FIRST AND ONLY
This was my first and only large commercial project in Medicine Hat. I had completed the pulp mill expansion and upgrade project in Skookumchuk BC and my employer, JK Campbell had bid a hospital expansion in my hometown. My new department manger was impressed with my results in BC and thought this might be a good fit, even though I was primarily known for industrial work.
The construction unions are under a lot of duress during this time and now in total disarray with union workers being put out of work. Large projects are all but gone and the political environment does not seem to attract the big investors. I think this is a good time for me to work close to home and not chase the few remaining industrial projects.
I am used to my employers inner workings so I order in my construction trailer. When it arrives, I find a mess from the previous occupants. My equipment dispatcher in Calgary has left the sinking ship and there is no in house service and repair. I have some time before I need to start so I decided to paint and repair the trailer because I wasn’t going to have client or visitor walking into such a dilapidated trailer.
The painting went quickly and then I decided I deserved better. I decided to lay carpet in two thirds of the trailer. I collected on some good deeds in my home town and came back with some very nice commercial carpet that I installed.
My department manager came to the site for a kick off meeting and I invited him into the trailer so we could discuss the job. I am sure he couldn’t believe his eyes when he stepped through the door and saw this transformed trailer. He just smiled and asked how much it cost and then showed absolute surprise when I said no charge. I just told him that this trailer had the company logo outside I didn’t feel we needed to show the client anything but the best.
THINGS TO AVOID
I believe in organized mayhem. When little things go awry, I don’t want them to sink the ship. One of the key elements to managing a good project is labour management.
I could have sat back and played foreman for the entire project but that would just drive up my costs. I decided I could carry the title and work as well, so I made sure the union knew I was a working foreman.
I had a very good apprentice at the time. D. S. had come from a small non union competitor and asked if I would hire him. I explained that I had no time for someone who didn’t want to achieve journeyman status without formal schooling. We agreed to the conditions of employment that day and the rest is history.
This project really appeared small on the onset, but that changed dramatically. We started with a small 43,500 thousand dollar piping insulation and ductwork contract. I knew we needed help, just not how many in total. The piping releases came in slow and finally we required another apprentice, then added a journeyman. The apprentices, which we only went through two, were the only manpower changes made from the onset. Our journeyman was D. S.’s old boss whose business had failed.
I went through my patented spiel about the project, company policy, Marvin’s policies and so forth with the new hires. This eliminated a lot of potential concerns with new hires and puts everyone on a level playing field. We made an awesome team and the work was going along at a good clip.
All through this, the unions were being pounded into a corner and workers were asked to take pay roll backs. We were always concerned because we knew JK Campbell was also in dire straits.
I guess my forte in project execution comes from watching all the supervisors and managers who had failed before me. I always watched for the details that cost them time and money and put those learning’s into my memory bank. Many field supervisors allowed the crafts decide their own fate or failed to give direction and forethought to an overall execution plan. Many actions would be reactionary on their part and confusion is never a positive strategy for executing work.
Again I was unsure of the project magnitude until I walked the project and reviewed the estimate. I was not about to fail. When we unloaded the first load of material, we found our most beneficial laydown area. There we would be able to manage all incoming materials. In some cases, we were able to off load materials on the floors where the work would take place. I was surprised as we started to receive and place semi truckloads of insulation materials.
Another problem was the ability to justify production to our office. We would be working on many different floors so tracking installed materials would be a near impossible feat. The company department manager wanted production updates with the weekly payroll so I was concerned. This information was used to invoice the client as the work progressed. We called it progress payments in the day.
We started in a small way, so I was able to keep up with accurate estimates. With a full crew, things became difficult so I decided to report in a different way.
Each box of insulation and each roll of insulation came with a tag with the size and contents within. A roll of duct wrap was 400# feet. Piping came in feet per box depending on the pipe diameter. As D.S. set up the work ahead of us, he would cut out the tags. He then saved them in a tin can. Anyone who opened a new package of insulation did the same, whether they took out one piece or used the whole box. At the end of the week, we would count the lineal feet and the square feet found in the tin can. This was the number that we reported for the week and then we tossed the tags into the garbage. We never claimed a box of insulation or roll of duct wrap twice because the tag was already missing. This solved our weekly production reporting and it was so successful I used it on many larger projects later on.
One of the failures of many supervisors was not keeping track of the general contractor’s progress. This usually came to a head and the supervisor and manpower would have to take reactive measures to satisfy a bad situation.
In any insulation applications, a boiler room is one of the worst places to be when it was operational. They are very cramped and extremely hot. If you didn’t time the work properly, you and your men had to fight through scalding heat, dust, maze of piping and electrical conduits that demoralized the worker and dropped productivity substantially.
I had been in a few of those places before and I knew that I wasn’t going to be part of that or our fellow workers.
On this project, there were two existing boiler rooms to retrofit and one new one. These boiler rooms would supply the hospital with their hot and cold water, fire suppression water and heating. These boiler rooms were the heart of the entire building and they were the most important to get on line. Our piping was tied into the boiler rooms as we were insulating cold water, boiler feed water, steam and condensate lines etc. Also the boilers had high temperature exhausts that were intertwined with piping and electrical. These were very difficult to work on, even cold, but nearly impossible when in operation.
