Don’t Kowtow To A Contractor

Oct. 9, 2019
Learn how to deal with difficult constructors and vendors

The construction manager thought he was in control, although he only was a contractor. Unfortunately, I was stuck with him. I asked him to install the pump first so we’d have an anchor point. He said that’s not the way they do things. I told him that’s how I wanted it done. So, he complained to my boss. This is the kind of response you get when a constructor is too ingrained.

The last straw was when replacement of a 1-in. nozzle on a pressure vessel that should run $4,000 wound up costing about $14,000. I reviewed the estimate, which I had insisted upon after the first few shenanigans. The detailed breakdowns indicated the job should take a maximum of 20 hours of welder time, perhaps 4 hours of quality-control inspection time and 4 hours of oversight. Instead, we were billed for 70 hours of welder time, more than 20 hours of supervision and 20 hours of warehouse time. My boss marveled at the charges. The construction manager obviously was punishing me for giving him trouble. We decided to seek a replacement contractor.

The construction manager thought he could make me look bad and I’d be in trouble. What he didn’t know — but should have — is that you don’t mess with crusty, old curmudgeons like me. We have a bag of dirty tricks of our own.

Before we get into how to neuter a difficult construction manager, let’s consider how a good one would act. That person would strive to help me to achieve my goals instead of telling me no. That’s basic salesmanship: never say no to the customer. The person certainly should cite safety, ease of construction or any other issues that might weigh against what I want but shouldn’t just say no. We’re all salespeople. We all have customers.

Here, the construction manager assumed he was irreplaceable and had the power. You can’t let that mindset persist. As I’ve said before (“Learn Office Politics”), if you can’t ameliorate a bad situation — and being owned by contractor or vendor is just that — you should leave. Being the last rat off a sinking ship isn’t loyalty, it’s stupidity.

Fortunately, my boss was amenable to a meeting. I sat down with the construction manager. We reviewed the new ground rules: My firm, not the contractor, would buy all the valves and special equipment; a bill of lading would designate who provides what. My company would review the spool designs, before and after, they’re built. The construction manager was agreeable to the first point but fought me on the second. I insisted that I must go over the construction with the builders myself, laying out the physical equipment in their shop, before a stitch of rod was added. I also ruled out switching the crew during the outage; I would require the same welders who built the pipe spools to install them. The contractor raised the expected argument that such steps would increase costs. However, I countered that most of this falls under normal quality control.

Making such rules isn’t enough, though. You must get a signed statement from the contractor agreeing to them.

Now, let’s return to neutering. Suppose you can’t fire the company. You certainly can audit its work, though. Take apart invoices. If the firm resists releasing hours or breaking down costs, that’s another point against it; document this reluctance in a memo for the file. Ask for the resumés of personnel assigned to your projects; check those people’s safety records, not only at your facility but at others. Hire a third party to review the company’s construction or engineering. Write detailed scopes of work and hold the firm to them. Perform spot inspections during construction — are the right people assigned and doing their work, and are they following proper quality-control procedures. Log when deliveries are late, unauthorized overtime occurs, and deadlines are missed. Remember, you’re not doing this to be mean. You have the best interests of your company at heart. The fact that you’re hassling a troublesome contractor is a fringe benefit.

Most companies rise to the challenge. You can develop a sound working relationship with them — but only if they’re on your team and working with you and not against you. If not, you undoubtedly can find other firms eager for the job.

About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

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