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    It Doesn’t Just Flow Downhill

    Dec. 12, 2018
    Keeping an open and honest dialogue between the office and the field at all times is a must.

    What happens when you become a successful contractor? In most cases, you grow. Now growth is a good thing, mostly, and it comes with a particular set of problems that are universal. Some call them ‘growing pains’ but I’ve heard other, not so nice names for it as well, usually starting with the word cluster...

    I get a fair amount of reader feedback on columns where the topic has been growth; when to grow, how to manage growth, how do you know when it’s time to expand, etc. Most of the letters center around the when, what and how of expansion, but none ask about the changes that growth and expansion engender.

    Typically, when you run your business well, you get to the point where you need to consider expanding. Usually, but not always, you, the owner or ‘boss’ have to make the hard decision to leave the field and devote your time to managing your business as opposed to working in the field and running the business. If you’ve got solid people doing the field work, it would be an easy thing to do, or at least easier than if you have had to hire questionable labor to fill your shoes.

    Most times when you give up the field, your people are those with whom you have worked for a while. There is a mutual respect and camaraderie between you and those who are now doing the work. Your communications with your field guys are easy and everyone knows what you expect and you know what they need and how to get it done. Your door is always open and they know it. Problems, questions and solutions flow. The jobs get done right. With the right amount of hard work on everyone’s part, you grow some more.

    Eventually you need to hire office staff and department managers. You might even need to hire project managers if the work you are doing is big enough and complicated enough. First you start pulling your good people from the field to fill the middle management slots. Why?  Because these are people you know best. You can communicate with them easily and you understand what each other wants and needs to get the job done. How do they communicate with your new field people?

    Unlike what we normally say flows downhill, solid communications between the office and the field are a two-way street.

    Moving forward, you fill the empty field positions with new people who are not such known quantities. This is where things start to get a little rocky. In today’s job market, as opposed to years past, it is dicey, at best, to find good, solid, skilled people. There are few places in the country turning out qualified journeymen and apprentices these days. The UA is one that leaps immediately to mind, the NAPHCC is another, but they can’t staff the entire industry by themselves. So you and your “staff” have to deal with new people of indeterminate skills while still producing the work.

    The first casualty of your growth is about to rear its head. Communications start to break down between the office and the field. Where before it was a simple matter of talking to your good and trusted employees and getting a problem ironed out, it now becomes a test of your — or more precisely your staff’s — ability to transmit the desired information to new people who may or may not have the skills that it takes to convert talk into action and achieve the desired result. Also, getting communications from the field can be a problem. As an example, if your new job foreman has a tiff with the architect or engineer about the quality of the work being done, or about a change that the former would like to get done, is that man going to convey those issues to you, ignore them or color them to protect his own butt? Such a scenario can snowball into something ugly rather quickly.

    Conversely, when your office grows, the new people that you bring on board may not have the communications skill or trade knowledge to effectively keep your field people advised, directed, supplied or in the loop as the project moves forward. This situation usually evidences itself in the ubiquitous ‘he said, he (she) said” loop, which invariably ends up souring one or both parties. Worse, if the office becomes the dictator and the field the serfs, resentment can build quickly and it is not easy to correct.

    Keeping an open and honest dialogue between the office and the field at all times is a must.  Maintaining the management structure is important, but it does not mean becoming dictatorial to the point of ignoring sound advice from your field people. Keeping secrets, in either direction or playing the blame game is a losing proposition. Also, making sure that respect for the office and the field is fostered at all times. Your office managers, project managers, field superintendents or whoever is in a management position need to be made aware that, although they might think otherwise, they are no more or less important than the guys who are spinning wrenches in the trenches.

    Likewise, your field personnel need to be kept aware that the management team is on their side and has the knowledge, ability and desire to help make the job go smoothly, to help iron out wrinkles and to fight the battles with the owner, architect, engineers and anyone else who could adversely impact the success of the job.

    Looking back at the title of this column, unlike what we normally say flows downhill, solid communications between the office and the field are a two-way street and an absolute must if you expect to grow and prosper.

    The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a third-generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].