Contractors' Candid Talk

April 19, 2010
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Gerry Wiegmann of Wiegmann Associates talks about the idea of being repetitive and simple, in effect focusing on projects of similar size.

ROSEMONT, Ill. - The Unified Group (TUG) is made up of contractors who help each other by sharing best practices, responding to e-mail questions of fellow members, and engaging in candid talks at meetings. TUG, the organization, helps by working out favorable pricing with select vendors, offering training and education, and providing marketing assistance as well as updates on the changing marketplace.

One of those candid meetings took place recently at a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport under the title “Construction Group Best Practice Session.” Twenty-five mechanical contractors from nine states engaged in a day and a half of discussions in which each highlighted projects they had recently worked on. And then given the fact that TUG has only one contracting company member per geographical area, conversations included exchanges concerning pricing, bidding, how they got the job, what was involved, and profit margins.

They also talked about dealing with architects, engineers, general contractors, subcontractors and got ideas from their peers on different ways to handle such dealings.

According to TUG’s managing partner Tim Smerz, “The real strength of the group lies in the quality of our members (currently about 50 commercial contractors) and their willingness to share information that helps us all to become more successful.”

“The meeting was an opportunity for our members to mix, mingle, and learn from some of the best minds in HVACR construction,” said Julie Bishop, TUG executive director. “Attendees discussed specific projects and the best practices they utilized to sell, manage, and realize profit from their work.”

HANDLING THE SITUATION

The Rosemont exchange was freewheeling and varied. One topic concerned the Building Information Modeling (BIM) process and using 3-D computer models on projects, which are becoming more and more common. One Tennessee contractor said, “In order to use that the first time, we had to gear up and spend some money.” Another member pointed out that BIM is really much more than a type of software or drafting technology, it is a different method of construction delivery.

A somewhat related topic focused on what contractors felt were often poor drawings from engineers concerning mechanicals, not to mention the problem of change orders. “I’ve never seen so much blood on a drawing,” said one New York contractor.

The same thoughts were echoed by a Kansas contractor who spoke of engineers whose drawings had lots of what he called “collisions,” or specifications that contradicted each other. “We stepped on toes of engineers who had drawings full of collisions and may have hurt ourselves. We should have sat down with the general contractor and owner and pointed out how the drawings are of concern.”

Twenty-five mechanical contractors from The Unified Group engage in a day and a half of discussions in which each highlighted projects they had recently worked on.

But that then led to a discussion of who to go to when there are concerns about an engineer - to the engineer, to the general contractor, or to the owner.

One thought process from a contractor was to the effect, “Talk to the principal of the engineering firm. Develop relationships. Don’t embarrass.”

From there, discussions headed to whether or not a contractor should have an in-house engineer or what was called a “partnering engineer,” to allow contractors to do design-build projects or design-assistance.

Another topic concerned sheet metal. More and more contractors voiced support for the ideal of prefabricating as much sheet metal as possible to be used on a job to ensure more precise finished products. When it comes to bidding, one contractor from Tennessee said his strategy is to focus on “larger, more complicated projects that only two or three (contractors) can bid on.”

In a keynote talk about midway through the seminar, Gerry Wiegmann of Wiegmann Associates talked about the idea of being repetitive and simple, in effect focusing on projects of similar size such as convention centers and churches with high ceilings; or schools with similar sized rooms. In that way, he said expertise could come quicker and allow for repetition in projects, as well as simpler design concepts. “Just do the same thing over and over. It gets ourselves out of being just a commodity and is what separates us.”

One thing that became apparent is that there was seldom a perfect answer to a problem or concern. But participants found that there is more than one way to deal with each situation, and from those options, a best choice for a particular situation can be found.

For more information, visit www.theunifiedgroup.com.

Publication date: 04/19/2010

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