It’s a new era. The children in Washington have stopped wrangling long enough for the new president to step in and the old one to finally assume his long overdue role as abused husband. The market is “correcting” itself. Prospective home buyers are no longer camping out in front of new developments, waiting to put a deposit on a lot on opening day, and your doctor just phoned to inform you “that rash will need some special attention.”

And though this column can’t help you with any of these issues, there is a silver lining.

Lately, we have been getting a lot of feedback from both of our readers about the proliferation of non-qualified contractors out there. This is one negative by-product of a bull economy. There has been so much work for so long, many were forced to use ultra-light tackle when fishing from the labor pool. Most of the “trophy fish” had been caught already. As a result, the saying, “Last week I could not even spell contractor, and now I are one,” took on an ominous tone. A lot of these guys do not have proper insurance, if any. And even if the workers they employ are legal citizens, it’s a pretty good bet that they’re not carrying workers compensation.

The herd thinneth

Now for that promised silver lining. The world is a cruel place. It’s based on survival of the fittest. This is where the “cream of the trades” will rise to the top of their respective fields. The “contractors by proxy,” guys who found their calling simply by owning a pickup truck or were lucky enough to have a friend who owned one, will be strewn across the countryside like oh-so-many empty beer cans rattling the floorboards of the aforementioned pickups.

If you choose to operate in a professional manner, treating your workers and customers fairly, if you refuse to turn out mediocre work, you are going to be around after these others have evaporated. You will now have more choices on where you want to concentrate your efforts. You may choose expansion. On the other hand, the past years may have you looking toward scaling back your operation. You have to decide. Perhaps you will be better served by doing repair work. This avenue offers fast turnaround on your money along with limited overhead.

Conversely, you may choose to expand the scope of your business by hiring more workers. This will enable you to bid on larger jobs. This should prove to be less of a daunting task as you will be able to reap the rewards of the “thinning of the herd,” as the me-too contractors start to go back to work selling shoes in mall kiosks across the nation. This will force builders to choose from quality sub-contractors who have proven to be professionals. Not only will there be more work to choose from, there will be more “large fish” (experienced help) available when interviewing potential employees.

One of the opportunities a slowing economy offers is developing creativity in buying and bidding. In the past months, there have been some excellent articles by those we whimsically consider our contemporaries on how to bid jobs. It has become a much more scientific process. The days of showing up at a site with a hangover and a cup of coffee and doing a walk-through with a pencil and a pad are fading fast, falling prey to bidding software packages. Contractors who formerly purchased exclusively through a single dealer are exploring alternative supply sources and relationships. Better planning, better buying, more lucrative bids. In many ways, just as important as the quality of workmanship once you actually start the job.

Builder of choice

We recently received permission to plagiarize material from an article written by Scott Sedam. He writes a monthly article in Professional Builder magazine titled, “Lessons Learned.” His monthly features come with the Adventures In Drywall/Bill and Kevin stamp of approval for required reading. The following deals with the choices we all have to make when deciding who to work for and how to work.

“Builders tend to fall into three groups. The first are the ones with ‘big boy’ swagger, who still move through a market thinking and pretending that they are the 800-pound gorilla that dictates ‘the ways it’s gonna be.’ That’s not working very well, because the suppliers and trades figure out their game really quickly. I have a friend named Dan in a major, high-growth market, who owns a huge, high-quality, very successful company supplying both labor and material to many of the biggest builders. Last week, he told me the names of two of the top 10 builders in the United States that he won’t even open a bid package from. He used to go to the trouble to return it. Now he just trashes it—and they wonder why. These companies are desperate for his services but have never bothered to sit down with him and find out why he isn’t interested in their work.

“The second group adopts more of a ‘What can be done?’ attitude. Que sera sera. They keep sending out as many bids as they can and just take what they can get. Many companies that I otherwise consider very professional accept suppliers and trades who, quite frankly, do a marginal job and don’t appreciate their business. They accept it because they believe they have no power—so they don’t. It’s like the famous Henry Ford quote, ‘If you think you can—or you think you can’t—you are right.’ These builders have decided they can’t, and so their destiny is fulfilled.

“But there is a third, smaller group of builders who take an entirely different approach. For shorthand, I’ll call it the ‘builder of choice’ strategy. These builders have discovered that there are some very significant things within their control that the best suppliers and trades care about. By doggedly pursuing these things, they can attract more suppliers and trades than they need, enabling them to pick and choose and build solid relationships with the best, even in an ever-deepening trade shortage.

“What are suppliers and trades looking for? I’d categorize it under these headings: sanity (especially in regard to schedule and building site management), support, relationship and communication.

“Notice I did not say ‘rewards.’ That’s because the money is available anywhere at any time from everybody—not just you. But the other four are in all-too-short supply. Using these, you can become the builder of choice and beat the supplier and trade shortage.”

If you followed Scott’s reasoning, the opposite is also true. By proving yourself the contractor of choice, you will soon find yourself in the enviable position of turning down work that does not fit the parameters of what you find acceptable.

After all, it’s drywall. For some of us … it’s our life. For others, it’s a way to put gas in our buddy's pickup.