Friday, July 24, 2015

That Southern Charm...Go Daddy's?

Another PCI project that I worked on was the training of the estimators at a company we had acquired in Georgia. The company, North Brothers, had offices all over the South and we had to bring them into the 'PCI family'. North Bros. had been a non-union company and we were going to change that as well. PCI had always been a union contractor and would remain so, even in the non-union culture in the South. First, I went to meet some of the people at the Atlanta office. I thought NB was a somewhat class act and I was wrong. Their office was located in a very poor section of Atlanta, "Turn right at Go Daddy's Used Hub Caps". At the meeting it was determined that only one of the offices in Georgia would be doing drywall and fireproofing work and that office was in Rome, Georgia. I met their chief estimator, a genuine 'Good ole boy'. He was quite nice but computer illiterate; as were all the estimators with North Bros. Then I was told about the other offices, Memphis TN and Knoxville TN. I could only picture these offices as new places to fly to...not very exciting at all. NB had other offices of course, but they were going to remain Insulation contractors. The Atlanta office would remain as PCI headquarters in the South and do some insulation work as well. The Rome office would estimate and run any drywall work in the Atlanta area.

Slightly off the subject; I flew to this first meeting using Delta Airlines. I had never been to Atlanta Hartsfield airport before and when I got off of the plane I headed downstairs with all of the rest of the passengers. Once there, I saw that that there was a crowd getting on to an electric 'train' and they appeared to be going to Baggage Claim. I don't like crowds so I elected to walk. Bad decision. I had no idea as to the size of this airport and after walking for 15 minutes and seemingly getting nowhere, I decided to get on the next 'train'. It was a 5 minute train ride on a fast train so I knew I could have spent another 30 minutes getting there by foot.

On all of my subsequent trips to this airport (and there were far too many of them) I used United Airlines. It so happened that United had only two gates at this airport. After all, this was Delta Airlines headquarters and biggest hub and so they commanded all of the gate space. But... United's gate was just a few hundred feet away from the check-in counter; almost hidden No train and very little walking. Plus, it was very quiet back in the United Airlines corner.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Did I mention Seattle?

...if I did, you will just have to suffer through another story about this office. But first, perhaps I will take a quick look back in this blog just to be sure...Nope! No stories about Seattle. To clarify, the Seattle office was in Woodinville, a long ways way from Seattle proper. The office was in a office complex on the west side of the Samammish River and overlooking the river, the park and the fields beyond. Very idyllic. The estimators offices were on the second floor and the view was spectacular.  I'm still working on finding a decent screen capture program and the one I used is not even close. I'll give it another try...okay, not bad, though I wish I had a street view. 

This was a friendly office with a great branch manager and contract secretary. I knew the branch manager from his time with the San Francisco branch. He got lucky and was appointed the manager of the branch in his home area; Seattle. There was only one snag and that was an estimator that refused, but not outright, to use a computer for anything. I tried for 2 years as that was my boss's instruction; 'make him use it'! Finally it was decided to just ignore him as he was a successful estimator and they didn't want to lose him to a rival company.

Woodinville was a small agriculture based town and motels were few and not very good, so I always stayed at the Silver Cloud on the other side of the hill and near the freeway. Later I  began using a nicer hotel in Bothell.

I have nothing but nice memories of this office. They were all grateful for any knowledge I brought them and always said 'Thank you' and that was something I rarely heard at the more focused branches.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

San Francisco

Back in 2013 I promised to write about some of the branches I used to visit. I think I got around to writing about 3 of them; not really enough.

I didn't spend a lot of time at this branch office. It was located in an industrial park in South San Francisco and 90% of their business was in Acoustical Ceiling systems. This was also a very profitable office and they weren't interested in learning anything new unless the time they spent on learning would translate to $$$$. Since I couldn't guarantee that, I had few takers when it came to signing them up for a class on a new estimating system.

This branch did have two satellite offices; one in The City itself and one in San Jose at the new Intel fab. I enjoyed visiting the two estimators at the City office as it was located in the Market District. That's always a great place to visit and to eat...but the parking is ridiculous! There isn't any. So I would have to rent a room at a close by hotel that would park my car and then spend the afternoon with the two estimators. Then a fine meal and a nice night in the hotel. I would spend a few more hours with them the next day and then back to the hotel to checkout and leave the City before the traffic became horrendous. (no later than 1 PM!)

The office in San Jose was located on the job site at the new Intel plant. It was a trailer. Okay, it was nice trailer and was located amongst a dozen other trailers that were linked by raised wooden walkways. All the contractors involved in the building of this mid sized 'Fab' or cleanroom were based in the trailers. This was another busy office that rarely had time for me and so I didn't spend much time there.

Then things changed...someone forgot to renew the lease on the S. San Francisco office and they were told to leave...and do it in 30 days. The race began to find a place and to build it out with walls for offices and all the other things you need; such as telephones and comm lines and move the computers and paint the wall and lay the carpet, etc, etc. They found a place but it was no longer in San Francisco. It was very close to San Jose. I did spend some time here as the branch manager was receptive to training for all.

Note; whenever I was visiting a branch office I would try and find an empty or unused office space to call my own while I was there. Hopefully, it would have a a telephone and a 'net' connection. At this new office I had half a dozen to choose from as they had built it out for any future expansion.

Then the Intel plant was almost complete and it was decided amongst the higher ups to create a new branch office for the area and an office was secured and built out, about a mile away from the Intel plant. I spent some time here; more than I wanted to. But, it was my job. The hotels overcharged and so did the restaurants. Hotel 6 charged $135 a night and I wouldn't stay in a Hotel 6.

Friday, September 05, 2014


Here I am, a somewhat broken down old man of 74. Okay, maybe that isn't all that old. But, broken down I am. And today, as I was in the therapy pool at the gym, I had a chance to talk to John about various construction topics. John is a retired, and broken, architect. He's also a great guy to talk to and we patiently allow the other to tell a tale before starting a tale of our own.

That short conversation brought up some memories of days past. I think I have told most of my important? tales right here in this blog...but maybe not. I certainly hope I'm not repeating myself. If I am, so what? Get over it.

When we were building the Circus Circus, every floor of the hotel was the same until we got near the top. The last two floors were destined to be suites; extremely nice rooms for big gamblers. They are called 'Whales'. Not physically big gamblers but gamblers with big wallets and a desire to empty those wallets in the hopes that they will win a lot of money. They never do. All casinos do their best to attract 'Whales' and the Circus Circus was going to do it as well. By the way, the rooms are always free.

Along with those grand suites, we were going to build an owners suite. This suite was unusual because it was a two story suite with it's own grand staircase and an Italian marble tub. With gold plated fixtures. Everything in the suite was fantastic and we did a better than  usual job on it's construction. A note; the marble tub had been sitting on the floor for over a month as they had craned it up and dropped it in before the roof steel was put in place. It was thickly wrapped and covered in plywood to protect it until it was time to install it.

I sometimes wonder if the suite is still there or did they put a floor over the giant living room and put in more rooms. I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

(The suite was for the use of the owners, William Bennett and Bill Pennington.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Post 9/11

After awhile, the air travel that I had to make became wearisome. Immediately after 9/11 the security regulations seemed to change by the hour. What was okay in Portland wasn't accepted in Denver and vice versa. I just kept my head down and accepted it all, although the sheer foolishness of so much of it made me grit my teeth. Air travel was a big part of my job and it was quickly becoming more of an irritant than I could take. I soon dreaded seeing the big blue van, the airport shuttle, pull up in front of our house on Monday mornings to pick me up. And then the check-in at some mediocre hotel where you never knew how you would be treated. That hotel was home for a week...sigh. Then there was the boredom of the lessons and the reluctance of the students to embrace technology. I would have fired 90% of them right then if I had the power.

Finally, I saw that I could not continue doing this if I wanted to keep my sanity. I declared that I wanted to retire. Laurae and I talked about it first and looked at our resources. Then I went to my boss and told him of my plans. I would retire at the end of the year, 2004. He said he was sorry to see me go but that he understood.