I was constantly touching bases with the general contractor and his supervisors. I always was on top of their progress and knew approximate dates when the boiler rooms, piping and ductwork would be turned over to us to finish. We never failed as a group to share information we heard from other trades and I coached everyone with me how to glean the best information.
We treated the boiler rooms just like the floor piping or ducting we were working on. I would send D.S. to the boiler room, scout out how much material the area could handle, identify the work in the tightest locations and prepare any material that could be pre cut for ease of installation.
D.S. was the best for this job. He knew how I wanted to approach the work and he took pride in preparing the work/ materials in advance. On the floors, D.S. would have all the necessary pipe insulation spread out around the entire floor waiting for our arrival. On the same floors, when ductwork was ready, he would pre-cut the insulation and stack the pieces in the appropriate locations. All we did was come to the floor, pick our jobs and install the materials. I can honestly say we completed all these jobs, including boiler rooms in record time and all before they started up.
The general contractor was not used to this kind of performance and said many times how they were impressed with our progress and quality of work. Even the steamfitters, plumbers and sheet metal workers could not believe the four of us could keep on top of their work
The department manager never came to us during this project to ask for a wage rollback. However, across the company, all tradespersons working for the company were cut back up to 20% of their union wage. I knew we were putting together a good job and our production was excellent.
One Wednesday, about mid way through the project, we had a surprise visit from the department manager. He came to confirm our production as the Calgary office was in disbelief. I showed the manager the tin can and explained how we tracked production without identifying it on blue prints. He then went over to the general contractor and asked if our numbers matched theirs.
Well, what could I say? A young inexperienced man propelled into a management position with a company on the brink of bankruptcy; have at it I thought. I believe he went back to Calgary shaking his head and wondering if I was setting up for some big fall, but he kept progress invoicing the job as I reported.
Before he left I told him the next time he was coming for a visit, he had better be prepare to bring the crew some donuts or he was buying lunch for everyone.
From the initial seven-week contract, this project continued to grow. In the end, there were eight packages that had to be bid. JK Campbell got seven and lost the eighth and final package to a competitor.
It really did not matter because we had taken the bulk of the work and the eighth package was light on the estimate with no added work to make up the shortfall. We watched this work from afar as we demobilized. There was a fourth boiler room and a retrofit involved. You guessed it; the crew did all the easy work and left the boiler room to the last. Too bad they didn’t plan their work.
I found out later that my employer, JK Campbell was on their deathbed. The bank trustees watching the company finances had made the profit margin in the last bid package greater than what was estimated thus ending our eighteen-month project.
I had an amazing group of friends working on that project. I knew we were putting outstanding numbers by counting all the tags in the tin can. We averaged 6500 lineal feet of pipe insulation and 1200 square feet of duct insulation a week. This was roughed in and finished all lumped together.
I never complained if the men needed an extra ten minutes for coffee or an hour lunch. They worked for it and delivered and we only worked a four-day week. I took it upon myself to show the crew a recognition no company would do for their workers. On two different occasions, I set up holidays for each of us. Two weeks paid holidays for a job well done. The company would be no wiser as they left us alone and we kept making them money. I don’t know of any other instance where an employer offered me a paid holiday.
We did beautiful work and never had a deficiency. At one point, the project manager for PCL came to us and apologized for an error their steam fitting crew made. They had to cut two pipes and cross them over. We laughed but the construction inspector was not happy with the general contractor. We just went back, fixed their mistake and laughed it off.
There would be two projects in my lifetime where this happened. The other one was even more painful for the general contractor. The inspector would not allow the general contractor to cut into our work to correct an omission. Instead that inspector made the general contractor make new pieces and add them on beyond our work so as not to damage anything we had done. And yes, D.S. was there with me as well.
When the project ended, I was done with JK Campbell. They were in full receivership due to a bad job in Estevan Saskatchewan and mounting interest rates on money borrowed for a huge fabrication shop that they built in Edmonton. The department manager and I parted ways but he told me that in the history of JK Campbell, they had never made any money on a commercial project. Mine was the first and only profitable commercial project and I then went back into my memory bank and analyzed the quality of field supervision personnel they had managing the work.
JK Campbell had been using commercial projects as fill in work between large industrial project work. Their foremen and superintendents took commercial projects like mine as a lifeline and did not want to see the job finish too fast or they might be laid off. It didn’t take long to figure out the workers’ strategy and the shortcomings of management.
This project was one of the easiest to execute and by far the most profitable I had ever done. I was told months later that Mr. Campbell himself wrote a letter to the Calgary office and the insulation department manager. Instead of congratulating the manager, he chastised the entire Calgary office for not knowing how to estimate. He was in total denial that he and his managers had been duped for years into believing their was no money to be made on commercial projects.
There was no mention of quality personnel on the worksite or any mention of the organization and dedication to a project by the field personnel. Due to the fact that the project made so much money so late in the game for Mr. Campbell’s company, he felt that the profits were just blind luck.
The project, like all JK Campbell projects was estimated with an expectation of an 18% profit after all cost were covered. This project made the 18% and 40% more. It went from an initial $43,500 dollars to a final sale of $875,000 in just eighteen months and an average of four men.
But I am proud of those who helped achieve this project conclusion and that is why I have taken the time to write about it.