The economy is fickle, and construction needs probably ebb and flow in your region, too. We fear if we pass up any opportunity, everyone on the crew sits home, so we take on whatever work opens up. If you specialize in commercial concrete and that slows down, why not jump on a residential project? Or, if your niche is housing, why not bid on the new strip mall down the street? Concrete is concrete, right?
Think again. You wouldn’t have your footing crew pour a slab. Your flatwork crew has no business forming up your next foundation. Your foundation crew won’t be stamping your decorative concrete, ever. And, if you have a curb crew, what can you really do with your Gomaco machine besides curbs? The same principle should also guide the projects on which you bid.
I’ve worked for large commercial contractors where we poured 350 to 400 yards a day on a project that was 1 million square feet, and I’ve poured dozens of basement slabs that barely needed 16 yards of mud. Out of necessity, many tradesmen can rotate between commercial and residential work, too. But I’ve rarely found a contractor who can switch fields as proficiently.
Once when I worked for a powerhouse commercial contractor, as a “favor” we did a house that was almost 16,000 square feet and had a 12-foot-high foundation. As we started, our crane operator wrecked while driving through the wooded lot. He tore the control cab completely off the chassis of our 30-ton crane. The project became a nightmare. On the flip side, I once worked for an outfit that did mostly residential work, and we took on a medical facility. We messed up about two-thirds of the anchor bolts in the foundation when our micromanaging general contractor ordered concrete before we had everything laid out, and it ended up being an 18-hour day when we poured the main slab.
One reason managing multiple types of concrete projects effectively is difficult is because your equipment needs to radically change. Depending on your inventory of equipment, you either can’t maneuver your own machinery on the site or you won’t have the right equipment, in which case you’ll buy or rent specialized equipment and possibly compromise your competitive edge.
This transition is also tricky because the expectations for the contractor change radically when crossing over from one area to another. Homeowners make different demands on your time than commercial contractors or highway commissioners. Then there are callbacks and punch lists to deal with, but if you are back to your typical work, you are constantly retooling or shuffling your forces trying to catch up. You also must consider different areas’ variations in codes, specs, and tolerances.
When you give in to the anxiety over not having enough work, you might end up cutting off one end of your rope, tying it to your other end, and believe that’s increasing the length of your rope. While it’s possible to branch out and work outside your main area of expertise, sometimes it’s just not worth it. If you can handle several areas well, I would love to hear how you juggle them all.
It’s hard to forecast what the economy will do, but it’s not hard to realize taking on a bridge or major highway project isn’t wise for a residential contractor. Instead of taking all available work that comes down the pike, perfect your area of expertise and do what you do well. Then your reputation will open more doors than you can force open through worry.
Craig Cottongim is certified in conflict resolution and is a long-time concrete finisher who is also a writer and communicator. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.