Before that date arrived, we had a group meeting held in Las Vegas with our wives included. That time turned into a retirement party for me and was much appreciated. Then there was one more trip to Kansas City for the annual Christmas party, where I spent some time saying goodbye to my fellow workers. A flight home and I was retired.

It was a pretty good run for a guy who started washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant. I followed that with liquor delivery boy and gas station attendant. Then it was the Navy followed by a job driving a forklift in a warehouse. Lucky me; a neighbor asked me to become a carpenter apprentice in the newly created drywall trade. He also wanted to teach me to be an estimator. I accepted. What a break! I was soon a foreman; even while still an apprentice. I worked piecework jobs where I learned to be fast and commercial construction where I learned to be clever. Commercial drywall and steel framing was just beginning and I was on the ground floor of a great opportunity. Through the years I became a foreman, superintendent, project manager, estimator and even a contractor. After leaving Nevada and beginning a new career with PCI, I was 'lucky' enough to be there for the introduction of technology into construction. I became the local 'go to guy' if you had computer problems. I was noticed and soon I was instructing others on how to use their computers. I got to work on software development and programming. I was moved to the Strategic Development department where creative thinking was encouraged. And then came the grind of flying, hotel rooms and recalcitrant students. It was over.

After all of that, I can say that my happiest days were the ones where I was working with my tools. Where every day I created something. I left a little part of myself in every building I worked on. Those were wonderful days!

this link will take you to the beginning of this chronicle.

Thursday, May 29, 2014


One of the better branch offices was in Missouri. Grandview Missouri and not more than 20 minutes from Kansas City. PCI had gone into a partnership with an existing drywall company, Dahmer Bros. in order to have a contracting presence in the area where the corporate offices were. The Dahmer brothers themselves were true gentlemen. Highly respected in the trade. And they were fun to be around.

They had not been exposed to the level of technology that PCI offered and not all were comfortable with having a PC on their desk. I was sent to show their estimators how to use our software. Lo and behold; they had a woman as an estimator! And what a gem she was. Smarter than most estimators I knew and eager to learn something new.

Their estimating style was different from almost anything I had seen before and I had to convince Jean that she could translate that style into our program. We couldn't change the program for just one branch office but I could show them how to input data in such a way that it would make them comfortable with the program.

I probably made a dozen trips to this office as I had to train just about everyone in the office. And it was here, one morning in September of 2001 that we heard the news of airplanes striking the twin towers. We didn't believe it at first. It couldn't happen! A few minutes later, after hearing of the attack on the Pentagon we did believe and lessons were over. I took my laptop out to my rental car and drove back to the hotel. I spent the rest of the day watching television. Then I heard that all air traffic had been halted indefinitely. I had a ticket to return to Sacramento on Friday and it was now useless. But I had a rental car. I had talked to some other PCI employees and they told me stories of how PCI employees that had been caught, as I was, away from home, had rented cars and were driving. I started thinking about it...I called our travel office at corporate headquarters and they told me that they had already negotiated with Avis and I was to keep my car and use it to drive home. Halfway across the country.

 I think it was Friday morning when I set off, pulling onto I-70 and heading west. First stop was Lawrence Kansas where I had breakfast. On the road again. I wanted to make Denver by nightfall. After seeing a whole lot of prairie I approached the turnoff to the Denver Airport. I looked up in the sky and there wasn't a plane in sight. And this airport is normally one of the busiest in the country. I also noted that while I was driving, the traffic was very light and the cars that I did see were rentals like mine. When you rent cars often, as I did, you learn that they have a certain look, plus a small decal on the rear window. As it turned out I was able to drive right through Denver while it was still light and cross the Rockies through the Eisenhower tunnel. I stopped at Eagle Colorado and parked at a motel that was filled with travelers like myself. The parking lot was filled with rental cars. I got one of the last rooms. After 13 hours of driving I was exhausted.

I was up early the next day and continued west, down the canyon on  I-70. In the early morning light I could see what a magnificent highway this was. The scenery was out of this world! And then I was in Utah...

There's little to see in Utah. Yes, the Great Salt Lake was interesting but after that it was all desert, all the way to Winnemucca. I had originally planned on staying in Winnemucca for the night but there was still plenty of daylight and so I continued on , planning to stop in Reno for the night. Well, I got to Reno in the dark but I knew that home was only another 90 minutes or so across Donner Pass. I pressed on. And after 18 hours of driving, I pulled into our driveway. After 9/11, this was where I wanted to be.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Diligent is not my middle name and here it is, May 27th in the year of 2014. Didn't I say I was going to write more often? Okay, I'm guilty.
I was going to write something about some of the branch offices that I visited and I might as well start with one in New Mexico. Intel (and PCI) had built a Super Fab, or 'chip foundry' in Rio Rancho, just 20 minutes north of Albuquerque; right in the shadow the towering Sandia Crest.
After the 'fab' was complete and in full production it was decided that we might as well leave the people who were in charge of the construction, right there, in the desert. They found an office complex nearby and began to build a business. Their main customer was Intel, of course. Intel was constantly swapping out machinery within the fab and we were the people to do that work. And since technology attracts technology, other electronic companies were buying and building.
They hadn't been in their new office more than a month when I was called to visit them and help setup their labor control and estimating. I made my plans...
I was somewhat familiar with New Mexico, having been to Albuquerque and Santa Fe in the past. Rio Rancho, however, was very different. Before Intel moved in, Rio Rancho was a sleepy little town far off the main highway. But now, there was building going on everywhere. In the desert of course. You cannot escape the fact that you are in the high (5;282') desert. Step outside the city limits and you are in the territory of the early pioneers that moved through this valley.
I wish I could report that my training was a success, but it wasn't. I would start a training session and half way through, the estimator would get a phone call and he would have to go out to Intel and handle some problem. We would try again the next day and usually with the same results. At the end of the week I would have to make an appointment to return and do the same thing all over again. I think I went there five times and each trip resulted in the same scenario...but, on the plus side, I got to eat at some great restaurants!

Next time, I will write about a classy branch office.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Catching up

Yes, it has been a long time since I last posted here. But...I'm back for awhile.

As noted, I now worked for Strategic Development and I was a "Senior" Instructor. Well, I was definitely a senior. I was looking at 60 and wondering what retirement might look like. Attractive, I believed. But in the meantime I had to take my instructor role on the road and so I was off to tour the country.

First I moved my office to home. I had permission from Gordon but it really irritated my former boss and he lobbied hard to get me back into the same building that he was in. There was some high level push and pull all because the ex boss would get a small allotment of budget money from Strategic Development if I was sitting in his building. Eventually I was given a desk in the Cold Storage offices and then allowed to work from home. Problem solved.

Not that I needed a real office. I was usually in the air, flying to Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Mexico, Kansas, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Orlando, Austin, Dallas and other odd places, just to teach estimators the in's and out's of our estimating system. And when I wasn't teaching, I was supposed to be looking for new developments in the world of computers that might be of some benefit to PCG.

One of those developments was a search engine that I had found a few years back; back when I was still an estimator and that was Google. I had been hooked by it's clean look and simple but efficient operation. I showed it to the team and they weren't interested. They preferred Yahoo. Then I found Skype and demoed it for them. No sale.

I was beginning to wonder about Strategic Development. But as a group, they were still great. Every quarter we would meet in Shawnee Mission KS, our home office, and we would spend 3 or more days getting re-acquainted and developing plans for the next quarter. Part of our plans would always include a "Proformers University". We would rent most of the space and rooms in a large hotel in Lenexa. One of the rooms looked just like a theater with with seating and desk space at each row. Here we would go through a full training in the PCG way of doing things. It was all very exciting during the first few times. But it become a real bore after the 10th time. I could guarantee that I knew what each speaker was going to say long before he said it.

These events occurred 2 or 3 times a year and I would have to spend the week in Kansas, listening to the lectures and then taking the estimators out to dinner on the final evening; graduation. For an introvert with Asperger's, this part was hell!

Most estimators, project managers and branch managers are full blown extroverts and they always wanted to party on that last night in town. And as our department was in charge, we had to provide the party.

