The Hazards of Subcontracting: A Cost-Cutting Plan Goes Up in Smoke

January 17th, 2006 by

In today’s ferociously competitive marketplace, it’s all too easy to drive bids to a rock bottom level. We’ve blogged Walmart’s”big squeeze” strategy that forces cost-cutting deep into the subcontractor level. But everyone – not just Walmart – loves a bargain. Sometimes the penny wise strategy to cut costs leads to the pound foolish result of a cherished building in ruins. Today we read a fascinating article by Antonio Olivo and Ron Grossman in the Chicago Tribune of a simple repair that ended up destroying an historic landmark.
The Pilgrim Baptist Church on the southside of Chicago was an architectural masterpiece designed by Louis H. Sullivan. It’s known as the birthplace of gospel music. When new gutters were needed, the congregation first received a bid of $365,000. Having already spent a half million on renovations, they were able to find a much lower bid from Conrad Roofing and Construction – a mere $125,000. The temptation of a bid 60 per cent lower than the initial offer proved irresistable, even after Conrad revealed that a subcontractor would do the work. In retrospect, the congregation might well see that temptation as the work of the devil.
Up in Smoke
The installation of the gleaming copper gutters was nearly completed when two roofers discovered that they had started a small fire. After their ineffective effort to put the fire out failed, they gathered their tools and went home! The workers paused only long enough to alert their boss by cell phone. On the way out, as a Pilgrim deacon frantically sought to learn the source of a burning smell in the building, one of the roofers, his face singed, replied, “No speak English” and drove off.
The workers later told police that they went home because they were scared. (I wonder if their fear related to the damage they had caused or, possibly, their immigration status…) They also told police that they had been using a propane torch, which led directly to the fire. Torches in the hands of roofers have been known to produce hot slag and sparks, which can ignite a building.
Faith vs. Due Diligence
This sad situation raises many questions that should resonate not just with large church congregations, but with homeowners renovating a kitchen or small, expanding businesses needing to hire subcontractors. How do you find quality people? How can you be sure that the person bidding on the job has the competence, experience and know- how to complete the work to your standards?
The answer lies in the dogged due diligence that we’ve all been taught, but which the prospect of saving a few dollars all-too-often trumps. We need to ask the right questions, not just of the general contractor, but of any proposed subcontractors:
– What experience do you have in doing this type of work?
– Have you ever been sued? (Conrad Construction was involved in a lawsuit where one of their subs had burned down a building, using torches)
– Do you have up-to-date certificates of insurance with adequate coverage? (Show me!)
– What kind of training do you provide your workers?
– How are you able to complete the work for the stated amount? (If the bid is artificially low, the work and the workers inevitably suffer.)
– How much do you pay your workers?
– What standards, controls and accountability are built into your subcontracting procedures?
A Pilgrim Church trustee was interviewed inside a drab church center across the street from a blackened pile of rubble that used to be an historic sanctuary. “All I knew was he was going to get the job done for X amount of money.” He regretted being too naive and not having investigated whether the subcontractor was qualified and competent. This is one area where an act of faith just doesn’t suffice. Faith has its place, but it’s no substitute for due diligence.