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I Forge Iron

How helping an intern improved a company

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Today I had a bid for a contractor I've done business with for the past seven years or so.  Most of our past work with this contractor has been poorly managed, low profit, and generally disruptive to our ongoing projects.  The "good" jobs were uniformly bid-shopped away from me, leaving a seemingly endless list of pointless and profitless projects to bid.  

So with that much bad history, the reasonable question is "why bid to them at all?".  Two years ago this contractor hired an intern to help their estimator.  This kid was very, very, green which naturally lead to him asking me lots of questions.  While I understood that everyone has to start somewhere, it was particularly frustrating to be mired in long Q&A sessions with a know-nothing who worked for a terrible (sometimes) client. 

Instead of taking my frustrations out on him, I focused on trying to help him to become a better estimator.  My thought was that I could help counteract the corrupt, incompetent, and lazy approach that his predecessors (and bosses) prefer.  Over time I saw him applying his new skills to improve their odds of winning.  In point of fact, his company went from approximately 95% cattle-call projects to roughly 60% negotiated deals where they are the only General Contractor (GC) bidding the job.  Now I can't and won't claim that my helping an intern shifted the marketing dynamics of a GC in a couple of years.   The intern (now estimator) did all the hard work which is very much to his credit.  

I think the single most transformative moment came about when I answered one of his "nag" calls a couple of years ago.  GC's who don't cultivate significant subcontractor interest in their invitations to bid will often have an intern or a secretary call every subcontractor in the market and nag them to bid.  It's my considered opinion that GC's who resort to nag calls are wasting subcontractors time.  If the job is appealing, and a good GC is a likely winner, subs will  go out of their way to send them a bid.  With a five-year history of wasting my time, squandering my bids, and bid-shopping my best efforts, I had very little reason to be interested in this interns invitation to bid.

After he'd said his spiel about how his firm was "really going after" this piddly project, I politely told him that I'd bid too much for too little work.  I told him that I needed to prove to my boss that it was worth the expense to keep pricing their work.  He was obviously frustrated to encounter my resistance so I reminded him that he could improve my odds by being more forthright about what's going on with these opportunities.  I pointed out that his invitations to bid (ITB) never indicate how much competition he's facing.  If he's one of 18 GC's chasing a stupidly large project, we'll have less interest than if he's the only GC pricing a small job.  I also told him that "pretending" that budget/conceptual estimates would lead to contract award isn't fooling anyone.  In the ensuing conversation, he opened up about his challenges. and aspirations.

Since that conversation, our dynamic has completely changed.  Now I can call him about an ITB and he'll tell me if it's a "keep the estimator busy" owner demand, versus a sure-shot project.  There's less pressure to "loyalty bid" work we don't want.  He's responsive and accountable about the budgetary stuff as well.  He voluntarily restricted his ITB list on final drawings to those subs who bid the budgets.  The information goes both ways, I often explain why we're cheaper on some jobs, and more expensive on others. 

His firm is still riddled with incompetent and dishonest people which makes bidding his work riskier than average.  That being said, we're better informed about what we're getting into so we can price the work accordingly.  As an interesting corollary to all of this, we've won a few of his negotiated projects at the higher risk prices.  That suggests that my competitors view his firm with approximately the same level of risk. For example, today's bid was considerably higher  because  this low-end project will be run by their most incompetent and corrupt Project Manager.  It will be interesting to see if he notices the connection between his firms risky staff and higher prices.  

Yesterday the intern told me that he'd been promoted to full-time estimator.  He's come a very long way in the last two years.  Thinking about his growth gives me hope for an industry that's crippled by greed and incompetence.  In some ways I can see growth in myself as well.  Three or four years ago, I might not have been able to put my anger with his firm (and what they represent) aside.  It occurs to me now that a lot of terrible instruction in this industry is a product of anger, cynicism, and frustration.  It's no secret that you get more of what you reward.  I'm glad I helped him. I hope his successes improve those around him.  

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Lies smoke and mirrors are used extensively in most industries but they are more the product of a culture then a genuine belief that such will produce good results. 

There is a lot to be said about the psychology behind the intrigue and how some believe this to be necessary as opposed to straight forward honesty and openness.  

People have different reasons to be how they are and most don't even know why they uphold the values that makes them who they are, values they adopted before age 10 without any input from themselves. 

But that is another story. It's always good to see how a little input from you has produced such a positive result in another person. Very satisfying, good for you

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