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By Way of Explanation

August 7, 2021 (1,759 words)

The tiny enterprise I started in 1974 out of my one-bedroom apartment has slowly morphed over the years into a healthy little contracting company that does business in Philadelphia and the metro NYC area. We do interior finish work in office buildings and other public spaces, and now specialize in acoustic wall and ceiling treatments. An even more generic term for what we do would be ‘fabric-wrapped panels.’

Here’s how it works: An architect or an acoustician will specify certain products or materials designed to control sound reverberation or sound transfer in areas like a conference room or a concert hall. Companies like mine then assemble a quote for the cost of those materials, along with a cost for the labor required to install them.

The quote, or proposal, does not go directly to the architect or the acoustician, but rather to a construction management firm that is hired to oversee the various trades (plumbers, electricians, HVAC people, millwork, flooring, etc.) that are needed to pull together any given construction/renovation project.

This means we operate almost exclusively as part of a team with other trades, one of many ‘sub-contractors’ who function under the direction of the construction manager. As such my company does not have any name recognition to speak of, out on the street. We may get involved with some of the sexiest, highest profile spaces around – for tech giants and other corporate behemoths, Wall Street wheelers and dealers, leading universities, blue-blood performance venues, and the like – but chances are you’ve never heard of us. And you probably never will. This makes us just another humble nuts-and-bolts blue collar contracting company, earning a living by furnishing and installing certain lines of specialty construction materials.

Assembling these proposals for labor and materials is the job of an ‘estimator,’ which in the construction industry is the equivalent of what you would think of as a sales person. An estimator works from the project architect’s plans and specifications, which taken together are referred to as the ‘bidding documents.’ Though these documents are now digital and easy to download, they can be less than clear, and sometimes even downright contradictory. This makes an estimator’s job very difficult: trying to decipher what the architect is looking for, and then trying to convince the construction management firm you have the proper scope covered in your proposal.

There are always multiple proposals/bids from competing companies for each line item of work (plumbers, electricians, etc.) on any given project. The construction manager sifts through these bids and decides which ‘sub’ to hire in every category. No matter what trade you’re in, developing relationships with all the active construction management firms out there is key to an estimator’s success.

Once a contract is awarded it then becomes a matter of procuring the materials that have been ‘custom specified’ for each project. We don’t deal in generic stuff that can be obtained from the local lumber yard, or the local Home Depot. We purchase from a variety of manufacturers and distributors, some of whom are located overseas. These materials have to be warehoused by us until they are needed on site. The concept of on-time delivery doesn’t really work in our business. To avoid unexpected delays and ensure completion deadlines are met, we want to have what is specified at least a month in advance of when it is scheduled to be installed.

The bidding activity and the purchasing function lead up to the final component of this entire process: the installation. This final and most important task is completed by our own steady crew of union carpenters. Our estimators have to deal with a lack of clarity and constant revisions to the bidding documents. Our purchasing person has to contend with material pricing and shipping dates that are often a moving target. The biggest challenge our installers face these days is trying to do their work in a professional and workmanlike manner, in what are often adverse conditions.

Construction schedules have always been aggressive, since the tenant/owner is eager to occupy the new space and start generating revenue. But these schedules are set at the very beginning of the process, and in recent years it seems any contingency that once existed to accommodate unforeseen circumstances or unexpected delays has been eliminated. Since we are what is known as a ‘finish trade,’ we are increasingly asked to work around and on top of other trades that should have been done-and-gone long before we ever stepped foot on site.

The proper sequencing of events, which is the primary role of the construction manager, is now often an unobtainable pipe dream. There is simply not enough time allotted to these projects. Smart, highly compensated people with spreadsheets are deciding when and how things will get done. Unfortunately, these decisions are being made by those with little-to-no-knowledge of how things actually come together on any sort of major commercial construction site.