Now I do have to say that I got to eat in some fantastic restaurants during my time in this department and the Kansas City area is filled with some of the best restaurants. And I do have wonderful memories of the meals. But I would have preferred to have dined with a much smaller group; say one or two. I remember that we always ate at Plaza lll Steak House for the graduation ceremony. We always had a private room and we filled it. With loud, boisterous men all talking at once. More hell for me.

Is this supposed to be about eating or working? Now that I think about it, my job was to travel and eat. I was supposed to take the branch managers and staff out to dinners and lunches. And I did. In between the eating I was supposed to spend time training or working on the development of new software. I also taught the secretaries whenever I could as most had never been given any instructions on how to use Outlook.

Of course I have wonderful memories of most of the branch offices that I visited...some not so much. Perhaps I should start writing about each of the branches that I visited. Good idea. I'll start tomorrow. Or soon.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Moving on

It was some time in 1998 that I got the invitiation to join the Strategic Development group within PCG. I was going to be an instructor for the use of the estimating software that we had developed in-house. Also I was help in the ongoing development of  new software for estimating. My role in development was to be the 'bridge' between the User and the Programmer.

I met my 'Boss', Gordon, and was delighted to learn that he was brilliant! He really was. He was a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon and was a Nuclear Physicist. Why Nuclear? Because one of our branches within PCG was involved in making product for the nuclear energy industry. Right away I began to enjoy myself. He was such an interesting guy to talk to and he loved to talk...absolutely loved talking.

Now that I was part of  PCG, the parent company of PCI, I had a new headquarters to report to and it was in Lenexa, Kansas while Strategic Development worked out of a small corner of a PCG insulation plant in Bonner Springs.

Now I became a frequent flyer as I had to go to meetings in Lenexa, Bonner Springs and to a dozen or more branch offices. Plus the usual meetings at some resort or another. I wasn't a golfer but I still had to go to these functions and be seen.

I joined all the 'Frequent Flyer' clubs and began to rack up miles on Alaska, Southwest, United and Air West. Airports became far too familiar to me while I learned to finagle upgrades on flights and car rentals. It was actually fun at first. The fun ended after 9/11...


Friday, October 28, 2011

It's time

I have ignored this blog for over two years now and I suppose it's time to move myself along in this 'working' autobiography.

I was in the cleanroom estimating business now and after NEC we had many opportunities to bid cleanroom development projects for other chip manufacturers. Intel was the prime mover in this business and pretty soon other PCI branches were in the hunt for this work as well. Once that happened, my involvement slowed to a trickle and I would only help out on a few bidding projects each year. Even so, I tried to stay connected to the business as much as possible as I knew that this was the future for the company...the immediate future. As in all things, change happens and the Sacramento branch office wasn't looking at any new cleanroom work after the NEC project. Most of the work had moved to places like Arizona (Motorola and Intel) and New Mexico. (Intel) Massachusetts. (Intel) I even helped to put together an estimate for a Super Fab in Taiwan. We didn't get the job.

As I said earlier, things change and I was offered a position of Senior Instructor with the newly created Strategic Development Department within the company.

Now things got interesting...

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mr. Clean

My life churned along as an estimator. I was fairly successful at it and I always made my 'plan'. Almost always. The 'plan' is what the branch manager decided you could produce in total dollars bid and secured, and then the gross revenue. My first year, the plan was $1.5 million secured and I made a $2 million number, so the next year my 'plan' was increased. I made that number and the 'plan' was increased once more. I saw the pattern.
I also learned that if you secured a large job, you were a hero! If you came in second with your bid, you were a loser…big time! You were only as good as your last successful bid. Stress ruled!
I did secure some landmark work; the Shriner's Hospital in Sacramento was one that I estimated and secured. Another was the Park Plaza Tower, a 24 story office tower in downtown Sacramento. And lots of others. I can drive around the Sacramento area today and point out dozens of jobs that I had a hand in. All very satisfying today, but all stress and bother at the time I was involved.
After I had been with PCI for some time, our branch office was invited to bid on the new NEC cleanroom project in Roseville. Cleanroom? I was given a short course education in just what a cleanroom was and how it was constructed. I also found out that cleanrooms were bid 'concept only'. The plans for this $25 million dollar cleanroom consisted of 3 pages. And a specification book. We had to come up a design we could build for the lowest amount of money but would still satisfy the customer and meet the spec's.
Bidding this project was going to be a team effort. It was far too large for one estimator as we had to plan on building walls, floors and ceilings. And not just ordinary, walls, floors and ceilings. Cleanroom grade!
To learn more about cleanrooms and how to bid on them, I went to Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, where our San Francisco branch office was building a small R&D cleanroom. We had to get into the Tyvek 'bunny suits' with 'booties' and face masks. All very high tech as we were going into a Class I cleanroom, the highest class, where particles of contaminants are measured and regulated by microns and even the number of water molecules is strictly regulated by the HEPA filters in the ceilings. De-ionized water is added back to the atmosphere in a cleanroom, just to make the environment human friendly. I found it all fascinating and I now had a second path available for my career.
So we began to prepare a winning number for the NEC plant. The new cleanroom there was going to be a 'Superfab', a Class I cleanroom that would be over 100,000 square feet in size. And since I was the only one of the estimators that used a computer, I was the designated spreadsheet guy. The Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet guy! It was not an enviable task as I had to constantly re-assure the team leader, a Luddite, that the numbers would calculate as planned and it wasn't magic as he assumed it was.
Many long weeks and lots of long evenings later, we came up with a number to bid with. Well, our concept number must have been right as we were invited to stick around for the second round of bidding. We were told the other prices we needed to beat and something about their concepts. Now we had to imagine a way to come in lowest and first! Which we did. We removed the number we had for cleaning and final wipe down of the fab and came up with a number that was substantially lower than everyone else. Of course we knew that someone had to do the cleaning and we planned on offering that service once we secured the project. And then we could charge more!
Sure enough, we got the job and now our real education began as the branch office, that had never seen a cleanroom before, began to build their very first one.
Link to cleanroom stuff…

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Age of Computers

Estimating, (or Quantity Surveying if you were in Great Britain) was soon my life and I loved it. I had an office and a computer and I could take a set of drawings in to my office and close the door. Then I could take the plans apart, not physically, but within my head. Like most estimators, I was able to visualize the completed project and just about everything in labor and material it would take to get to that finished state. I was in my own little world and until I was finished, the door would remain closed.

But, back to the computer…sure I was given one, an IBM clone. But I wasn't given any instructions. I was going to have to figure it out by myself. And after a few frustrating weeks, I decided that there was no way that I could learn at work; too many interruptions. I was going to have to learn at home, so we decided to buy a computer. We convinced ourselves that we could learn to use it together for personal purposes as well as for business.

I went shopping and ended up buying an Epson Equity II with a 40 MB hard drive and 12 MB of RAM. With Turbo! It was top of the line and it cost us $2,500 (20 years ago). Long story short; it did help us, though it was painful at times.

And back at work, I could now begin to navigate through the programs that had been installed on my pc. Programs like Symphony, which contained a program called Lotus 1-2-3. And Pro-Write, a simple word processor. I didn't care for the Symphony word processor. At home I would read about spreadsheets and then practice. Later, at work, I would try out my new knowledge.

As luck would have it, I was the only one of the four estimators that wanted to use a computer. In their offices, the computers were silent and the screens were dark. I would get no help from those Neanderthals. I would go to our secretarial staff and ask them the tough questions. And I learned a lot. Probably too much as I was soon the resident 'geek' and if anything went wrong with a computer, I was the first one called to solve the problem. I quickly learned that 'reboot' solved 75% of those problems while checking the power supply would solve another 20%. For the remaining problems, we would call our West Coast Comptroller in Anaheim, a corporate 'geek' and the one that was pushing the use of computers everywhere. Pretty soon he noticed that he was getting very few calls from the Sacramento office and he figured out that I was the reason for that. We became friends. I think he enjoyed talking about computers to someone who knew what he was talking about.

That friendship became a lasting one, and it changed my career in ways I couldn't even imagine at that time..

