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Managers Discuss Hiring, Working with Contractors
*Betsy Pooley, P.E., Director of Building Services, Aultman Hospital, Canton, Ohio
*Sean Arnold, Director of Maintenance, Hernando County School District, Brooksville, Fla.
*Bill Romatzick, Energy Department, Manager of Energy Controls & Plant Systems, Fairfield (Conn.) University
With a renewed focus on existing buildings, maintenance and engineering managers are turning to contractors to plan and execute equipment retrofits. Before managers bring contractors into commercial and institutional facilities, they need to perform due diligence to ensure a successful relationship.
As an in-house manager, what is your role in working with contractors?
ARNOLD: My role is to communicate with the potential contractors and review the scope of work. After reviewing the scope of work with the contractor and getting some costs back from the contractor, we would look at the financial impact to the district and what our rate of return will be to make sure that it's an economical project and something we can move forward with.
ROMATZICK: We have a select group of contractors that we use on campus. I was a mechanical contractor before I came to work for the university, and they were one of my customers. So I think our relationships with our contractors that we use are a little bit unique. They almost become family. We've worked with them for a long period of time.
POOLEY: I work with the engineering group. We work with them right from the very beginning with our consultants to do the specifying, to do the bidding, to do the pricing, to awarding that bid, and all the way through steps of construction and close-out. We're really involved for the entire process.
What are the most important qualifications you look for in hiring a contractor?
ROMATZICK: Availability, and a (contractor) company size large enough to handle a university atmosphere. We use different contractors for different applications within the university, depending on the size of the project. We have a halfway decent pool of contractors we can pull from.
POOLEY: I think first and foremost for me is the quality of product that we're going to get at the end. Price is also important. But probably the absolute most important for me is their ease to work with. Because we're a live facility that operates 24-7, every minute here is a critical operation for us.
ARNOLD: One of the things here in Florida we have to deal with is the Jessica Lunsford Act, which is a strict background check (to protect children from sex offenders) for all contractors and anyone who is going to work on our campuses. We also look for their certifications in the specific fields where we would be utilizing the contractor. Also, the contractors have to become district-approved, which means making sure they have all of their information into the district. We have to make sure that they also have $1 million liability insurance coverage.
What are the primary cost considerations related to working with contractors?
POOLEY: For us, it's really about making sure that the contractor has the ability to do everything we need them to do. If that means renting equipment, we try as hard as we can to put that back to the contractor and make sure everything that they're going to need for that job is taken care of in that bid. If it's not, we want to make sure we have the allowance to take care of it, if there is an unknown or something we're not quite sure about.
ARNOLD: It's not just always the cheapest (bidder). What we have to look at is making sure that it fits into our program and that the rate of return is not 40 years out. It has to be in a reasonable amount of time. And we have to make sure the products that we're using and the quality of work are up to the standards of what our programs are all about. We're a green school district, and we'd like to stay that way. We also have to look at the cost of the contractor versus the in-house cost. If we have to rent the equipment, that's an additional cost. If it's such a specialized job, we definitely have to look at that.
ROMATZICK: Cost definitely is a consideration. With the economic atmosphere we have now, pretty much anything that we do in excess of $2,000 is an open bid, and we have to get three prices. We still pull from the same group of contractors to keep everybody honest. Most of the contractors have their own equipment, other than scissor lifts or things like that many of us have to rent.
How do you check contractor credentials?
ARNOLD: We do some online background checking to make sure the contractors have a good reputation. Definitely, word of mouth plays a huge role. Our purchasing department will check their credentials. My department will check their credentials. We'll call references and make sure that they have a good working relationship with their past accounts.
POOLEY: Word of mouth is huge. We're all about references. We have a predetermined bidders list, where these are all contractors we have worked with in some capacity in the past that we know are going to do a good job for us. It's not always just the (references) they're handing out on paper.
ROMATZICK: If I'm looking at a new contractor, I go into the licensing site for the state of Connecticut and make sure that there are no actions against the contractor. Most everybody we use has a proven record. I'm also friends with the construction manager at Sacred Heart University (Fairfield, Conn.), and we bounce things off of each other occasionally as far as looking at another contractor they've used before.
How do you ensure the products and materials contractors use are of high quality and align with facility goals?
ROMATZICK: We do have a preferred list of manufacturers, and we try to stay with that just to keep our stock for parts down to where it's manageable. We don't just take anything on price. A lot of the items on campus are also proprietary. We have two major controls systems on campus, so we're not going to veer from them so that everything is compatible.
ARNOLD: We'll give them the products they can choose from. If they give us an alternative, we'll scrutinize the alternative to make sure that it is what they think it is and that it's going to align with our program. The alternative products have to be the quality we're expecting, and we make sure the performance is going to be a lasting performance and something that is going to fit into what we expect for life-cycle costs.
POOLEY: One of the things we do here is, we really work with the maintenance staff and talk with them about products that have been brought in on previous projects. We work with them and specify those products that align with our standards that we have here so we're not bringing in 25 different products and raising costs that way. One of the things we've implemented here is working with the vendors to trial the products before we go with a full-scale purchase.
How do you ensure the work contractors perform does not interfere with building operations?
POOLEY: The most important thing is developing that team of players. When we are getting ready to go into a project, we are always trying to develop a team with myself as a facility manager, our engineering team, my leads and my staff in the maintenance department, and that contractor so that everybody really understands what our operations are, what it means to them, where they can work and where they can't work, what those roles are ahead of time, even as far back as when we're bidding it. We have a shutdown policy that there are no shutdowns unless it's an emergency. All of them have to be scheduled 72 hours in advance.
ROMATZICK: A lot of scheduling. We have to go through our admissions department and our housing department to try and schedule things around breaks in classes. That's probably our biggest challenge for any major renovation.
ARNOLD: That's obviously huge with school districts. You definitely want to have it as least invasive as possible. We'll do scheduling on nights and weekends and on professional days when there are no students. We just came off of winter break, where we had five projects going on that would have really disrupted education. It's all about the scheduling.
How do you characterize the relationship between contractors and in-house staff?
ARNOLD: Whatever the contractor is doing for the district, eventually the in-house staff has to take it over and maintain it. So there has to be communication in the beginning, during the process and after the process. We do have some projects where we'll work together on things. Sometimes that shaves some money off of the project.
POOLEY: We really focus on that team. Every one of those contractors has to come in contact with my staff at one point or another to schedule the shutdown, ask where things are, etc. It's very important that we get accurate as-built drawings from that contractor when we move forward to take care of the building once they've left.
ROMATZICK: Treating your contractors properly usually is beneficial to you in the long run. We do have a large stock of equipment and parts and materials. We let our contractors draw off of those if they fall short, rather than sending people out to get something and taking time out. They understand also that they replenish the stock that they take.
What expectations do you have for contractors after finishing the project?
ROMATZICK: We're pretty much self-sufficient in-house. Most of our contractors realize that, so I don't call contractors back for minor warranty items. It's much easier for us to do something on the midnight shift than to try to schedule a contractor to come in during the day to do something.
ARNOLD: It depends on the project, but we do expect some follow-up, especially on the larger projects. If it's something that has a warranty, we hold their feet to the fire with the warranty. The worst thing you can do is forget about it. Then the warranty expires, you have an issue, and you have to pay more money to get it fixed.
POOLEY: We have contractors that are here, for the most part, non-stop. They are my go-to people after the project is done. I think the main thing is holding them accountable for those warranty items. When I came into this position, that was something that wasn't really being done. We found ourselves spending a lot of extra money getting things fixed when really that should have fallen under a warranty item.