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Managing Your GC with Mutual Respect

It’s a strange thing: Those who seek to gain others’ respect seldom do, because seeking it is not very dignified. Rather, it seems we respect those who do not thirst for approval or admiration; those who continue to demonstrate competence, no matter what, for the simple reason that this is how they do business, this is how they practice their craft.

And another, perhaps not so strange, thing: when this feeling grows mutual—as between a general contractor and a subcontractor—well, it seems problems are allergic to such relationships and steer clear of them.

Rough Times

There is less work to go around today than this time last year by quite a margin, and projects are at a premium. Moreover, with money being in short supply, it would be a natural assumption that GCs will now only go for the lowest bid (or as Rita Gosselin of G & R Construction, Inc. in Connecticut put it: “The subcontractor who made the biggest bidding mistake”).

True, more bids are going to the lowest bidder, but many jobs are still being awarded not based on price, but on respect and a favorable history with the subcontractor, whether low-bidder or not.

As this seems to be the case, and will most likely continue to be the case pretty much forever, this would be a great position for a ceiling and wall subcontractor to reach with regard to the generals. Not only that, it may be a point of survival as well.

How, then, do you get there?

Mutual Respect—What is It?

Webster is of this opinion:

Mutual: Having the same relationship, each to each other; reciprocal.

Respect: An attitude of consideration or high regard; Good opinion, honor, admiration.

Mutual Respect: The high opinion held by each for the other.

So much for the dictionary. What does it mean in real life, in the experience of the contractor?

Brentt Tumey of MSI, Inc. in Arkansas puts it this way: “To me, and in practice, it means a positive attitude toward the other guy, and a fair—and understanding—assessment of his or her position and willingness to bend to obtain a fair, amicable resolution to shared problems.”

Jay Leavitt at Arizona Stucco Systems echoes the sense of correctly seeing the other side. “It would have to be that one party is not lording over another party, but that they both respect each other as people trying to do their work.”

Steve Birkeland of Artcraft Wall & Ceiling Contractors in Minnesota had this, quite brilliant, take on it: “To me, I know that the GC respects me when he treats me the same way that he expects to be treated by the owner.

“That is a workable definition; because many times we request legitimate extra charges from the general contractor, who then disputes them and says his hands are tied, and he can’t really charge the owner more money—at which point things tend to blow up.

“On the other hand, when the GC submits a legitimate extra charge to the owner, he certainly expects to be paid. So, I want to be treated the same way that the GC expects to be treated by the owner.”

William McPherson III of Central Ceilings, Inc. in Massachusetts stresses that mutual respect is demonstrated by actions. “It is how someone treats me and how I treat them back. It is how we act toward each other. ‘Mutual’ and ‘respect’ are just words. It is how you act that counts.

“I know I am being shown respect if my phone calls are returned, if the person is on time for the appointment, if he or she comes prepared; if, in other words, the other person values my time as much as his or her own.”

Dennis McDonnell of T.J. McCartney, Inc. in New Hampshire puts it down to the old rule: “It is treating someone the way you yourself want to be treated.”

Leo Sheehan of Dan J. Sheehan Company in Savannah, Ga., agrees, “Mutual respect means that you treat everybody the way you want to be treated. In my view, GCs are not our superiors, they are our equals.”

For Gerald Roach of Forks Lath & Plaster, Inc. in North Dakota it boils down to “a professional relationship.”

Gabriel Castillo of Pillar Construction in Virginia highlights value: “It means that the GC values what the subcontractor does for him, and that the sub values what the GC does in return.

“Mutual respect also involves understanding that the other person is making an effort to do the best he or she can. It’s trust over the long term.

“Also, I’m willing to go the extra mile with someone I respect, and I expect the same in return.”

Kim Sides of Sides Drywall, Inc. in Alabama puts it down to performance: “To me, it is working with somebody knowing that you can trust them to get the job done, on time and on budget.”

For Jennifer Taylor of CSW, Inc. in North Carolina it means “taking care of the things you need to take care of, and others will do the same for you.”

Dave DeHorn of Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc. stresses the give-and-take: “There is a give-and-take on the job; it is not one-sided. Usually, the GC throws everything downhill at the subcontractor, but if there is mutual respect, there is give and take on both sides—a win-win for both parties.”

Jeff McFarren of Green Mountain Drywall in Vermont feels this way about it: “Mutual respect means that I respect what someone else thinks and believes, and that they respect what I think and believe.”

Daniel Corker Jr. of DACO Interiors, Inc. in Virginia stresses a mutual understanding: “It means that the general contractor understands the issues related to the success of our business, and that we understand the issues that are important to the success of his business. It has to be a two-way street. A give-and-take relationship.”

