Choosing a contractor

Choosing a contractor

(The Groundsman, July, 2008)

A contractor’s reputation is as good as it was after the last contract. In selecting a contractor, word of mouth goes a long way to giving confidence to the client and seeking out panels of qualified contractors also gives peace of mind. Yet there is nothing more informative than seeing contractors in action on other sites and monitoring results.

Making the final choice, especially when the budget is tight, can be a daunting exercise. Judging on price can bring disappointment in performance while making proper allowance for all the pertinent factors invariably increases the contract price. Chances taken by contractors to cut the price eventually lead to inferior results and such opportunists simply do not have the resources to carry out the works specified as planned and cope with the unforeseen circumstances that are bound to arise at some time.

Contracting can be a tight cut and thrust operation with contractors battling to produce desired results, keep in cash flow and make a profit. The soundness of the business operation, staff complement, range and condition of equipment and integrity of management are essential factors that determine the capability of a contractor.

The hidden financial stability

This check is one that clients are often negligent in not following up. In complex projects where the weather plays a major role, conditions on site can severely disrupt progress, impair the quality of work and increase the time needed to complete the task agreed. This becomes a considerable financial drain on resources and the contractor with minimum reserves has to dig deep and can easily succumb. A check of the last three annual accounts and the conduct of financial management reveal a lot of a company that must be prepared to weather unforeseen setbacks. Credit consultancies provide up-to-date financial reports on all companies.

All contracts of any significant size are bound give rise at some time to contentious matters where dispute follows. The handling of these sensitive issues generally outlines the backbone of the contractor and it takes a soundly financed organisation to overcome differences in opinion to put the client’s needs first and foremost. The conduct of the contractor at these times puts him in a class apart from the struggling contractors out to make a quick profit.

Influence of the staff

Staff conduct generally mirrors the integrity of management. The attitude on site, particularly the attention to detail highlights the difference between good and poor contractors. In detailed contracts the itemised work plan and the provisions made determine the degree of success that will be achieved. Adequate staff, properly trained, fully briefed and following a well thought-out plan of action gives confidence to the most sceptical client. Generally the client knows little of the detail of execution and it is the integrity of the contractor’s management and staff that determine the cost-effectiveness of the work undertaken.

Extra costs on the contract site are inevitable. Detailed plans and contract documents are only a guide and cannot accommodate the unforeseen circumstances that are bound to arise. There are however, two types of extra costs

  • those where there is scope for improvement at extra cost where there is added benefit to the client
  • those inevitable costs that arise due to unforeseen situations often due to soil and weather conditions

Without an unbiased mediating consultant at times of extra claims, all hinges on the contractor’s approach and his attitude to the contract. There is the natural conflict of interest. The contractor is out for just reward for extra works while the client, uninformed as he often is, is looking to save costs and achieve the most cost-effective result. The conduct of contracting staff at this time is the key. Disputes can easily sour a contract and early settlement of differences in opinion is essential. Left to the end of the contract when memories have faded there can be unnecessary haggling and ill feeling.

The impression given by good equipment

First impressions can be profound. The equipment transported to site in preparation of the works ahead gives the uninformed an immediate insight of what may be expected. The selection, condition and operation of specialised equipment in most cases determine the quality of work that can be achieved. The maintenance of contract equipment and the ability to quickly attend to repairs and breakdowns influences the rate of progress through a contract. However willing and able the staff is, poorly maintained equipment leads to eventual downtime and ill feeling – especially when time is of essence. Making thorough investigation into the company’s equipment fleet and back-up resources is time well spent.

There are often many ways to achieve the desired result. In sports pitch and golf course construction there are not the same expected procedures as laid down in structural engineering. Ineffectual equipment does not reveal the shortcomings at the time of operation – the results come later. Short cuts taken by the contractor are seldom evident to the uninformed client and are generally not visible on the surface. What is out of sight is out of mind.

In the end it all comes back to the effort the client makes in choosing the contractor. He can only have that desired trust if he has taken the time to check out the standing and reputation of the contractors he is considering.

Gordon Jaaback

July 2008