The Key to Winning Projects with a General Contractor is About More Than Price

By Chris Andrews
Director of Design & Preconstruction

I’ve spent the past 27 years of my life working in the construction industry—first with an electrical contractor, later with a low voltage contractor, and the past four years working with a general contractor. I work for Aptitude: Intelligent Integration, the systems integration division of JE Dunn Construction.

Having crossed over some kind of imaginary line from sub-contractor to general contractor, I am asked quite often how to win projects with a GC. I believe it has a lot to do with how you organize your estimate.

Truthfully, there’s a little bit of a gauntlet you must get past. Our risk management team requires some financial data and some OSHA logs. We won’t invite you to bid unless you have made it past this prerequisite qualification.

My team takes great pride in leveling bidders—making sure each covers the same scope. At the end of the day, we are often left with three similar bid prices. The contractor we ultimately choose to work with hinges heavily on how they present their estimate. I’ll walk through a scenario in which our team selects a contractor based on three different, yet similarly priced, bids.

For example, Contractor A is a symbol counter. He has a safe but competitive number in his head, and he rattles it off to everyone who will take it. His win rate is not great, but his attempts are so plentiful it doesn’t matter. If he sees a triangle on the drawing, he applies $645 per triangle, and 250 triangles on a set of plans equals a $161,250 proposal.

Figure 1
In the next example, Contractor B is familiar with Contractor A’s unit pricing strategy but not confident enough to just drop his price to win the job. He creates a bill of materials to know exactly what his liability is. In his conversations with us, he can produce a bill of materials we can verify with our own take-off. His price is very comparable to Contractor A, at $161,602.50 ($646.41 x 250 outlets). He’s better prepared for our interview. See Figure 2 for estimate breakdown.
Figure 2
Finally, Contractor C realizes that good help is hard to find. He needs to know exactly what his manpower needs are from month to month, so he doesn’t have too many or too few workers. This also plays into his decision of whether he is going to bid on this or any other project. He’s using phase codes to track his labor needs (See Figure 3). In this example, there are now 4 hours of rough-in, 1.3 hours of trim, and 0.4 hours for testing. Scaled up to the 250 outlets, that becomes 1,050 hours for rough-in, 325 hours for trim, and 100 for testing. Consider that the building is two stories, and we can now start to build a crew (see Figure 4). Between Figures 4 and 5 we can now see the planned crew size and the sequence needed to complete his tasks. If, during our interview with Contractor C, we overlay his tasks with our master schedule, we can verify if he has the available manpower when it is needed. If the first-floor rough-in needs to be completed in 10 days instead of his planned 13, he knows he needs to plan for more workers.
Finally, Contractor C realizes that good help is hard to find. He needs to know exactly what his manpower needs are from month to month, so he doesn’t have too many or too few workers. This also plays into his decision of whether he is going to bid on this or any other project. He’s using phase codes to track his labor needs (See Figure 3). In this example, there are now 4 hours of rough-in, 1.3 hours of trim, and 0.4 hours for testing. Scaled up to the 250 outlets, that becomes 1,050 hours for rough-in, 325 hours for trim, and 100 for testing. Consider that the building is two stories, and we can now start to build a crew (see Figure 4). Between Figures 4 and 5 we can now see the planned crew size and the sequence needed to complete his tasks. If, during our interview with Contractor C, we overlay his tasks with our master schedule, we can verify if he has the available manpower when it is needed. If the first-floor rough-in needs to be completed in 10 days instead of his planned 13, he knows he needs to plan for more workers.
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5

In a perfect world, we would have firsthand experience working with every contractor. As we continue to grow into new markets, though, we need a tangible way to verify that a contractor can plan and provide the manpower necessary for our projects. Liquidated damages can be quite expensive when a subpar contractor takes an extra 30 days to complete his work.

In this scenario, Contractor C may turn out to be the most expensive of the bidders, but he poses the least amount of risk. If within a reasonable range, Contractor C is hired on “best value” offered. 

After award, our contractor arrives at the jobsite or our office and participates in a pull plan. If you’re not already a member, I would encourage you to visit Pull planning is a lean construction practice in which every key stakeholder on a project collaboratively starts with the end goal and works backward—milestone by milestone—toward the start date.

Figure 6 may look like a crazy wall full of sticky notes. In this exercise, the contractor is given a stack of sticky notes to place your tasks in the construction sequence. Figure 7 shows an example of a note for the task in our schedule created by Contractor C: First-Floor Rough-In. In this exercise you are committing to getting this task done in 13 days, on a specified date, and at the same time you request what needs to be done before you can begin. This process is done in the beginning of a project to capture the overall schedule and is adjusted every two weeks to allow for some tasks finishing early and those that may be experiencing delays. 

In summary, we need a low price to remain competitive. While price is important, it’s equally important that our contractors are well qualified and have the ability to work well within the fast-paced schedules and busy job sites typical of large construction projects. In the past, low-voltage scopes were managed by the owner and often took place AFTER construction, and each scope was siloed in its approach. Today, those same scopes are being installed in the middle of a construction project, and it’s our team’s job to consider how every piece of the technology package will connect. As an integrator, we look for contractors who will function well in that very busy environment and take an active role in collaborating with a larger team so we can successfully reach our client’s connectivity goals on time and within budget.

Figure 6
Figure 7

Aptitude: Intelligent Integration provides technology integration services for commercial real estate spaces. We use tailor-made design processes and cutting-edge technology to deliver seamlessly connected built environments that help owners and operators achieve more value and create better user experiences. Leveraging the insight and experience of close to a century in design-build from JE Dunn Construction, our parent company, Aptitude manages the full scope of building connectivity. Aptitude is headquartered in Atlanta and maintains offices across the United States.