The project manager couldn’t believe it. He’d driven across town to find out why we wouldn’t bid on a job. The head of our architectural department was very matter-of-fact in his response: “No, we’re not interested in your contract.” The Wright-Patterson Air Force Base manager’s mouth was catching flies. “Why?” he gasped timidly. “We’ve lost money on every contract we ever had with you these past five years,” said the department chief. Then, allowing the manager to calm down, he added: “We’ve tried to work with you. We tried to set a review schedule but you and your people continued to break the contract. Our records show that you reviewed one set of drawings nearly twice as much as was allowed by the contract, sometimes well into the final phase of the design contract.” That was it. We never worked for the base again.
In business lingo, Wright-Patterson was a “green weenie.” That’s a client you always lose money on. Let the other guy win the contract. You can’t afford that kind of job.
At the same firm I had a run in with a pet food company. After getting it past problems with the EPA and ones it created itself by beginning construction without permits, I waited for approval of our final drawings. The manager accepted them — but with a proviso. He wanted us to design a catwalk improvement for free as a condition for payment. When I quietly suggested I needed to talk to my director, the project manager changed from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. My star began to fall at the pet food company after that.
Although it seems like only the contractor is hurt, this just isn’t so.
Later in my career I found myself working as a consultant again. One of my early clients was Rick, a project engineer at a pharmaceutical manufacturer. I instantly recognized Rick as a sharp operator. He got as much as he could from us and then only paid a portion of the contract. Bill, my department head, thought we’d make it up on validation but Rick weaseled out of the deal.
The pièce de résistance was the drawings scam. Rick convinced Bill to bid on preparing proper drawings of the plant. These included process and instrumentation diagrams, isometrics, elevations and plans. Bill was salivating over what we thought would be a sole-source contract. We prepared partial drawings and sent electronic files. The next thing we knew, Rick was forwarding them to our competitors. Chicanery has a price, though. After a few years, the word was out — nobody wanted to be his next victim. Rick lost his job, but I think most engineering companies in the area still will think twice before working with the pharmaceuticals maker again.
Notice I said: “working with.” Too many firms make the mistake of considering only today’s job and not future work when they hire a contractor. Rick never cultivated an ongoing relationship and paid the price.
Years ago, when I was a junior engineer, I worked with a young contractor to add pots to our vacuum pumps. The idea was to reduce the liquid flow from a rotary dryer and thereby increase production. I’d previously dealt with him on what I call a “Cinderella” project — that’s one where the money disappears if not spent before a deadline. There, his welds were good and the project deadline was met. The bid for the vacuum pots was about right but a lot of charges were hidden. The job wasn’t completed within the scheduled time; the production manager was unhappy with the mess left behind. After reviewing the project, I told the contractor I couldn’t recommend him for future work.
Sometimes others break the covenant.
I’d worked with Ralph for years; when I’d moved back to Ohio from California, a friend recommended him. Ralph is an expert on concrete coatings. In a single week he cleaned up the mess under our sugar kettles in Columbus — the pads looked like new. So, later while working on a project in Cincinnati, I suggested him. During an expansion of an acid scrubber at yet another company I was asked, “Who do you know who could repair the concrete pad?” Without hesitation, I proffered Ralph’s phone number. A few months later, when my time with the company was winding down, Ralph called me to complain that he was having trouble getting paid. After confirming that the work was done, I went to bat for him.
The door was slammed pretty hard on me — Paul, the manager of the project group, told me to mind my own business. I never recommended another contractor to him again, although occasionally his engineers would ask. To me contractors are my friends. The company I work for may change but guys like Ralph will always be there when I need them.
Dirk Willard is a contributing editor to Chemical Processing. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.