Monday, February 23, 2009

Someone loan me a gun, please

Life at PCI was good and a couple of years went by uneventfully. We had lots of work and most of the projects were profitable and bonuses were distributed. Other branch offices in the PCI empire were noticing our success and thinking about starting their own drywall business.

In our third year, I was given the opportunity to become an estimator and let someone else take over the role of superintendent. I would be in the office almost all of the time and I wasn't sure if that was going to be much fun. I had always enjoyed the field work and the freedom that went with it, but to get ahead in the corporation, the estimators position had to be taken and so I agreed; putting my boots in the closet and buying some slacks.

Now, I had been an estimator many years ago, and then off and on during my career I had been asked to estimate small jobs. So I knew what I had to do and even looked forward to it. Because…it's an incredibly exciting thing to do on the day that a job is actually bid. You may have immersed yourself quietly within the plans and specifications for weeks and weeks, the door to your office was closed and locked, but on bid day, it's show time!

The day starts with an early meeting; the branch manager, the head estimator and yourself. You have to come up with 'the number', that's the starting bid price and then you have to decide how low you can go from that number. And still be able to justify it to the bookkeepers if you should succeed and actually secure a job. That's called your 'walk away number' and it's subject to change as the day progresses and your greed increases.

Now you may think that construction bidding is simple; estimate the amount of material and hours needed and price it. Add up the overhead costs and include that number. Now throw in the number of dollars you want make as profit. Take the grand total and tell the customers what your bid is. Go back to your office and open a new set of plans. Wait for someone to call and tell you the results. Wrong.

To begin with, as a subcontractor, we had to bid to a number of general contractors; sometimes as many as a dozen or more. And strangely enough, our bid price would vary, depending upon our business relationship with each of the contractors. Our 'friends' would get a better number than our 'enemies'. And determining who was our friend, or not…took a lot of phone calls as we tried to see who would work with us and keep us informed as to the current bid prices. Most bids were due at 2 PM and so we would wait until 1:50 or later before we gave anyone our price. Others were playing the same game and you had to keep your price protected from prying eyes and ears for as long as possible. Although, we and others, would sometimes put out an early and false number, just to see if we could identify which contractors were going to be our enemies that day. Devious!

During those last ten minutes, the tension was incredible! We would be revising numbers every minute as we heard little scraps of information on prices. Then, with a minute or less to go, everyone was assigned a few numbers to call – even the secretaries and the warehouse guy – and get our final, final number in to all of the contractors before 2 PM.

Was it over? No. Now we had to meet once again and, somehow, justify that amazingly low number we came up with at the last minute. All the while, hoping that someone, other than yourself (please!) made a mistake and you were a close but honorable second place. The results might not be known for an hour or so, even days, so the tension wasn't over. And when it was…you never wanted to be in first place by double digit percentage points. Might as well go shoot yourself!

Friday, February 13, 2009

It was just a picnic

The first year at my new job, I was as busy as I had ever been. We were securing work all over town and I was busy hiring and buying supplies for all of the new employees, plus the work of making sure that the projects were being run efficiently and at a profit. Once a week we had a mandatory meeting in the office with all of the estimators and superintendents to go over a document known as the 'CIP', Contracts in Progress. This document tracked every job for hours worked and material purchased against the amount we had billed the customer and how close we were to completion. In detail. The CIP also projected the amount of money we would make or lose on a project, based on the current numbers. Ouch! You couldn't say, 'it looks like it's going to be a good job', even when you knew it would be. The bookkeepers treated the CIP as Holy Writ and didn't accept guesses, even educated ones.

As branch office, we had to contribute to the corporate coffers in Kansas on a weekly basis and so it was critical to know where each job stood. It took me awhile, but I eventually learned that the bean counters were not interested so much in whether or not a job was profitable; they just wanted the right number to put in the books.

And it was during this first that I became aware of just how large a company PCI was. We were all union and 100% employee owned. We were the largest single contractor to be signatory to the Carpenters Union. And we were the 6th most profitable specialty contractor in the U.S. at that time. We had a dozen or more branch offices and plans for more. It was kind of exciting!

But…back to work. At the end of the year I think we had close to 60 employees after starting with 5. And we were planning our first ever employee picnic. After all of my years in construction, this was the first time I had ever seen a company rewarding all of its employees.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Feeling Good

When I reflected on my transition from one failing company to a new and promising company, I was awed by how easy it was. I lost one day of work that year. And I was going to be very busy for the foreseeable future!

When I started with PCI in Sacramento, we had half a dozen projects on the books but none were ready to start; a good thing, as I had to find a crew and buy all of the equipment we would need as a new division within this branch office. So I went shopping.

To be more accurate, the shopping came to me. The word around town was that a new drywall company was starting up and pretty soon, every supplier in the region was calling to take me to lunch, breakfast, coffee. Business cards were piling up on my desk and each salesman was determined to be my new best friend.

And with the help of these new 'friends', the new equipment and material was soon flooding our warehouse, much to the dismay of my fellow superintendents.

This branch office of PCI had been a small but very successful acoustical ceiling and flooring contractor in the region and now I was the newcomer and threatening the order of things. I needed warehouse space and lots of it. I needed more carpenters, lathers, laborers, hod carriers and plasterers. All of this didn't make for good feelings among the current employees and the resentment was soon evident.

It took awhile, but after some 'feel good' speeches by visiting VP's, the mood changed as it was evident that this new department in their midst was going to stay. That and the fact that everyone's bonus depended on our mutual success.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Job

On the appointed day, I showed up early and the new boss was just driving up. OK, I made some points right away. Then he walked me around the office and out into the warehouse, introducing me to everyone as the new Drywall Superintendent. After that he showed me to my newly built office and gave me the keys to a truck. Then we went into his office and he gave me the rundown on the corporation I had just joined…or would join just as soon as I filled out the many lengthy forms he handed me. Performance Contracting, Inc. was a nationwide contracting company; all union employees and employee owned. It was also nation's largest specialty subcontractor, with offices in almost all major cities… except in the southeast. (This would change later when PCI bought a large southern contracting firm) Historically, PCI had been the contracting division of Owens-Corning Fiberglas and had been divested by that corporation because of federal trade regulations. A group of employees had raised the money to buy the small division and the rest was history.

Although the branch where I had been hired was part of large corporation, we were always a profit center on our own. We had to justify our existence with every job. And as I soon found out, corporate bean counters were quite efficient at putting a project under the microscope to see where the money was going.

After the tour and the talk, I went to a couple of existing projects where we were doing acoustical ceiling work and learned a little about how PCI ran their jobs. OK, I was ready.

That night I called home and described my day to Laurae and tried to convey the excitement I felt. These people were professionals and they had great benefits to offer. I explained that there was a pension as well as a 401(k). Profit sharing and medical/dental insurance. A vehicle to drive with all expenses paid. Plus something called Max Stretch bonuses!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


With Las Vegas and McCarran Airport behind me, it was time for a new project; something with a challenge. And sure enough, I found it; the Washoe County Jail.

The company I worked for, C. Solari and Sons, had secured the contract on the new jail facility just up the hill and north of downtown Reno. The project consisted of the administration building and the jail itself, with 8 'pods' or housing units. The majority of the work was synthetic plaster over concrete blocks and there were acres of walls to finish!

My trade background was that of a drywall carpenter and framer, but I knew quite a bit about synthetic plaster and I was going to be the project manager, so I didn't really have to know a lot about the application; I was going to be busy enough with scheduling and progress meetings. This was a government project, so it was going to have inadequate plans, obsolete specifications and the schedule would be faulty. My job? Protect us from the owner!

And what fun that was… every day was spent generating dozens of RFI's (Request for information) for the architect/owner and then responding to the inadequate answers from the day before. That summed up my workday.

But, during this time, I was hearing rumors that the company I worked for was in financial trouble; big trouble. So I started asking some of the executives about it and learned that, yes, bankruptcy was coming…but I shouldn't worry! The plan was to allow the general contractor to take over the payroll and pay all of us through the completion of the project. But, since bankruptcy was still a little ways off, I was to continue my adversarial role as project manager. That was weird! I would gather my paycheck from the contractor's office and then hand him my latest request for change orders. With a smile!

