Last Page: How not to succeed in construction

Equipment World editors spend a lot of time interviewing and writing about our Contractor of the Year finalists and in the process become enjoyably immersed in their success stories. But not every construction company is a success or a great place to work.

Coming back from our Contractor of the Year banquet in Las Vegas this year, I kept thinking about the contrast between the great contractors I’ve met through this program and the really bad construction companies I dealt with years before I got into journalism.

What brought on this flashback? Three recent incidents:

No organization
Last fall I volunteered to help build a sound stage for a concert fundraiser. About 20 volunteers showed up, but nobody was in charge. A handful of guys who seemed like they knew what the plan was bantered with each other, but never communicated anything to the rest us despite repeated questioning, disorganization and headstrong teenage volunteers doing unsafe things. I left after two hours, not wanting to be an accessory to whatever crime came next. When the bands arrived the next evening they informed the hosts that the stage had been built backwards. The speaker banks were nearly 30 feet behind the band when they should have been in front. With the speakers blasting into the singers’ microphones at the concert that night, the resulting sound was akin to a multi-car pileup on a freeway during a thunderstorm with jet airplanes racing overhead.

No guts
My wife and I frequent a small restaurant here that’s also popular with construction crews. A while back we stopped in for lunch just as three workers were headed out the door, having left behind a table crowded with empty beer bottles. I have no idea if they were going back to work or not, but just the thought of drunk workers on a jobsite sent chills down my spine. The supervisors I’ve known typically respond in one of two ways. They’ll go thermo-nuclear and march the offenders off the site with all the tact of a drill sergeant, or they’ll turn into Harvey Milquetoast and go out of their way to avoid confrontation. Having seen both, this is my advice: If you don’t have the guts to keep your sites drug and alcohol free nobody will ever work for you except stoners and drunks.

No money
Some time ago I rented an excavator for some repairs to my basement. I got it for a weekend rate of $270, delivery and pickup included. Later a friend of mine told me he knew a “contractor” who could have dug out my basement much cheaper. “He brings in a bunch of Mexicans with picks and shovels and you should see how fast they dig!” my friend exclaimed. With all due respect to hard-working Mexicans, there is no way a crew digging by hand could have beaten $270. Today there is no reason to operate a chain gang like this unless you’re such a poor businessman that you don’t know about rental machines or you don’t have the capital to acquire your own. The other possibility is that this guy was paying illegal workers under the table to avoid taxes and insurance.

Most businessmen hesitate to bad-mouth other people’s business. But the next time you get lowballed by some fly-by-night company that suffers from any of the shortcomings mentioned above you need to raise some red flags. A lot of contractors won’t fight back, figuring the customer will learn the hard way. But every customer’s bad experience is a black eye for the whole industry.

When bad companies are sent packing, jobsites become safer, insurance rates go down and construction contracting can be seen for what it is – what our Contractor of the Year finalists prove it can be – one of the best and most rewarding businesses in America.