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!

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