We've all been there, and more of us are getting there in this day and age than ever before. Our boss tells us to go out and “get work at all costs!” So, on bid day, we cut another 10%, 20% or even 40% to get the job. Once we get the job, our boss then dumps the job in our laps, telling us that we're going to somehow make the job profitable. He also tells us that since the job is an almost guaranteed loss leader, even though he expects us to make a profit, he's keeping the better crews and tools on the handful of jobs that are left in-house. So, we get the most worn-out tools, plus, a crew of the slowest and most inefficient team members to work with. You know your own job is on the line with this mess. So, what do you do, and what should you do?
First, don't be shy about politely and respectfully renegotiating “the terms” which were just given to you. You need to do this when it happens, not the next day or a few days after. Your boss probably just has a serious case of buyer's remorse since you actually got the job at no margins and thin burdens for labor and materials. The thing is, you and he both know, that unless you can somehow throw it back without losing face, or getting involved in a legal dispute with the original party bid to, or risking any chance of getting more of their work in the future, you simply must take the job!
Even if you're assigned the worst guys possible, try to get at least one quality field foreman or superintendent to shepherd the rest of the guys. Then try to make the case that you at least need adequate major tools, such as welders, pipe threaders and dies, scissor lifts, sheet metal brakes, etc. Even the boss knows what the job will actually need, and despite his initial near-depressive reluctance, if you ask, but don't demand, you'll have planted the seeds that may come to fruition at the right moment later on.
In that same vein, once the shock has worn off in a day or two, then it's time to be your friendly self and work with the other project managers behind the scenes — the same way you always do in good times anyway — to explain what has happened (like they hadn't heard about it seconds after you did). Try to do some swaps, outright gifts of individual crew member swaps, and loans of the correct kind of and for better equipment during the phasing of the job.
Once you attend the initial job meeting, don't mention a peep about how cheap your boss and company took the job for since the numbers are the numbers, and everyone around the job table will know anyway. But don't turn down any acts of generosity or kindnesses from the owner, A/E reps, GC or other subs since they've all been there. Hopefully they can and will empathize, and maybe even sympathize with you a little too.
Once your crew shows up on the first day, without mentioning the exact numbers, tell them that your boss took the job way too cheap, and you're going to have to ask them to put forth their very best effort and minimize waste as much as possible. Please don't cheat their timesheets even by five minutes! Of course, they've all heard this song and dance many times before. Even during better economic times, many jobs were taken cheap, and crews were asked to be good little robots and do perfect work with no mistakes.
Once the job is going, don't be shy about asking other subs for any and all considerations and trade-offs you can think of to help save money. Now is not the time for false pride or an exaggerated sense of your own focused super efficiency. Nor is it the time to be poor-mouthed or have a poor-is-me attitude in an effort to guilt anyone and elicit their help.
As the job progresses and it begins to look like there might be a tad of actual daylight at the end, for Pete's sake, don't admit that to anyone. Don't outright lie if asked, and don't downplay how still very serious the situation is. However, don't let up the respectful pressure to the crews or to your management either. If they think there's been a little bit of “earned float,” that's just what they'll do, float for a while, while your job begins to sink again.
Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via e-mail at [email protected].