Building rapport with Builders

Whether you've been pricing works for years, or are brand new to the industry, you will always be served well by getting a deeper appreciation for those you will be working with. I have written this as someone who used to sit on the other side of the fence. As a seasoned estimator, I worked with Subbies and Suppliers regularly to make sure my quotes were well prepared, and the delivery team had all the information they needed to build the project.

Let's begin - the basics

Before discussing tactics, let's review the average lifecycle of $20m-$50m apartment tower project. We will also look at the time point where Suppliers can focus their efforts.

Project timeline:

1. Design Stage - 12-24 months
Once a client has decided to build a project, they will engage an architect to begin design. The architect engages engineers who all work together to create a set of plans which are then signed off by whichever council. Suppliers who want their product to be specified see Design Stage as a crucial part of their business development process. Networking with architects and consultants, and working with them to design the project with their product, is their main priority.

2. Tender period - 4 weeks
Once the design is finalised, the builder would select 3-4 builders to price it for them. The Estimator uploads the project to the EstimateOne noticeboard and issues package to subcontractors. During this cycle, subbies may reach out to Suppliers to assist them with pricing. It may seem that Builders aren't interested in supply pricing at tender stage, and this is due to the sheer number of trades Estimators have to coordinate. A Suppliers best bet is to speak to the Estimator, find out who the Subbies they use are, and contact the Subbies to price for them.

3. Tender close - 1 week
The builder submits their bid to the Client. The Client spends two weeks comparing the bids and trying to find a common medium between them.

4. Value management & clarification - 4 weeks
The Client comes back to all builders with new design options and a list of clarifications. At this point, you will often hear from the Estimator requesting cost options and further clarifications. Sometimes it's as complicated as putting a whole new quote together because the Client decided to change major items. Other times it could be no change at all. There are very little Suppliers can do while projects are at VM stage.

5. Contract negotiation - 2 weeks
The Client will pick their preferred builder and issue a letter of intent. This states they are successful pending contract review and negotiations. These will happen while the delivery team start preparing their workload for the new project.

6. Project handover & construction management plan - 2-4 weeks
The Estimator will hand the project off to the delivery team who will review all pricing against the latest designs from the Architect. At this point, the Estimator is no longer involved in the project and is neck deep in other projects. Early trades such as piling and retention, concrete structure, and hydraulic services are usually let now. Suppliers chasing awarded work should be calling the builder at this point and trying to find out who the delivery team is. The Contract Administrator (CA) and Project Manager (PM) is your primary point of contact now.

7. Site mobilisation - onwards
The delivery team starts on site and begins looking at the balance of trades over the next few months.

What does this mean for me?

In summary, the time between tender and a team actually starting on-site is between 4-6 months on average. Who you speak to, and when, is vitally important to your success. For Suppliers, the critical points of contact are Design Stage with the Architect/Consultants and Tender/Award stage with the Builder and Subbies. 

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Building Rapport

From my time estimating, there are certain things you can do to get to the forefront of the Estimator's friend list.

Get to know the Estimator

This is critical. Even though technology like EstimateOne makes quoting work easier, you must be willing to get to know the Estimator during the tender period. This applies in particular if there's no existing relationship there. Don't be afraid to pick up the phone, ask them questions, find out a bit more about them and the company, and make yourself known to them.

It's much better to be "that idiot Tony from ABC Stonemasons who calls all the time" compared to "that random guy who emailed a quote through."

Be an educator

An Estimator is a jack of all trades but a master of none. They have a general understanding of the 50+ trades often required but having an in-depth knowledge of each is impossible. You must be open to giving them an education where required, and happy to explain things to them. If you have a better idea on how to do something or to improve on the design, give the Estimator a call and discuss. They may say "sure, go ahead" because it's a D&C contract, or "don't bother" because it's a lump sum contract. But ask and plan your attack together before charging into it.

Getting to the Subbies

You may know that your best targets are subcontractors, not Estimators. Sometimes that's just the way your workflow goes. Doing the above and building rapport with the Estimator will mean that when you ask for the contact details of their Subcontractors, they're more likely to indulge you. 

