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Estimators - Unsung Heroes

Sept. 3, 2019
The field superintendent the general. The journeymen in the field are the troops. Where is the intelligence and logistics coming from? The estimator.

Have you ever heard the expression, “an army travels on its stomach”? The reference is to those in the chain of command who provide logistics (food, water, medical supplies and, of course, ammunition and fuel) to the troops, either fighting a battle or merely moving from place to place looking for a battle. Without logistics, no army, no matter how formidable, can survive let alone engage in a battle. In the past, many a commander has been brought low by not considering his troops’ needs. Forgetting about his troops’ needs, he would have soldiers deserting their posts in search of food or water not provided by their command structure (king, emperor, etc.).

Continuing the military analogy, a general officer and his staff sift the intelligence, plan the battlefield engagement, the attack and counter attack strategies, and order the troops into battle, all while keeping in mind the logistical requirements and knowing that their support staff will provide the appropriate logistical support for their endeavor.

What does all this have to do with plumbing/HVAC contracting? Much more than you realize. Let’s call the owner the king. The field superintendent the general. The journeymen in the field the troops. Notice anything? Where is the intelligence and logistics coming from? The estimator.

The king decides to do battle, or in this case, selects a project he (or she) would like to work on. He turns to his intelligence officers, his estimator(s), and orders him to contact the general contractor and get a set of plans so a bid can be produced. This would be akin to long range reconnaissance; getting the lay of the land, so to speak.

The estimator/intelligence officer procures a set of plans detailing the battlefield conditions and proceeds to prepare an estimate (order of battle) based upon the information provided in the plans. Knowing that there are other armies (competitors) also planning an assault (other bids) on the same objective, the estimator uses all his wiles and best intelligence information to provide the king with a workable battle plan that, while not necessarily guaranteeing success, will provide his majesty with the best opportunity for winning.

Assuming the estimator has been successful and the king is awarded victory over the other kingdoms vying for the objective (project), the king must now engage in the real battle; prosecuting the project that the estimator has given him. He hands the plans over to his field general, telling him, “go forth and execute this mission on time and on budget!” or something like that.

The estimator’s work is not done, however, because the project must now be monitored to make absolutely certain that the army has everything it needs--on location and on time--to prosecute the project. From ordering long lead items to getting the best deals on bulk materials, to making sure that the field general (superintendent) orders the correct materials (Type L copper and not Type K copper, as an example) and has prepared for receipt and storage of his material.

The greatest threat to the estimator’s head (as in “off with it!”) is missing something big on the take off or miscalculating labor time in a big way. Sort of like sending the king’s troops into battle and finding out that the artillery or air support is on vacation while in full assault mode. That’s why most estimators are a bit anal about their work. It’s their head if they screw up, not the field people.

Now understanding what is at stake for the estimator, it is easy to understand that he is not just a “paper pusher.”  Which brings me to the point of all of the foregoing. One of my readers, Mike Thomas, sent the following note:

I read your recent contractor article about estimating 2019, with more than a little interest. I was a contractor for many years, (30 plus), and then for the last 12 years I served as the chief estimator for a large national mechanical contractor. During that time I watched the quality of the documents we prepare estimates from decline in quality to a disgraceful level. I have been using “leading edge” estimating systems since Quick Pens multi floppy disc entry into the marketplace. There is no question that today’s systems save a great deal of time. They also reduce the number of mindless mathematical errors that used to be the killer of an estimate. What I felt you didn’t address well was that today the estimator needs to be a well-trained highly skilled individual who is half engineer.

- Michael “Mike” Thomas

I could not agree more. Considering that between the two of us, Mike and I have almost a century of actual field experience in the trades, that opinion is valid. Certainly, a good estimator is someone who has “been there, done that” a time or two. True, some estimators today rely on digital models and other off-line information to produce bids, but most good estimators have been in the trenches for years, much like that chief master sergeant, with more stripes than a zebra, who gets a field promotion to officer and is called in to headquarters to advise the general staff.

An estimator must have the ability to visualize not only the intent of the plan, but to be able to dissect the plan, consider all logistics involved and intuit intent. He brings to bear years of experience in putting together a cogent, well thought-out estimate of what the project will take to complete and provide a profit to the company (kingdom). He visualizes the project from inception to completion in three dimensions while trying to put an estimate together that combines all of the elements necessary to make a profit at the end of the day.

His experience can and should include searching for land mines (oddball specifications or architect/engineer notes), ambushes (conflicts in either scheduling or installation) and other unforeseen issues that could impact the success of the project. The level of expertise required to accomplish this is formidable to say the least. The best thing is, the longer an estimator works at his craft, the better he becomes.

So, if your company is flush with work and you are making a profit, thank your estimator!

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].