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Why Your GC Loves You (Or Not)

It is what every owner, every architect, every general contractor and every subcontractor dreams about: The Smooth Project. The one without hiccups. The one with few, if any, field-originated change orders. The one with nary a punch list.

The one with the smiles.

There is probably not a subcontractor in the country who does not have his or her view of what makes for such a job, but here we will take a closer look at how the general contractor views this often-elusive ideal, and what he or she considers the key factors in a good general/sub relationship. After all, it’s the GC’s view that, in the end—along with the owner’s—determines whether you performed marginally, so-so, or brilliantly (a sure invitation to bid the next job).

Several general contractors across the country agreed to answer questions and provide feedback on these issues, and here are the results.

Dependability, honesty. Matson Roberts, president of RVA Construction, Inc. in Virginia, initially laughs at the idea of a smooth project. “I’m not sure that there is such a thing,” he says.

But then he goes on to say, “One thing that makes for a smooth project is having a dependable subcontractor, someone we have worked with in the past, because that takes one of the variables out of the equation.

“Dealing with someone you know and can trust to perform frees you from worrying about that aspect of the job.If they tell you they will be finished by Friday, you can count on them finishing by Friday, and you can turn your attention to other things.

“As for what makes a GC/sub relationship work, it’s honesty.”

Performance: on schedule, on budget. Andy Campbell, project manager for Hamilton Construction in Southern California, puts it equally succinctly: “A smooth project is one that stays on schedule and on budget. This means the subcontractor has to perform well.

“Really, the key to this relationship is like any other: There has to be trust. You have to feel that the person you are dealing with is dealing honestly and fairly. And in business, this relationship is also about performance.”

Shared goals and values. Adam Stewart, senior project manager at HITT Contracting Inc. in Virginia, agrees: “A smooth project is on schedule, comes in under budget, and ends up with a client pleased with the way things work and look.”

He goes on to amplify, “The key to a relationship that brings this about is understanding each others’ goals.

“Of course, the GC’s goal and the subcontractor’s goal are to get the job done and make money. So far, so good, but they may differ on some of the finer points of how you get there in terms of quality and pleasing your client along the way. There has to be agreement on these finer issues, too. And that often comes down to shared values.”

Clear planning, accurate bids. Adam Benson, senior project manager at Streuver Bros. Eccles & Rouse in Baltimore, also sees a smooth project as one that “finishes under budget and ahead of schedule. And that can only be accomplished by having a clear plan, getting on that plan, and staying on it. Once you start drifting off it, things you do to recover may spin you in the wrong direction and make things worse. Literally, staying on the plan from Minute One has proven, for me, to breed the best and smoothest projects.

“Also, you have to look out for each other, you and the sub. That makes for a smooth project. They know I’m looking out for them, so they look out for me. If the project is not a collection of individual successes, it will not be a success in the end. Someone who only looks out for himself will affect not only the GC and the owner, but other subs as well. One guy’s gain, or shortsightedness, will be another guy’s loss.

“Also, when we go over the schedule with the subs, we ask that they be honest and tell us what they can do, without cutting corners or padding time. Fair and honest communication goes a long way here. We try to foster that with meetings. I worry sometimes that we over-meet, but knowing what goes on helps you deal with things. I find personal communication to work better than memos and other bulk-communications. It’s like working with a friend.

“Key for me in a good relationship is that the sub bids precisely what we ask them to bid, and they put a price on each point of the scope.

“Some subs will often bid what they feel like bidding, and that makes our job harder. A complete and accurate bid on specifically—and completely—what we’re looking for, goes a long way.”

Excellent communication, responsiveness. Mike Verastro, chief estimator at Hensel Phelps Construction Co., also in Southern California, sees a smooth project as one where “everybody communicates well, where people trust each other.

“Everybody has to perform as expected. You have to set goals, and you have to make them. But it’s how you deal with the obstacles that come up that makes for a smooth project, or not. And that, of course, comes down to communication.

“The key to a good GC/sub relationship, in my view, is responsiveness to what we are looking for: Following up, being proactive. If the sub is being responsive to what we need, we’ll use that sub again.

“Of course, this cuts both ways.”

