Back in the early 1990s in the Chicago area, many of us thought all the work was drying up like autumn leaves. I was working for a large commercial concrete contractor and we took on a remove-and-replace project. We contracted 5000 square feet of public-walk with an established, affluent suburb. Our zealous estimator, with his freshly minted degree from the University of Northern Illinois, was excited about landing the project. It all went well until the last week.
That’s when the city started enforcing the overlooked fine print: “Contractor responsible for the landscaping.” It ended up costing us an additional $25,000 to take care of the well-manicured lawns we destroyed along the way. Our estimator had fallen into a horrible mental trap. To him, underbidding work was the path to overcoming desperation.
I have always made it a habit to ride from site to site with the contractors for whom I work. The bosses I’ve known love to talk when they drive, and I have found there are two types of contractors. One sees an abundance of work for everyone who wants it. They have generous smiles on their faces and they see opportunities opening up everywhere. The other always scowls at the scarcity, cynically thinking there are only scraps left to fight over.
Which type of contractor do you think hurts the overall market for the rest of us? Our work is hard enough, and while being competitive is key, being stupid doesn’t help anyone. I won’t tell you about another large contractor I worked for and the PepBoys auto parts store we poured at cost. Giving into short-term anxiety hijacks your critical thinking and soon everyone is pouring patios out of wheelbarrows just for beer money.
Your work and the company you represent hold great value. Don’t work for free, or worse, at a cost to you. We must be smart and see that there will always be plenty of work out there. Even when new construction is down, additions and remove-and-replace never dies. Chemical companies and factories create an environment that naturally needs concrete maintenance. Then there are the perpetual college and hospital projects and even government work. One-quarter of the bridges in the U.S. need replacing. This is also true for residential — our work will never dry up.
We have to stick together and realize that the market will allow us to undercut each other until none of us can afford to keep fuel in our trucks or gas in our troweling machines. The choice is ours. Be smart and competitive or give in to unrealistic fears and run threadbare companies that limp along. Much to the chagrin of the equipment auctioneer, there’s a big slice of the pie with your name on it and no one can take it away from you if you keep your head on straight.
The estimator I mentioned earlier learned a valuable lesson after our sidewalk setback. He began a new practice: He wrote up his bids at 13% higher than his final estimate. He learned something else too, more valuable than how to read the blueprints better or calculate man-hours, equipment, and materials more accurately. He realized that if you lose money just to get a project, you won’t be in business too long.
Craig Cottongim is certified in conflict resolution and is a long-time concrete finisher who’s also a writer and communicator. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.