As expected, the project dragged on and on, fall became winter and then it was spring before we started on the administration building. And it was here that I got lucky. I was walking through the work site when I heard my name called. Looking up, I saw a carpenter that I had once hired while I was doing a project in Sacramento. We talked for awhile and then he told me that the company he was working for, Performance Contracting, was starting up a new drywall/plaster and fireproofing branch office in Sacramento and would I be interested in applying for the job of superintendent? Apparently they already had some work signed up and were ready to start, but had no superintendent. OK! I got the phone number and names and came home with some good news for a change.

I did call and I went down to Sacramento for an interview. It went well, or so I thought, but they told me that they would call me with a decision within a few weeks. I was depressed.

But, as we were sitting down to dinner that same night, the phone rang and I heard the good news. I had been hired and would start within a week!

It was time to say goodbye. I had spent 11 years working in the Truckee Meadows and I had enjoyed some great times… but it was time for a change.

Here's a Google Earth view of the jail...the admin building is the triangular section at the lower center. In between the pods you can see the steel framework that holds up a security mesh over the exercise yards.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Outta There!

Back to the stories from the McCarran Airport project…

The two or three week job I had come to Las Vegas for was turning out to be a much bigger project than anticipated and my boss and I decided that it made sense for me to stay for as long as it took to get the project back on schedule.

And every day was a challenge as we had to fight the bureaucracy from Bechtel in everything we did. Plus, we had the additional challenge of working a major remodel project in a 'live' airport. Nothing could be done that might slow down the operation of the airport. We had to work around and over the passengers that filled the terminals.

The portion of the terminal that I remember best was called the South Terminal. If you have ever been to this airport, it's the terminal that holds Southwest Airlines. We had to construct a new ceiling and soffit system at a height of about 24 feet and from the south windows all of the way to the middle of the terminal. All of this would be done while never inconveniencing a passenger in any way.

We had half a dozen rolling scaffolds built so that the bracing was at a height that would allow for people to walk under them if needed. And we moved them very slowly and carefully; not wanting to drop anything of course.

The days went by and the work progressed as planned. First; the framers would use the scaffolds and build the metal framework for the lath that would be attached. After the lath was on, the plasterers took over the scaffold to apply a 1-coat 'veneer' plaster. This plaster was used because it saved so much time over the normal 3-coat system. With the plasterers out of the way, the painters took to the scaffolds and finished up.

All was going well until we got to the center of the terminal. It's at this point that the ceiling changes and ascends to an existing structure far above. To make this transition, the architect had designed ¼ radius barrel shapes to gain the height needed. These were simply called 'clouds'. An apt name as the support for them was somewhere far above us. Support wires from a previous ceiling still hung from a height of about 70 feet. It was impossible to verify their exact anchorage so we submitted a question to Bechtel; could we use those existing wires? After a few weeks, the answer came back that, yes, we should use them. And we did.

All went well and the framing and lath were soon in place. Then it was time for the plasterers to do their job. I was standing on the pedestrian bridge that takes passengers from ticketing to the East Terminal and separates the North and South terminals. From here, I could watch the plasterers just below me.

Suddenly the plasterers began to yell and scramble towards the end of the scaffold. I heard some very loud 'popping' noises and I watched as the 'cloud' crashed down onto the scaffold. Passengers, who had been under the scaffold were running for cover.

The wires we had depended on had failed. Luckily, the scaffolding held the enormous load of metal, lath and plaster that had descended on it. Even so, we quickly barricaded the terminal, shutting off all access to ticketing. Yikes! That got everyone's attention, if the crash hadn't already done so.

I was still standing on the bridge as I could see everything and I was talking to our Reno office, describing the situation (Our 2-way radios could transmit to Reno via relay stations) and asking for assistance. Probably legal assistance!

Just as I finished my conversation, I looked up to see that a TV camera crew was standing next to me, filming the action. And firemen. Everywhere! What was going on? It had only been a few minutes since the collapse of the clouds; how did the word get out? Well, it seemed that the firemen and the TV news people were already at the airport because of a reported gas leak; a false alarm.

I declined to be interviewed and got the crew together to try and stabilize the tangled mess. We soon had a local engineer (hired by us) directing our efforts and a couple of brave volunteers climbed up into the wreckage and then even higher as they looked for something solid to attach chain hoists from. Within a few hours we had the weight off of the scaffold and felt it was secure enough to allow ticketing to resume. How many people missed their flights? I didn't want to know! Each one was a potential lawsuit.

With our engineers help and a lot of work, the clouds were rebuilt and in place within a week; painted. Now the real fun began as Bechtel tried to pin the whole debacle on us. But our piece of paper with their opinion stating that it was OK to use those existing supports saved the day for us. It was quietly agreed to let the matter drop and charges from both sides soon faded away.

And that was the last bit of drama from that project. I do know that we amassed something like 80+ lineal feet of 3-ring binders filled with Bechtel generated paperwork and close to a ton of revised and revised again blue prints. But once the clouds were in place, I was through and could return to Reno and a more normal existence.

ps…one last memory; whenever we flew to Las Vegas in the winter we experienced some very rough take-offs. The Monday morning plane had sat overnight and since the temperatures were in the zero range, the tires developed a flat spot from being parked so long. And one morning as we rumbled along the runway, just about ready to take off, the vibrations grew to a point where the overhead oxygen masks popped out. Now that will wake you up!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Just One

One more 'working for dad' story before I return to the 1980's and saga of the Las Vegas Airport construction.

I had returned from the Navy and so It must have been 1961 or 1962 and I was looking for work. A friend of my dad, Hank Kramer, had come up with a brilliant idea and had just begun production on it. 'It' was a 3-gallon plastic container that held pressurized syrup. If you have ever hung around bars, you may have noticed that the bartender gives you a soda or a mixer via a device that looks like a portable showerhead. That's connected to the various syrup and mixer containers located under the bar. Well, before Hank came up with his idea, these containers were all stainless steel for cleanliness. The problem with steel was the fact that you couldn't see how much fluid was left in the tank by simply looking at it. Hank's tanks, being plastic, let you glance at them to see how much was left and so there were fewer downtimes while tanks were being refilled and customers wondering what happened to the Rum & Coke they had ordered.

Hank had a big order for tanks and had just bought a brand new German injection molder. The instructions for the machine were written in German so Hank was quite busy looking a German speaking operator. Which he found.

The injection molder is really simple; hot plastic is forced into a precision mold, rapidly cooled and then ejected from the machine into the hands of the inspector; me. I had to use some very expensive dial calipers to check the tanks for proper wall thickness. The tanks were pressurized and a defective tank could blow up behind the bar and make a very sticky mess.

So I would inspect and then throw the rejects into a large bin. It was later that I found out that part of my responsibilities was to recycle the rejects. That had to be one of the worst jobs I ever had!

The tanks were dropped into a chopper and the machine turned on. You cannot believe the noise that was made! We were working in a large but almost completely empty warehouse and that noise filled the entire space. I would hit the switch and run for the door!

Luckily, I found a job within a week and was able to retire from this one.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Later for Las Vegas

I think I'll take a break from the Las Vegas stories and go back to some memories that came to me the other day.

Working for your father is a tough job in itself, never mind the actual work. Psychologically, it's high drama. And I did that a few times; very few.

One; my dad was a mechanical contractor at the time and he had a small project going that included some concrete pads and trenches around some future acid holding tanks. The concrete needed to be coated with an epoxy to keep any spillage from deteriorating the concrete. My job was to help out on a crew that was doing that work. I was the 'go'fer'. Of course everyone on the crew knew I was the boss's son and they treated me accordingly. With deference. I hated it! So I worked harder.

And if you have ever been around industrial strength epoxy, you know how unpleasant the stuff is. I had to mix it in small batches and then add color to it, stirring it thoroughly while standing directly over the bucket. The fumes were overpowering to say the least. And once mixed, I would take it to the trench and hand it down to the men working there. Then I would join them, trowel in hand.

