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Climbing the Ladder

Move on up, keep on wishin’…your dream is your only scheme…—Curtis Mayfield

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 over several years. 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.


And that ambitious spirit that drove you this far is beginning to prod you in an upward direction once again. You’ve established yourself to date 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. Your stint as an estimator allowed you to learn all the ins and outs of operating a medium to large drywall business. So, all things considered, it only makes sense for you to expand your volume accordingly. The question becomes how to go about building that growth.


Under these circumstances, the desired step up is going to require a leap of faith—that is, a relinquishment of some of the hands-on control that comes with self-performing pivotal positions. You will now need to focus on hiring a staff—one you can depend on to execute and perpetuate the policies you have developed and take them to a higher level. First on the agenda of this upsizing effort comes the hiring of a top-notch estimator, one who can deliver the greater volume you aspire to, and one who can bring along some new general contractor contacts.


You’ll want to hold some face-to-face meetings with these GC contacts and inform them what your past performance has entailed, and what your aspirations for growth are. Aside from developing a new clientele, you’ll want to inform GCs you currently deal with on a smaller scale that you are ready and qualified to step up and take a crack at some of the bigger projects they perform. Your record of successful performance on smaller jobs will speak volumes in your favor in this regard. This first stage of upsizing may take weeks, months or even as long as a year of constant effort and strategizing to start growing a healthy backlog.


In the meantime, as a part of the growth process, you will need to develop some enhancements on the side that will help secure a reputation that will put you on the bidders’ lists of these new GCs you are courting and make current GCs more comfortable with your ambitions. These enhancements include a healthy increase in your general liability coverage, an expanded line of credit with material suppliers, development of sound financial statements and a presentation of a favorable safety record. This last item has become quite crucial with most general contractors since insurance carriers have come to scrutinize their customers quite closely. A written safety program and a positive experience mod rate have become mandatory items that a general contractor looks for in an aspiring sub’s overall package.


All told, you are confident that your aspirations to upward mobility will be fulfilled, partly owing to your recent achievements, but in no small part to your past experience in the pivotal role as an estimator, which gave you invaluable insight into what it takes to reach the next rung in scaling that ladder to success.

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

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