About six years ago I stopped having anything to do with our Philadelphia ‘division,’ and I stopped having anything to do with sales (praise Allah). Since June 2015 I have functioned strictly as an operations manager for our metro NYC division, making sure men and materials get where they need to go. Being able to hand off sales to a few younger guys in the office has been good for my soul. Being able to immerse myself in a much larger market has been good for my perspective. And concentrating my efforts solely on the needs of our NYC field staff has given me a new lease on life.

(Truth be told, cooperation not competition has always been my mantra, and this has made me something of an outlier in the world of commerce.)

I now consider myself semi-retired, since the stress of generating sales has been assumed by younger team members. So has responsibility for maintaining the company’s long-term viability, to a large extent. I may have been a decent little sales person in my day, but it turns out I am really an ‘organizer’ and ‘facilitator’ by nature. I still go to the office every day, but my role has changed. What I do now definitely needs to be done. And it’s currently not being handled by anyone else in the company. But it’s not a full-time job. This means I am (finally) able to check out and unplug on a regular basis.

To the casual observer it may look like I am working as hard now as I ever have, if not harder. Because I currently get up in the wee hours and head into the office to finalize details of that morning’s delivery of materials and equipment to our various office building job sites in NYC and North Jersey.

(Someone else in the office handles the morning’s delivery details into our Philadelphia territory. That person wisely gets things squared away by the end of the previous work day.)

But this weird, middle-of-the-night start to my day is not as bizarre as it sounds. For one thing, what man my age sleeps through the night? Coming in when I do is really not that big a deal, since I’m already awake. Plus, after our two ‘North territory’ drivers are safely on their way, usually around 4:00 am or so, I head home and climb back into bed for a few more hours of very restful (and usually dream-filled) sleep. I return to the office about 8:00 am, to start the ‘normal person’ part of my day.

But that’s only about half the time. Other mornings find me heading north at 4:00 am in the passenger seat of one of the delivery vans. It’s always good when I can stop by the NYC/ North Jersey jobs we are currently installing, to make sure things are coming together as intended. As well as do some advance scouting of the projects we are scheduled to start soon, to confirm readiness. On these days I get to snooze a bit on the ride in, and on the ride back.

So all-in-all I am really not the least bit sleep-deprived, though I admit the manner in which I piece together the recommended six or seven hours each ‘night’ is a bit unconventional.

This new, very reduced role in the business has generated a degree of flexibility in my schedule I have never experienced before. A typical work day now consists of being able to cut for a few hours right in mid-shift, to do whatever strikes my fancy: run errands, swim laps at the Y, or have lunch with a friend.

By mid-afternoon I usually have to check back in, since that’s when I start receiving updates from our NYC installers about what is needed for the next day. By late afternoon the delivery vans could technically be loaded. But by then, due to my early pre-dawn start, I no longer have the interest or the energy to even direct someone else to do the loading. At that point I either leave the office for the day, or maybe stick around for a while but switch out of ‘work’ mode to pursue other interests.

That pretty much sums up how things have changed for me. I now have free time to do something other than earn a living. I have always had a solitary streak, have always liked to read and think deep thoughts. My new-found leisure has made it possible to turn these life-long inclinations into a little side hustle – writing. And don’t you know, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.

Writing helps me collect my thoughts and figure things out. It makes me more lucid, more coherent when interacting with others. Finding the right word or turning an apt phrase never gets old. It’s my way of singing and dancing to my heart’s content. Here I am in my late sixties, and suddenly writing is pretty much all I think about. Whatever I am doing during the course of a day, or wherever I may go, it’s always with an eye out for the next sliver of inspiration.

One final note on being semi-retired from my ‘real’ job while simultaneously stoking a late-in-life amateur writing career: Getting up in the wee hours for work is proving to be an integral part of my writing process. It helps me break through the space-time continuum, as it were, and tap into my creative side. I always seem to wake with words on the tip of my tongue, which I can’t wait to write down.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
August 7, 2021

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