The trench was about 5 feet deep and 2 feet wide, just deep enough so that any breeze that might come along was never felt. And epoxy becomes quite warm as it starts to set up. The sweat just poured off of us as we were surrounded on all side by the hot material. And after awhile I began to enjoy the occasional trips out of the trench to mix more epoxy. At least I could feel a breeze now and then.

Finally, at lunch time, my hard work paid off. The crew started talking about the 'boss' and ignoring the fact that I was his son. They may have forgotten!

Note: this was probably around 1955 and there were no safety standards for working with epoxy. We wore rubber gloves but no respirators. And the rubber gloves wore out within an hour or so. Today, California and many other states don't even allow this kind of epoxy to be sold.





Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Carry On

Back to the beginning. When I first arrived at the McCarran jobsite, I was told that I must go immediately to the FAA offices and obtain my security clearance and badge. There was no access to much of the work without that all important badge.

I found the FAA offices and completed the paperwork and a photo was taken, but it was going to be a few days before I was given the badge; security checks had to be made first.

That first day I wandered through the various concourses and reviewed the work we were doing in those public areas. All was going well.

The next day I was summoned by radio to look at a problem that the fireproofing crew had in the baggage area. Oops! I radioed back and said I wouldn't be able to go there as I didn't have my badge yet. "You got your hard hat on?" was the next question. Sure. "OK, meet me at the Southwest counter in a few minutes."

I met the fireproofing foreman out in the public area where he told me that a hard hat would be sufficient for entry. And he was right. I spent the rest of the day working in all of those secure areas; my hard hat and a 2-way radio was enough authority for most everyone I encountered.

A note about those baggage areas…

Almost everyone has seen the slow and stately progress of their checked luggage as it travels within the ticketing area and then through the small opening that hides it from further view. That's a good thing. You don't want to see what happens to your luggage after it exits the ticketing area.

Chaos! The line accelerates and the bags go flying. Not necessarily with you. As I walked over and around the conveyor machinery, I would spot bags that had fallen off and were now hidden under the machinery. How long had they been there? Baggage in huge piles that didn't seem to have function or identity.

Now you know…

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunny Las Vegas

After the Sierra Pacific Power Company building, there weren't a lot of big projects in town; Reno had run into a building slump, and so when I was asked if I wanted to go to Las Vegas for a couple of weeks to help out on a project down there, I was happy to go. The project was called McCarran 2000 and it was a remodel and expansion of the McCarran International Airport.

This was going to be a new experience for me as I had never worked on an airport before. I learned quickly.

Shortly after arriving in Las Vegas I rented a car until I could find a spare company truck to use. I heard that we had a few 'beaters' on the site and one of those would be sufficient for my daily transportation. Following directions, I found the motel where the Reno crew would stay while in Las Vegas. The company had rented some rooms near the airport and that was convenient. In fact, everything about the job was convenient! I would get on a plane (Sunworld Airlines) early on a Monday morning in Reno. Fly quickly to Las Vegas and get off the plane right there at the jobsite; the airport. Our superintendent was always waiting for us at the gate with a long list of problems! Then, on Friday, we would reverse that procedure and head north to Reno, leaving the problems behind us till the following Monday.

I had been told that the job would require my help for just a few weeks. And within the first week it was obvious that wasn't going to happen. I would need to be there much longer.

First, a description of the work. That included the all new terminal 'C'. New ticketing facilities throughout the old terminals and new ceilings throughout the concourses. Plus a dozen smaller projects scattered throughout the airport property. As a major subcontractor, we worked under contract with a general contractor (Stolte Inc.) that had a contract with the Construction Manager; Bechtel, Inc. All of this contract language had us tied up in a dozen different directions. We had always worked in northern Nevada before this and most work had been agreed to by a handshake and an eventual contract. That was not going to be the case here. These people played 'hardball'.

Our project manager was particularly bothered by the amount of paperwork that Bechtel generated and so it was decided that I would help him with that by simply being his presence in the field while he battled the bureaucrats.

I had a superintendent and 3 or 4 foreman to take care of the actual work direction and it was going well, considering the fact that we had crews scattered throughout the entire airport and I spent most of my time walking from one problem to another. And talking on a 2-way radio. If you have ever been to the Las Vegas airport, you know how large it is. I got a good workout every day. Twice a day I would get back to our jobsite trailer and then go to the Stolte trailer to pick up the flood of paper that was being generated.

It didn't look too bad at first, but each piece of paper required a response. Which generated another piece of paper. We would receive about 2" of paper every day, plus innumerable sets of drawings. Revisions upon revisions and they all had to be checked to see if they contained any contract changes. So you had to compare each drawing with the originals plus the revisions that you had already priced. And take care of business. Overwhelming!

We soon decided that 'overwhelmed' was exactly what Bechtel and Stolte wanted us to be. True or not, it certainly felt that way. I remember that once or twice a week, I would take some of my papers that needed work and get on the automated tram that took passengers out to the 'C' concourse. Then I would walk all of the way out to the end and find a chair. At that remote distance, I was just out of radio range and could spend 30 minutes of uninterrupted time, doing the paperwork that couldn't be put off; like figuring out the payroll for the week.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Once the Boardroom and the executive offices were complete, there wasn't much more for me to do…except for the 'punch list'.

If you don't know, the punch list refers to the beginning stage for the final approval and acceptance of the building and all of its systems. The architect or his representative will examine the building, room by room and note any discrepancies. That list of discrepancies, the punch list, is then given to the various sub-contractors to use as they remedy…or challenge the items.

True, sometimes we didn't agree with the architect and negotiations would follow. We couldn't refuse to do the work, even if we thought there was an error because they held the final payment. The power of the purse.

In this case, the architect handed over the punch list duties to the owner. Violent disagreement erupted from all of our offices! The architect has a role to play and he is supposed to represent the owner. The architect has the duty to perform the punch list. Giving that duty to the owner wrong; legally and ethically. As subcontractors we were pretty low in the food chain and the architect had a duty to protect us from unscrupulous or ignorant owners.

After much discussion, it was resolved; the owner would perform the punch list under direct guidance of the architect. We weren't happy, but we did want our money and soon. So at least this part of the job would move forward.

We all (the subcontractors) knew when and where the owners inspection was going to begin and we waited eagerly to see how it was going work. The inspectors had been issued yellow Post-It notepads to identify the items that needed correction and we thought that made sense; after all, who wants to read items that might say, "Touch up paint NW corner of room 1123, 6" from corner and 47" from the floor". A Post-It note right on the offending spot would make it easy to send painters back to do the work.

The inspectors left the first room and we walked in to see… almost every visible portion of the walls and ceilings covered with yellow notes! Hundreds of them! Literally!

Another violent disagreement took place almost immediately as we stormed architect's trailer. We insisted that he come out to the room in question and see for himself. I can report that he was stunned and silent. And he quickly agreed with us. More training was given to the inspectors and after a few months of plucking yellow notes off of the walls, we were through!




Saturday, November 29, 2008

As seen from a satellite

The Sierra Pacific Power office building project was almost done. And what a project it had become. Close to two years for completion. From the time I arrived when there were just a few pieces of steel coming out of the ground till the end, when the completed building sat in a huge park, complete with streams and a lake. (they had to do something expensive with that underground river!)

And then there was the Board Room. It could be thought of as a major project all of its own. It was located on the 4th floor, the Executive floor, where every Vice-President had an office with a view. And each office was exactly the same size. Exactly. When we began to layout the walls, we were told that these executives would probably measure their office and that of their rivals. And they did. Once we started the work, those VP's would show up every day to see if their office was being slighted in any way. And they all carried tape measures.

The wall coverings alone were worth over $250,000. Material only. Wool broadcloth at $110 a yard and used as wallpaper. I kept the wall coverings in the safe, also located on that floor. And the plans changed almost daily as the executives were inspired by seeing what another VP was doing to his office.

Back to the Board Room. It was the last thing that was designed by the architect. Until we actually began the work, that floor was simply a blank on the drawings. And since the floor was not on the bid drawings, we were able to do the work for a guaranteed fee over and above the cost of the materials. And what a fee it was!