Gosselin remembers “the time when a handshake was good enough to do the work. Times have certainly changed with inch-thick contracts.

“It’s hard to define mutual respect at this time because GCs seem to think that they don’t have to respect subcontractors, even though it is the sub who makes the GC money.

“There are some good GCs to be sure, but I feel the majority have taken an adverse attitude toward the subs.

“Those GCs who do show respect, however, are those who have ethics, who respond in a timely manner to your questions and requests, and who answer your questions without any adverse comments. They really try to work with the subs to get the work done.”

Joe Cotton of C & E Construction Enterprises Corporation in North Carolina stresses earning the respect: “You can’t expect anyone to respect you until you’ve earned it by keeping your word and by delivering what you promise. And, of course, they have to earn your respect the same way.”


Stephen Angell of Cape Cod Plastering, Inc. in Rhode Island emphasizes trust: “I will have mutual respect for somebody I know I can trust, somebody I believe knows what he’s talking about. That cuts both ways, of course.”

For Greg Vangellow of R.W. Dake & Co. in New York, it is also a matter of fairness and trust: “Mutual respect is shown by a fair contract and by fair treatment of change orders.

“We have that relationship with a few GCs, and we really enjoy working with those guys. It becomes more than just a transaction—it becomes a relationship. And, of course, it is also a matter of trust.”

Michael Hoffrath of Canyon Plastering & Drywall in Arizona puts it succinctly: “One word: Trust. That would be the biggest factor in mutual respect.”

Reciprocal Confidence

On the job site, where the famous rubber meets the road, it appears that mutual respect boils down to reciprocal confidence. Confidence—grown from experience—that the other person and his company can and will do the job as agreed. Confidence that he or she is as good as his or her word.

Confidence that the other will deliver, on time, on budget. Confidence that they are on the same team, working for the same goal.

Mutual Respect—How to Get There

Few things give such enjoyment as working with someone you trust, toward a common goal. The camaraderie of celebrating a task well done. The give and take of understanding.

So, if still a ways to go, how do you get there?

“For one,” Tumey offers, “be up-front at all times and offer reasonable expectations of your company to the GC.”

Leavitt stresses attitude: “As a sub, we achieve mutual respect with our attitude. We approach the job as businessmen to perform a job just like the GC.”

Birkeland knows that you have to demonstrate your competence: “The GC has to realize that you are a qualified, high-quality subcontractor. At that point, you will have earned his respect.

“You may have to bend over backwards to prove yourself, and do everything you can for him.”

McPherson stresses the details: “I’d be on time. I would be prepared when I show up. I will have to do what I said I was going to do; and they, in turn—I would demand this—would be treating me the same way.”

For Angell it is a matter of performance. “You really can’t respect someone until you’ve seen him or her perform, and you can’t earn respect until you’ve performed.

“Also, you have to tell the truth. If you don’t know, say so. If you do know, then come forward with it. That’s the only way to gain trust and respect.”

For Vangellow, it is also about experience: “You attain mutual respect through long-standing relations, through communication, through working with people, trusting them, delivering a good product for them, delivering what was promised. Treat the GC as a customer.”

Hoffrath agrees: “Mutual respect is developed over time, earning the trust of the person you work with. You have to demonstrate competence.”

McDonnell puts the initial ball in his own court: “You would have to start out treating them the way you want to be treated. The problem is that there are people out there who will not necessarily treat you the same way.

“Now, there are good people who work for bad GCs, and there are bad people who work for good GCs. For me, part of my homework for a project is to find out—if I don’t already know—how the GC project manager or superintendent treats people. It’s something you need to know. It all comes down to people.”

Roach agrees on the performance angle: “Do what you say you are going to do. Be dependable and honest. That’s the only way I can see building respect.”

For Castillo, it is a matter of people and time: “You build a personal relationship with the GCs by working with them over time. Also being willing to go the extra mile. I am not working against the GC; I am working with the GC to accomplish something together.”

Sides agrees: “Always have your bids in on time, and provide an accurate scope of work. Then, always, follow through.

“When I started out, I made sure that I delivered the best quality work I possibly could. And you have to continue to do so, every time, or you’ll be overlooked the next time. You cannot let up.”

Taylor stresses that “you need to educate yourself well about each different job site and situation, so that you can deliver.”

DeHorn sees it as a long-term relationship, where you are “open and honest with the GC. If you made a mistake, own up to it, fix it, get on with it.”

