Now, if you’ve never enjoyed this experience firsthand, you may not appreciate the sheer level and intensity of terror induced in the person who has created this first-read bid. That person now must sit through (in our case) seven more numbers, an exercise that offers an intense range of emotional spike ranging from guarded optimism to a detailed analysis of least-painful options.
“$2,567,500!,” the superintendent reads out. Of course, you knew that already, but for some reason, the number still comes as a surprise. Murmurs arise from those in attendance. You don’t like murmurs. Murmurs are never good. After what seems like hours, Tom opens the second envelope: “$3,169,000!,” he announces. More murmurs. Louder. You’re certain the room is staring at you once again. To maintain outwards appearances, you smile assuredly as your brain starts to sooth and allay any angst you might be feeling with: “You stupid idiot! You left $600,000 on the table. OMG. You are such a loser and so fired, and your life is over now and what about your family? And no one will ever hire you. Good luck finding a Dumpster to live in, you incompetent moron!”
Chant-chant-chant … exhaaaaaaale! Chant-chant-chant … exhaaaaaaale!
Five years pass before Tom reads bid #3: $3,202,000. Well that’s does it. You glide right past the earlier stages of dying and settle right into the comforting “acceptance” phase. You’ve had a good life. You’re sure your wife can remarry. “$2,915,700,” Tom announces, from a fog surrounding your thoughts. The kids are strong, they’ll be fine. “$2,670,200!” It’s Tom’s voice again. You’ll miss your workshop. You wonder if she’ll auction off your tools … . Hey! Wait. What? That last number sounded—better. You refocus. Your lungs start up again. Bid #6 is read: “$2,869,000,” followed by “$2,700,100.”
You’re still stuck on the $2,670,200 number. It might be doable. You begin incorporating the number into the presentation you’re going to make to your boss when you get back to the office:
“Sure boss, you gave ’em $100,000, but you are 100% sure (as an estimator, it’s very important when discussing bids to be sure) you already made that up with your sitework and mechanical numbers?”
“Nope, no-siree bossy ol’ bossman. No worries here, it’s all part of the plan.”
“Besides, aren’t you always harping on me to be more competitive in my pricing, more aggressive? I’m just following your shrewd, sage advice.” “YOU, sir, are a genius!”
This might work.
As you finalize your presentation to the boss, Tom reads the final bid. At first, you’re not sure you heard it correctly. He repeats the number, seemingly aware of its relevance: $2,535,600”! Murmurs fill the room. Roger from Delta Electric is standing next to you and slaps you on the back. “Ohhhh, man! So close! Tough break!” You’re still writing down $2,535,600 in your notebook. You read the number again. The few firing neurons remaining in your exhausted brain perform the math: $2,535,600 is less than $2,567,500; $2,535,600 is LESS than $2,567,500; $2,535,600 IS LESS THAN $2,567,500! Others share their condolences as they file out of the room. You smile, feigning disappointment, while your mind regales the rest of your limp body with a thundering, cacophonous chorus of: “I’m not low! I’m not low! I’m not low! Oh, glorious freakin’ day, I’m second! I’m not low! I’m not fired! And I get to keep my family and I won’t live in a Dumpster and OMG I’m not low!”

You close your notebook and filter out of the room. Back at the office, your boss weighs your story while scanning the results. You appear to be the right amount of disappointed. You tell him you were sure you had it and then—Wouldn’t you know it?—some loser snuck in under your number. You can’t believe your luck! Your performance is flawless. It all appears to add up, and your boss has no choice but to tell you good job and that you’ll get the next one. Later tonight, after you’ve gone home, he’ll sneak into your office and rifle through your estimate files because he is absolutely certain you screwed up somehow.
But that’s OK because for now, you are second—glorious, glorious second, and since there won’t be any naggy “real project” being built, it will never be proved whether your number was right or not. You’re also aware your boss isn’t famous for his attention span, so any suspicion he does hold will fall briskly away the next time he buys something shiny, like a Jet Ski or four-wheeler. As for the present, he really only stuck around waiting for you to come back from the letting because they’d moved his 2:15 p.m. tee time to 4:15 p.m. And now the office is quiet and there’s only an hour left before you can go home. Jill in bookkeeping’s left already because she worked through lunch.
You lean back in your chair, knowing the smart money is on you not accomplishing anything more today. You muse on the absurdity of the competitive bid system. You wonder again how the public doesn’t see how damaged and twisted the process is. Who came up with this stuff? You want to reach out and grab the public by the lapels and scream into their faces, “Think for a moment! What if (this actually happened to this author in a bid letting in Cook County, Ill., in 2008) 28 bidders show up for the letting!? Is there not at some given point, in some fleeting and salient moment of rational comprehension and common sense, where you ask yourself the question: “Do I really want my project built by the lowest bid out of 28?”
You also imagine a scenario where you are that lowest bidder out of 28, what it would feel like to be in that room during the bid letting. You’re pretty sure you would just lie down and die right there. And you’re pretty sure everyone standing around you would understand.
But enough of that. For now, you weren’t low today. You didn’t “win” today. And now it’s five minutes to 5 o’clock and you’re going home. Man, life is good.

S.S. Saucerman is a retired commercial construction estimator and project manager who worked for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years.