We spent months on the boardroom alone. A room that wasn't much bigger than 40' x 40'. And at one time we had a dozen people; painters, working on the ceiling of that room.

I only wish that I had a few photos of the room. Polaroid was the technology of the day and I might have taken a few with the jobsite camera, but I have no idea if the prints remain.

Odds and Ends. All of the glass at the Command level (3rd Floor) and the ground floor (Accounting) was bullet proof.

The original site was planted in grass with wandering paths alongside the artificial streams. These paths were also made into a PAR course for the employees. The streams were actually re-circulated water from the stream beneath the basement. Pumped up at the west end of the property and wandering through the streambeds and then back down again at the west end.

The migratory Canadian Geese loved the grass! Sierra Pacific hired a hunter to keep them away, but Fish and Game put a stop to that and they had to resort to using Carbide cannons to scare them. This worked for about a day. After that, the geese owned the property!

Today, I used Google Earth to see what the site looks like now and I see that the people who loved asphalt have won. The park is gone.

39°28'26.02"N Latitude

119°46'59.36"W Longitude

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spray Here

The Sierra Pacific Power project continued on and once the prefabricated brick wall panels were in place and the inside temperature was stabilized, we began the finish work; paint and wall coverings.

Ordinarily I was the Project Manager for the framing and drywall/lath and plaster portions of a project. Most times I was pulled off the job early and moved to another project that was just breaking ground. But not this time. There weren't many projects in the schedule and so the decision was made for me to remain and direct the work with the painters.

Solari and Sons, my employer, had always been a painting and decorating contractor and the kind of work that I did was somewhat new to the company. And the painters treated us as if we were step-children. OK, I could live with that. I just wanted to learn.

I knew the painting foreman by reputation; tough! So I introduced myself and told him that I would need all of the help I could get; that I would depend on him to educate me. It took awhile but we became friends. I would seek him out and ask his advice for every major decision and that helped.

And one major decision was soon to be made; the specifications called for a urethane finish on all of the exposed wood. That was every door and all of the trim. One of the painters, another foreman, told me that if we could change the spec's and finish the wood in lacquer, we could have a better looking job and at half the price. So we finished some samples and submitted the request along with a very modest decrease in the contract value. The customer bought it! And we were looking at a great profit if we could pull it off. For the problem with lacquer is the extreme flammability of the product when you are applying it. Plus the temperature had to be just right. Where were we going to find a place to spray it?

We were almost ready to rent a warehouse for the spraying when someone mentioned the basement. Half of the basement consisted of parking for the executives. And there were lots of them! So we were looking at almost 40,000 square feet of bare floor space. Plus, the basement had 2 very large exhaust fans to clear vehicle exhaust. A plan was made.

We turned the parking area into a huge spray booth; closing off all entrances with poly sheeting. Large propane heaters were brought down and turned on to warm the basement and the wood.

Once everything was ready to be sprayed, we barricaded the entrances, turned off the heaters and turned on the fans to vent the fumes. We couldn't risk an open flame or spark of any kind.

Well, it worked and beautifully. Although every time we had a 'spray day' I was tense and nervous until they came and told me that they had finished. You see, we hadn't told the customer about some of the dangers inherent in the use of lacquer. And I certainly didn't want to be the one to explain why the basement just blew up!

Yes, the painters had reassured me many times that nothing was going to happen; that they had it covered… but!


Friday, November 07, 2008

Pay Here

Spring soon became summer and despite the well meaning efforts of the QC team, we were making progress. The basement walls were framed and drywall was applied. Taping and painting followed and since the basement was always at a uniform temperature, we decided to keep our tools down there. We would all meet there early in the morning and enjoy a cup of coffee before opening the 'gang' boxes and beginning work at 7.

One morning, as I was about to go down the stairs, I noticed that the lights were out and it was pitch black in the basement. I hunted around on the first floor for the temporary power box that fed the basement and found it connected and it appeared to be on. I assumed that a circuit breaker must have failed so I grabbed a flashlight and went down the stairs. Oops! My flashlight revealed that the basement was filling with water! The water was easily 5 foot deep and climbing.

The construction management team found the problem at about the same time and quickly disconnected all the power to the basement. Pretty soon there were half a dozen pumps in action as they tried to drain the basement. This took most of the day and that night and it wasn't until the next day that we could go back down and see what damage had been done.

As I had written earlier, this building sat directly in the path of a underground river and a very large and powerful sump pump had been installed to keep the basement dry. This pump had been placed on a 'dedicated' circuit so that it would never be without power. 'Never' is a funny word. Not to be trusted!

With the pump in operation again and an army of laborers mopping and vacuuming, it was time to assess the damage. And there was plenty. The walls had been painted and since they had also been insulated, the insulation had become wet and soggy. We had to open up all the walls and remove tons of wet fiberglass. Along with tons of soggy drywall.

Of course we were paid for the damage, as were all of the other trades that had been affected by the power outage. And it was quite a bill!

Something to remember; the power company paid us. After all, it was their building and it was their circuit that had failed. But they simply passed these costs on to the rate payers. Their customers. So this decision to build in the middle of an underground river was already costing the customers of Sierra Pacific and would continue to do so as the building continued.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A War

As winter faded away, we began to improve our production and I added more people to the crew. And so did the customer; Sierra Pacific Power Company. The general contractor, or 'Construction Management' firm had built a small complex of trailers to house themselves, the architect (Black and Veatch) and the customer representatives. These representatives were going to be the Quality Control team to ensure that their building was all that it could be!

At first, there were only 3 rep's on the QC team but it grew. Of course it did. Sierra Pacific was a public utility and they don't know of any other way of doing business, except add more manpower to any project. Which meant another trailer to be added to the 4 that were already there.

And they were a curious bunch, these QC guys. You couldn't do any work at all without finding one of them peering over your shoulder and then quickly consulting their well worn copy of the project specifications.

It was soon obvious that no one on the project was trusted by the QC Team. Bad feelings! As typical construction workers, we banded together with all of the other trades and presented a united front to them. We could wage a specification 'war' as well as they could! And we did.

It took a long session with the architect to resolve our difficulties, but the architect sided with us and spent some time with his customers, explaining how buildings were actually built. Public utilities may know power… but they don't know construction.

The QC Team retreated, war was over and we continued on and back on schedule… for awhile.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

More Winter

That winter at the Sierra Pacific site was brutal. Because of the slow start when an underground river was found below the building, we were working up on the steel decks in the middle of January. The ironworkers would get up as much steel as they could on the sunny days and then it was time for us to climb up there and drop hanger wires through the deck before the next sunny day; a day when they would pour concrete if the temperatures were reasonable. So, storms or not, we had to get the wires dropped. Snow and ice was everywhere and we had to move cautiously near the edge. It was only a 4 story building but that still meant a 60' fall from the roof if you slipped on the ice. There were days when I wouldn't let anyone get up on the building and that would put us behind schedule. And that meant we were sometimes back up on the decks when the concrete was being pumped, just trying to stay ahead of the 'mud'.

We had thousands of wires to drop. Each was 12' long and made of #8 galvanized wire with a 'pigtail' loop at one end. This loop had to be positioned just right so that the concrete would flow through the 'pigtail' and hold it. To drop the wires, we first had to layout the pattern of the future ceiling below us by locating the walls. Then we would use a heavily weighted 4' long piece of rebar with a sharpened tip on the end to punch a hole in the deck. With 3 or 4 of us punching on the deck, the noise level grew quite high! While we were dropping the wires, we each carried a bundle of 50 wires on our shoulder and tried to locate the holes and then thread the wire through them.

And when we weren't on the high decks, we were down in the basement, trying to layout and snap chalk lines to locate the walls we would be building. The basement was covered at that time as the concrete had been poured on the first floor level. But, concrete is not waterproof and all that melting snow from the floors above us would slowly trickle down into the basement; dripping on us continually.