Corker says, “You have to show an interest in their business. When I start out with a new GC, I always make it known up-front that I want to build a relationship, that I’m not just there to make money on this project and be done with it.”

Gosselin’s view is that “You have to give respect to get respect. Answer their phone calls. Answer their e-mails. Bid them promptly. Mistakes will be made; be understanding about them. Be polite to people even if they are not polite with you.

“Just make sure that you can sleep at night, and the rest will take care of itself.”

According to Sheehan, “You must be a man of his word, deliver what you promise.”

Cotton agrees: “You have to demonstrate that there are reasons other than money to do business with you. You have to show them that you are reliable and willing to go the extra mile, and you have to own up to any problems caused by your mistakes, if any.

“If you want to do negotiated work, you have to give the GC a reason to call you first.”

Demonstrated Competence over Time

The common thread in many of the views on mutual respect is that it boils down to competence demonstrated over time. This translates to delivering what was promised. It translates to reliability. And it translates to treating the other party with the same respect you expect from them.

Mutual Respect—What’s In It For You?

Apart from making life a lot more enjoyable, what does the ceiling and wall subcontractor stand to gain from achieving mutual respect with his general contractors?

In Tumey’s experience, “You will have a superintendent who treats you fairly on the job and looks out for your work and the work of others that may affect you. When mutual respect is in place, you often get a super who fights his company for you when it comes to change orders, timely payment or schedule changes.”

Leavitt takes the pragmatic view: “Repeat business. That’s what we’re here for, and that is what we’ll have if we have established a mutual respect.

“Now, we’re not afraid to compete with anybody. Bidding, that’s what we do. However, there are general contractors who, because of our history with them, would give us extra consideration.”

Birkeland echoes that sentiment: “You hope to gain more negotiated work.”

For McPherson it is the relationship: “We would both gain and build on rapport. We would get it done as a team. Also, I would be able to look at him and say, ‘Sorry, that job is not for me,’ and he would not feel hurt. And he should be able to look at me and say, ‘It’s not your turn.’ That’s mutual respect.”

Angell has observed that “My decisions do not get questioned. The GC would rely on me. They would look to me for guidance. And the job goes faster, better, smoother. Everybody wins.”

For Vangellow it’s about more work and fewer problems: “The GC has a high-profile job that has to be done on time with no headaches, and they come to us, on a negotiated basis—that’s the ultimate goal.

Hoffrath agrees: “With mutual respect, if you’re close on price, you’ll probably be awarded the job because the GC knows that in the end he will receive quality and service, and he won’t nickel-and-dimed on change orders.

“Ultimately, the general contractor’s name is on that job. The subcontractor makes the GC look good or bad. You make him look good, you have a friend.”

For McDonnell it’s about fairness: “Being treated fairly. At the end of the day, that is all that you can really ask for. And if you achieve that, you’re in a great position.

“Nobody’s perfect, things happen on both sides. If you realize that, people tend to treat you fairly and take you at your word when you say there is a problem.”

Roach’s take is: “Your life becomes a lot easier. Not so many gray hairs. Not so many worries. When you have mutual respect you feel a lot more comfortable going into a project with the GC.

According to Castillo, what the sub stands to gain is “repeat business. One of my GCs told me that even in these difficult financial times, he will give us the job even if we are not the lowest bidder—as long as we are not way off. He prefers to work with people he trusts and has worked with before.”

Sides agrees: “You’ll get the next job.”

Taylor, too, puts it succinctly: “Additional work.”

DeHorn sees “less risk on the project. And anytime you can reduce risk on the project, it will cost you less. You don’t need to add margin for it, which allows you to become a little bit more competitive, and you can give the client a better product for less.”

According to McFarren, “Things go smoother. The GC will have a tendency to listen more, rather than simply reacting.”

In Gosselin’s experience, “It means a lot to us to work with an ethical contractor, where the respect is mutual. The work will go smoothly, you will be paid, it takes a lot of pressure off of your company not having to spend money chasing answers that are not forthcoming from the GC.”

In a mutual respect relationship, Sheehan knows, “I’ll watch their back, and they will watch ours. We’ll each make sure that neither one of us makes mistakes. It all comes down to team-work and honest communication.”

Cotton sums it up nicely: “The GC now wants to do business with you for reasons other than price.”

The Extra Mile

Given what one stands to gain in a mutual-respect relationship, it would not matter if the extra mile turned into two or three. They would be worth it in terms of enjoyment, camaraderie and repeat business.

Here’s to mutual respect.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho–based Ulf Wolf writes for the construction industry as Words & Images.

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