Quote well

Going to use an anecdote here. As an Estimator, I knew all the projects needed switchboards. I could see on the drawing that 3 were required, but I had no idea what they were for, or what they did. All the quotes came in with no clarifications.

When we won the project, the delivery team went to let the contract, and every single Sparky had changed the design to a single switchboard without telling me. It may have been a better option, but we hadn't clarified that on our tender.

The Architect and Client refused this clarification post-contract because it would have required them to redesign the electrical package. We ended up wearing the cost of doing it as designed.

Avoid doing this to your Estimators.

Your first task should be to go through the project and identify areas of improvement on the design, then call the Estimator to discuss any questions or queries you have before you begin your pricing. When you are ready to submit your quote, ensure you write all your clarifications and inclusions/exclusions, so the Estimator knows what you've priced.

Some examples?

Changed the switchboard design to a single layout? Clarify it.
Changed the stormwater pump from a dual to the single ring main? Clarify it.
Changed the aluminium suite to a different product? Clarify it.
Using an alternative carpet supplier then specified? Clarify it.

Follow-up

You've submitted your quote to the builder or a subcontractor. Now put a reminder on your calendar to call them in exactly four weeks. As per the tender timeline above, four weeks post-tender will be right in the middle of value management and clarification period.

You could write yourself a script to use with your Estimators. Something like;
1. How did you go with the tender? Do you have any info from the Client?
2. How did my quote stack up? How do I compare to the other Subbies?
3. Can I help with anything? Has the design changed? Do you want me to see if I can do some value management?

There you have it

The Subcontractors and Suppliers that followed the above process were my favourites. They were the ones who provided the most value to me and the people I would go in to bat for with the delivery team.

Become one of these Suppliers, and you are well on your way to getting more work.

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Awarded Tenders

One of the main benefits of having a full membership is the ability to view awarded tenders. That means no more waiting six months to find out how your quote went.

The moral dilemma

When I started as an estimator, I wasn't a fan of receiving quotes after the tender closed. I wanted to support the Subbies and Suppliers who priced at tender stage. After a few months of using EstimateOne, I relaxed my stance as some quality contacts started coming my way. It would have been foolish to reject them.

For example; Subbies/Suppliers who quoted for my competitors but not me introduced themselves, and they began working for me too. They may not have been awarded that initial project, but they would quote moving forward.

Now that morals and ethics are out of the way let's review how to make the most of the awarded tenders information.

The gatekeeper

As mentioned in the timeline above, once a bid is awarded it's no longer in the hands of the estimator. They've sent it off to a delivery team and washed their hands of it.

So who do you speak to?

Part of the bid handover involves organising the project team and setting their initial schedule, which includes the timeframe for letting trades. The one responsible for letting trades is the Contracts Administrator (or CA for short). This is the gatekeeper to your success.

If you've before priced the job and now see it has been awarded, call the estimator and congratulate them on winning the project. Again, ask how your quote stacks up, and then ask for the CA's details.

If you haven't priced the job before, call the estimator and introduce yourself. Let them know that you're interested in pricing the project and would like the details of the CA to follow up with.

At this point, it isn't too useful to query the estimator about it. They are far removed from this project and working on countless others.

Once you've got the CA's details, put a script into action to get consistent information. Questions can include;
1. (If quoted) How does my quote stack up? Did I leave anything out? How does my price stand up to other Suppliers?
2. What is the trade budget? Is the package being broken up? Do you have a scope of works for me?
3. When do you plan on letting the trade?

Once the delivery team have the project, the actual budget is assigned to them to maximise the builder's contingency and profit. If you haven't priced a project already, and the CA tells you what their budget is, you can do a quick check to see if you can match or better the price. Complete your quote and send it through to them.

And as a reminder, call them again when they plan on letting the trade. Often the CA’s are under the pump and pick one or two Suppliers based on the estimator's recommendations. If you're in the estimator's good books, that should be you. But if you're still new, keep on the CA until they either bring you in for a meeting or say they're not interested. The squeaky wheel will get the grease.

Strategy is key

You might be the best supplier in the world, but winning work in this industry is as much about your actual strategy and networking than your capability of doing the job itself.

Try out the advice above over the next few weeks and let me know how you go. I'd be keen to hear your results and discuss any issues you may still have.

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