I mentioned snapping chalk lines for the walls; because conventional chalk was just floating away in the water and not making a good line, we starting using 'lamp black', a pure carbon form of chalk. It would work right through the water, creating a sharp black line that wouldn't wash away. It also wouldn't wash away from your skin and clothes. We were quite a sight each day as we emerged from the dark and cold basement, bundled in filthy clothes and parkas, our faces black from the chalk.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I was thinking the other day that I have spent some time writing here about my jobs but not a lot of time writing about what I did before work entered my life. That would be back in the days of childhood, from age 4 to 10. Hmmm? I hadn't thought about that before…it's only six years. At the age of 10 or 11, I was jumping into the world of commerce by mowing lawns and delivering papers. I even went door to door as a magazine subscription salesman. Bye-bye childhood.

But what did I do for fun? As a child? Being an asthmatic, I got to spend far too much time at home and in bed. And my mother had to devise ways for me to entertain myself. One of her ideas was to give me modeling clay; the kind that never hardens and has the ability to stay locked forever within the fibers of the carpet. Great stuff! And I loved it; making armies and castles. Making automobiles and submarines. And I could merge the clay with all of my other activities; such as Tinker Toys and Erector sets.

And I loved to draw. Sketch. Doodle. Nothing ever came of it; I never became a 'famous artist'. I did have a dream of going to the Art Center and graduating from that famous school. I read everything I could about the school and I thought that would be heaven; to spend your days in class being 'artistic'. There didn't seem to be any work involved. But money was involved and so I didn't get to go. That and the fact that I wasn't able to focus on one thing long enough to become really good at it.

That probably explains why I enjoyed construction so much. I could enjoy each project because I knew that there was an end to it. I would finish and then move on to another. Never bored. In fact, the jobs that lasted over a year at the same site were dreaded. I enjoyed the size and the scope of such projects but hated the duration! Whenever a project came down to the last few weeks, I was more than ready to turn it over to someone else to finish so that I could begin another.

I thought, and still do…that working at the same job and in the same place for 30+ years would be worst possible fate that could befall a person.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Only The Best

Our fishing trip was in the fall of that year and pretty soon winter time descended on the jobsite. And Reno can become quite cold. Snow and ice were soon part of our normal work day.

And that work day began when we would leave Janesville very early in the morning and make our way, carefully, over the 75 miles of two lane highway into Reno. I say 'we' because my daughter, Alicia, had agreed to work with me as my 'secretary'. We had an old construction trailer pulled onto the site and hooked up to some power; enough for some lights and a miniature heater. My boss didn't want to spend any money on fixing the old wall furnace that was in the trailer, and so while I was out on the jobsite all day, Alicia was stuck in the cold trailer, doing my filing and copying tasks, while never straying far from the heater. We closed all of the other rooms in the trailer in an attempt to keep it above freezing in there.

At this point, the basement walls and slab had been poured. A most difficult task as there was an underground river flowing through the site. There was layer of clay about 20' down and the river ran on top of that clay. They had to drill a dozen de-watering wells around the foundation and keep the pumps going 24/7. Once the walls were poured, the pumps would be shut down and a very large sump pump in the basement would take over. This pump was on a dedicated circuit, one that could never be shut down, as at this stage; the basement would 'pop' up out of the ground if the groundwater was allowed to accumulate under it. Only after the weight of the entire building was resting there would it be safe for an occasional power outage.

Some info on the 'river'. The existence of this water was not known when the plans were drawn and it was only when a D9 Caterpillar broke through during the excavating, that it was discovered. The driver of the 'Cat' got off just in time as it dropped into the river in the desert. It then took two Cats to get it back out!

Back to the drawing boards. Besides adding a huge sump pump and an ingenious landscaping plan that utilized the water to create a myriad of streams across what was once sagebrush and alkali, the new plans required a lengthy delay. This is why we were doing this prelim work in the winter. Ah! But the plans…very lovely and quite expensive. You see; the basement could have been abandoned as its only function was that of the executive parking lot. A nicely heated and undercover parking garage. Snow should never fall on a VP's head. And besides, the rate payers would be paying for the building anyway. Wouldn't they want the very best for the executives that labored in this building?

Sunday, September 07, 2008


After a time I was back in Reno and the California projects were finished and faded from memory. Solari & Sons never got a foothold in the business there and transport across the Sierra's was always a headache. And since the company had most of the state to themselves, there was always plenty of work in Nevada.

And one of the projects I began was the new Sierra Pacific Power Company headquarters' building, located south of town, near Moana Lane. At first glance, just a simple 4-story office building.

But, after I received the construction drawings and began to plan for the project, I finally saw the true scale of the building. It was huge. Even today, if you drive by, you see the office building located in the middle of large and beautifully landscaped park like setting. The scale can only be appreciated when you're up close to it. And since there is a guard at the gate, most people don't see it up close at all.

NVE was going to be the construction manager on the project and I was told that the superintendent was going to be 'Smitty', a person that I had had some angry run-in's with in the past. He had been the superintendent on the Meadowwood Mall project and although we weren't working directly for him, he had tried his best to direct our work as he saw fit. That didn't happen because I told him 'no!' and some shouting ensued. Oh, oh! I was looking at project that might run for a full year and I would have to be polite all of that time. Could I do it?

It didn't look good at first; Smitty remembered me and told my boss that he didn't want me on the project. After some negotiations and apologies all around, a settlement was made and I was given a spot to set our job trailer. My home away from home!

And then, just to make certain that bygones were really bygones, I was told by my boss, Al Solari, to ask Smitty to join me on a fishing trip. We were going to go fishing on a private lake that is located off of the Mount Rose Highway and just below the crest leading to Tahoe. Little Lake was the name and there was a lodge and caretaker at the lake. Boats were available and the caretaker would handle all of the arrangements for us.

A little info on the lake; it had been purchased many years ago by the 'movers and shakers' of the Reno business community. Ascuaga, Solari, Quilici, etc. It was very private and only used by the principals and those they favored. OK, so I was favored once. But only once.

Smitty and I drove up together and didn't have much to say to each other. But after we got out onto the lake and Smitty and I started catching fish; our differences faded away. This was fun! We were both fly fishing and we could do nothing wrong that morning. And since it was a workday and there were no 'millionaires' on the lake; we had it all to ourselves.

That fishing trip removed all of the barriers that had grown between Smitty and me and we became good friends.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Crossing A Bridge

The Clarion Hotel project continued on as the Sacramento project finished up and I was soon spending all of my weekdays in Millbrae. And I soon discovered that if I wanted to get home to Lassen County before midnight, I would have to be on the Bay Bridge and headed east by 1 PM on a Friday. Any time later than that and the traffic was simply horrendous.

Winter time was the worst. In miles traveled, it made more sense to drive up I-80 and into Reno before heading north to Janesville. But Donner Pass is one of the few roads where chain controls are rigidly enforced and my company truck was not a 4-wheel drive model. When chains were required, I had to put them on. And join the crowd in the right lane that was traveling at 20 mph.

If I chose to travel the alternate route, Highways 32 and 36, I had to deal with roads that were not plowed or poorly plowed. Scary times going over Fredonyer Pass in a blizzard! Plus, these roads were lightly traveled in the winter and there’s definitely safety in numbers.

Once safely home on a Friday night, I had to start planning for a return trip on Sunday evening. Would there be a storm? Which way should I go? And one of my monumental mistakes had me sitting in traffic on I-80 in Verdi, Nevada. Thousands of us waited as the CHP directed 50 cars at a time over the pass at Donner. It took me 11 hours to go from Reno to Sacramento.

OK, back to work. Some of the panels for the Clarion were quite large and we needed to get an oversized load permit from CalTrans so that we could get them over the mountain.

Here’s how that works. You contact CalTrans and tell them all about your load. Size, height and weight. Origin and destination. You can tell them when you would like to make the trip…but they will tell you. And they also tell you which roads you can take and at what hours. It’s all pretty tightly controlled. As it should be. Until your truck gets to the toll plaza at the Bay Bridge. That was where the CHP directed our truck to join a few other ‘Wide Loads’ just west of the toll booths. The officer then said that in a few minutes, the toll booths would shutdown just long enough for these three trucks to get in gear and head for the bridge itself. He said, “You’ve only got a minute, so straddle the white lines and don’t let those b******d’s get ahead of you!” It worked.