Good drawings, quality work. Gary Emery, president of Oestreicher Construction in New York, makes the point that a smooth project begins with good plans. “A lot of that has to do with the drawings themselves,” he says.

“Now,” he continues, “I have known the majority of the subs I work with for years, and they will take a good look at the plans and tell me right up-front what’s missing, which enables me to go back to the owner and sort things out. In this case, my subs, by their expertise, help me score points with the owner.

“There are always going to be some change orders, we know that, but most of these will be owner-driven since we do a lot of due diligence even before we bid the job. We want to make sure the job is build-able.

“The smooth project sees little or no conflict, and is done on time. Even more importantly, it ends up with a happy owner.

“A key factor in the relationship is quality of work—good communication and quality of work. This breeds rapport with your subcontractors—you know he can do what he says he’s going to do. That kind of confidence is very important.

“I’m a general contractor. The owner is my client. At the end of the day, he looks at me, not at my subcontractors. If my subcontractors are not doing quality work, I am falling short from the owner’s standpoint. If the sub does great, quality work, the owner is going to use me again.

“We’ve been in business more than 28 years now and over the last 20 or so we have kept the same sub base. All based on trust and quality of work.”

Trust, performance quality. Chuck Monnig, estimator at SE Foster/Paradigm Construction in Virginia, agrees with the importance of good plans up front. “The better the drawings, and the better the details are worked out before construction starts, the better off you are.

“And given that, if the relationship between the owner, the architect and the contractor is based on trust and you’re all working together with a common goal, things tend to go smoothly.

“Not that the contractor and the architect always agree, but we both put forth our arguments—and most of the time we reach a consensus. If not, the owner is there to decide. This way a project gets off on the right foot, which is a prerequisite for a smooth job.

“As for the long-term sub relationship, the key for me is a sub who can handle the work, with quality. Obviously, if it’s a hard-bid project, price is a factor, especially in this economy. But to me, quality of work is a higher priority.

“Also, a crucial factor is a good sub project manager who stays on top of submittals and materials ordered and delivered.”

Clear scope, quality work. According to Patrick Baker, project manager at Brasfield & Gorrie, LLC in Florida, “a smooth project starts with the drawings. If they are complete, everybody can make their plans, order their materials, organize their forces, and go to work.

“Often, hiccups in a job come down to changes in the drawings, or to discrepancies, or to insufficient information. These things throw a wrench into a finely tuned machine.

“Think of it as loading up a 100-car train, getting it all ready to go. Once you release it, that train gets up to speed and rolling and you can’t really stop it now. If you have to slow it down or stop it due to changes, all efficiencies fly out the window and everybody starts burning money on nothing.

“The key in this is a sub who performs the work he signs up to do. Given a clear, defined scope between the GC and the sub, the subs who perform the best are those the GCs will form relationships with, and return to again and again.”

Clear expectations, good partnership. For Barry Fries, CEO of B.R. Fries & Associates, New York, a smooth project is one where “the expectations are clearly defined and laid out before the project starts. Also, such a project is well measured along the way so you know where you stand.

“Good communication throughout between my superintendent and their foremen is a given, and once a week we sit down with all the subcontractors’ project managers to go over what they need from us, and what we need from them.

“We provide a two-week look ahead—this is where we are today, this is where we need to be two weeks from today, therefore the following have to occur based on this schedule. Here we check what might prevent our subs from performing. Long lead times, perhaps. We work around it.

“What’s really important for a smooth project, then, is good communication, and proactively working out the problems as opposed to reactively trying to solve them.”

“The key to the relationship is that the project has to be mutually beneficial. And I can tell you from my perspective that in order for us as GCs to be successful, we need good quality subcontractors.

“This boils down to communication, price, setting expectations and delivering on those expectations, and really working together to achieve the common goal. The GC and his subcontractor are partners. Once they realize this, they can figure out what is best for all concerned. This makes for a successful relationship and for a successful project.”

Communication: honest and timely. Ryan Bennet, vice president, SSI General Contractors of NWA in Arkansas, sees a smooth project as “one that finishes on time with a minimal amount of punch work at the end. I’m not going to say no change orders because that’s unrealistic; however, when the change orders do come up, they need to be timely, communicated to us well, and be succinct in their pricing so that we can turn around and give everything to the owner.

