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The Other Guy

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”—Sun Tzu, from “The Art of War”

Nearly everyone attributes the above quote to Michael Corleone by way of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather.” My point in correcting the mistaken source is to lend even more gravitas to the strategy behind the words than that which pop culture’s hall of fame bestows. The Chinese general who coined the phrase was a brilliant philosopher and phenomenally successful military strategist who hailed from the sixth century B.C. Surely the relevance of such a universal gem of wisdom that has transcended 26 centuries of human eras and cultures cannot be lost on such a superior group of intellectual warriors as we contemporary bidmeisters are. After all, we are quite aware of who the enemy is: It is the competition.

The approach seems to be second-natured among estimators and their ilk. Actually, I’m convinced that most thoughtful quantifiers instinctively grasp the common-sense sagacity of this tactic and employ it as a matter of course with every bit as much enthusiasm as any Chinese general or Hollywood Cosa Nostra heir. Honestly, in my many years as an estimator and/or project manager, I have been completely amazed at the intuitive way that past colleagues—estimators, project managers and executives alike—have applied this timeless maxim. And it is only my fascination with this purely innate shrewdness, and not any need to instruct, that moves me to share my decades’ worth of observations with this readership.

The indirect method of keeping tabs is the more subtle approach. Most astute exactimators make indirect contact with their adversaries and their circumstances through secondary sources. In fact, the practice has become so ingrained with their set of functions, most are barely aware of their many excursions down these avenues of inquiry. But how many of us neglect to ask who the competition is during pre-bid conversations with the general contractor? And which ones fail to inquire where their bids fell in comparison with the others in the field during the award announcement? Very few, I’d venture to say.

Of course, if general contractors were our only indirect source for feeling out our opponents, we might find ourselves looking at a pretty incomplete picture. But while GCs try to maintain the appearance of objectivity and therefore tend to be more guarded in the information-sharing role, other contacts might be a bit freer with their comments. Sub-tier contractors and material suppliers, in their subordinate positions, seem to be more inclined to know and divulge in greater detail the immediate circumstances of our rivals. In times past, I’ve observed the revelation of some pretty juicy tidbits by various sales reps bent on finding favor with a patron.

Crossovers—new-hires formerly employed by the enemy—are another good indirect source of news from the other side. While I’ve never seen any sub recruit a transplant for this specific purpose, I’ve also never seen one pass up the opportunity to avail himself of an incidental windfall of intelligence from a defector.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us” (the direct contact method). Perhaps the most valuable source of information on the opposing team’s current condition lies with the adversary himself. And most estimanagers are quite predisposed to cultivating comfortable speaking terms with a rival counterpart. The reason for this contentious coziness should come as a surprise to no one. Commonality facilitates the attraction, and the mutual curiosity draws each to the other like moths to a flame. Coincidental attendance of common functions such as trade seminars, subs’ associations conferences, union meetings, GCs’ charity events, etc. throw adversarial estimators and PMs into venues where interaction between contenders is nearly inevitable.

Now overlapping endeavors kick in and a typical discussion may start with something like this: “I’m looking at X project right now, and the plans are so bad, I don’t know whether do a takeoff or send them to the recycle bin. You too? So what do you do with a set of trash docs like that?” This ignites a dialogue that pits the opponents in a dance in which each wishes to extract information from the other while giving the appearance of reciprocating without really divulging anything of value to the other. This highly choreographed promenade can be fascinating to observe. Frequently, the language may even shift into something of a code, especially when direct inquiries are made into the general condition of the business. When presented with the obligatory question, “How is Acme Drywall doing these days?” (a thoroughly valid line of inquiry these days, given the state of the economy), Mr. Acme will try to play down (or up) his status as best he can. And so “I can’t complain” probably means the company is enjoying record volume and pre-recession margins, while “fair-to-middlin’” is likely code for near bankruptcy.

Advantage is difficult to quantify. So, does all of this cloak-and-dagger stuff really net an upper hand? Not necessarily, but having a reliable take on what your competitor is bidding, where he is falling in the spread and whether he is thriving, merely secure or desperate, may at least inform your bidding strategy on certain projects. It seems to me that such gems of knowledge alone make keeping your enemy close a worthwhile pursuit for ancient military philosophers and contemporary drywall estimators alike.

Vince Bailey is an estimator at E&K of Phoenix.

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