“The key here is communication. We can handle any problem, but to do so we need to know about it, fully and truthfully.

“Everybody makes errors every now and then, including our own company; nobody’s perfect, but we rarely have issues as long as the communication lines are open, honest and timely.”

Few change orders, true figures. For Rich Celain, estimator at PJ Dick in Pennsylvania, a smooth project would be one where “any change orders are owner-directed and not scope related, and one where you don’t have to beg the subs to man the project up—which can be a battle at times.

“That, and a clean site.”

As for the relationship, “A key for us is that the subcontractor does real takeoffs, leading to real budget figures, and that he performs well in the field. These points go a long way in building a relationship.”

Responsiveness, trust. Michael J. Fuchs, vice president of Preconstruction Services at Dimeo Construction in Rhode Island, feels a smooth project is “one that has a complete scope of work, a schedule, and a logistics plan that we execute without significant change orders.

“The smooth project comes in on schedule and within budget. That, to me, would be a project where everybody wins.

“We try to do a good job with our scope and our package; that is part of our pre-construction service. We try to fill in any holes and write scope items that we see are missing. We make a sizeable investment trying to submit complete requests for bids to our subs.

“As for our sub relationships, the key factor comes down to recognizing and being responsive to each others’ capacities and capabilities; and respecting each other’s needs, which breeds mutual respect and trust.

“There’s a handful of guys you trust and have confidence in, and who you wish you could have on every job.”

In sync, understanding. Bill Thumm, area manager at Hensel Phelps Construction in Virginia, sees a smooth project as one where “the subcontractor and general contractor are in sync.

“Now, there’s always a thing or two that you forgot or overlooked, but if you can keep the rest in order, and if the subcontractor keeps his stuff in order, everybody profits and does well.

“It’s a dance. When you mis-step, or do things out of sequence, or things are not coordinated or communicated properly, next thing you know you’re stepping on each other’s feet and you lose the economies of momentum.

“It comes down to trust, communication, coordination, and to understanding each others’ risks, roles and responsibilities.”

Harmony. Susan Hayes, president of Cauldwell Wingate in New York City, has a unique way of knowing whether or not her jobs are running smoothly. “You can always tell a smooth project when you go on site and there is one radio playing instead of seven,” Hayes says.

She laughs, then goes on to say, “Of course, it is the GC’s job to make sure that when the subcontractor shows up he can be productive. New York is a complex city, where logistical and vertical transportation challenges rule the roost.

“Most anybody can build in the suburbs where you drive up in your pickup truck with materials, tools and manpower. In the city, our subcontractors come to work on the (subway). They can’t haul tools and materials, this has to be coordinated ahead of time.

“In New York, subcontractors can be productive only when they make their tools, manpower and materials land in the right place at the same time. Only then can they make money.

“This is a science. There are people in this city who know how to work under these circumstances, and they are a breed apart that evidences a degree of professionalism that not many appreciate or even understand. These are the subs we work with.

“It is the science of getting 20,000 square feet of drywall up to the 46th floor in an occupied building. That takes great planning and the skill to make it happen.

“As for long-term relations, the key factors, in my view, are fairness and integrity, as well as accountability and responsibility on both sides.

“Also, we look for our subs to be financially healthy. We’re in a complicated industry, mistakes are made, but we have to be sure that a contractor who may make a mistake, or may be the victim of a mistake made by either another sub or a GC, is able to remain part of the solution. The sub must be able to afford mistakes.”

The GC consensus seems to be that the smooth project is the professional execution of a clear plan that comes in on time and on budget. Seeing this through the GC’s eyes is like walking the site in his or her shoes. Take it to heart. It tells you what you need to deliver to be sought after.

For, needless to say, from the subcontractor’s view, a project is not smooth, it is not even a project, unless he or she participates.

Knowing what the general contractor loves about his or her subs, and hearing what advice they give to other generals and subs in building good relationships, will go a long way to make sure that you indeed are part of the next project.

For this, tune in to the second installment of this article, “The Long, Wide View,” in an upcoming issue of AWCI’s Construction Dimensions.

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

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