Moving Into Commercial Work

Cabinetmakers discuss the ins and outs of pursuing, landing, and executing commercial work. November 4, 2007

I was looking at the Construction Wire information. It looks like a place to get bid leads. Have any of you found these services worth the money? For $35 bucks a month I thought it might be worth a try. My target job is someplace between 5 and about 25 thousand bucks. Is this a place to look? If not, any suggestions on where to find information on bids for jobs this size?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor R:
I'm on Vancouver Island, Canada and I subscribe to a publication called Yellow Sheet Review. They supply all types of data related to the construction industry. This is the only marketing I do. I pick and choose from permit applicants and send out form letters. I get more than enough work using this method. I feel it is by far the most bang for the buck, of all the ideas I have tried. My main source of business is from referrals resulting in one way or another from leads generated from my mail-outs.

From contributor D:
Is there anything out there that lists jobs for the woodworker? I've checked out those two that were listed, but they pertain to the building trade.

From contributor M:
If you are in the commercial end of the market, then there is some value to be achieved by subscribing to these types of reports. However, the problem with these reports is that the job is already spec'd out and you have to bid competitively to perhaps a company that set the spec. I normally recommend to my clients that they consider an account rep type person to make architectural and construction calls so that they get their products specified up front. This will make you the target of the competitors and land you more work.

From contributor L:
Contributor T has a very good point. We write the specs for some of the work we do. It then gets handed down through the chain until it ends up in the bid documents. We like to think of it as helping the designers. Some competitors have thought of it in a different way! It's basically the same game some organizations play requiring their particular certification.

From contributor G:
We recently lost a large job due to coming into the process after the architect completed the plans for 50 homes. Our product would be the exact detail the architect drew. Plans bid on did not specify our product, just a design element. Now they can't use our product on the job because the contractor's bid has it as a "package" and will not break out a single element for substitution. Now we are focusing on the architect\designer for future work.

That said, we get reports and bid requests from BlueBook. No cost involved, yet. No job we felt interested in looking into further, though. You may never know for sure.

From contributor O:
If you don't have a relationship built with clients, such as commercial builders that have you on their e-mail/fax machine list to request bids from you, this might be a great place to start. Even if the job is just so big to the point of curbside delivery for your shop, bid it.
There is a lot of work out there even for what contributor D has asked for.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the responses. I'm tired of beating the bushes for residential entertainment centers and bathroom cabinets. I'd like to move into commercial (or residential) work with jobs in the 10-50K range and take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months. The largest job we did to date was 52K total over a 4 month period.

I want to get in the position that, once my current job is done, I have a ready pool I can tap for the next job. I have a 3D CNC, if that makes any difference marketwise. We do a good, professional job, deliver on time and stand behind what we do. We're a member of AWI (after the first year, not sure that's a good investment). It's just me and one employee. Any suggestions on how I can accomplish this? What worked for you?

From contributor Y:
1. Commercial is another animal entirely. While it can be lucrative, you have to be on your toes. It's easy to get what you want out of a homeowner compared to some GC's. After all, they've got their new boats to pay for. Ask yourself if you can really wait 45-60 days after you deliver something to see the money (and that's with a 30 day invoice). If you can, then you're okay. Just make sure you can before you put your company at unnecessary risk. Too many small shops have gone under because they can't float the cash. Especially if you have a problem onsite (and every problem onsite can somehow become your problem if you let it).

2. If you're looking into commercial, then staying in AWI helps you stand out as a professional among the other guys. The AWI Quality Standards come into play big time in commercial work; learn it and abide by it. It's the only thing a small shop's got to help in a quality/design dispute.

From contributor O:
The KISS method of surviving the commercial world... Remember at time of bid they are looking for the lowest number on apples to apples. Generally the statements by other posts are correct on the specs, but when it comes to bid, loyalty does not always win out; trust me, I've learned the hard way. My friend even lost two - three weeks of time spec'ing the job and lost it! After the job has been awarded, and a p.o. is in your hand, changes start to arrive (this has been my experience).

1) Keep a lot of work going. Commercial and residential. We run three to eight jobs a week easily. Looking at time sheets daily, we look at how many different names appear on a time sheet. We make adjustments from this. Sounds crazy? We deliver a project or two daily. The cash moves, believe me. Of course, everyone has to work together pitching in on crunch time mode, but keeping this production mode has really allowed us to push the jobs.

2) As soon as you are awarded the job, put in a draw for materials for this job that are being stored in your shop, insured and locked up.

3) Get the schedule, meet the super, find out if there is storage on site.

4) Push the cases on site ASAP. Drive from the site to the contractor's office and put in for second draw.

5) Send installers, note the plural, and get the job to the point of completion. Put in for remainder.

The most important thing is the positive, can-do attitude in the commercial world. They have problems running punchlists, like everyone, and can use as much help as possible. Basic coat closets and shelves are forgotten all the time. When they ask you if you can do it, say yes, and get it in there without them asking again. Get an add number and bill 'em for it.

We get our money on a regular basis from the commercial clients because we bring problem solving skills with us. The attitude gets us work like crazy.

I ran radius window tops out of 1/2" MDO on the router and they put them on the building, sheathed right over them. Cash cow. The project manager stated that it saved them a ton of cash not having to pay a carpenter to stand there and cut a crappy 5' radius in ply with a jig saw. The cost was 400 in plywood and 2 hours shop and machine time. Billed nine times that. Had money in 22 days, no retainage.

I agree with you on the vanities and entertainment centers. I'm sick of them too, but they are work, and with your router, the commercial work should ease right in there. What's your construction method? What are your bander capabilities, and do you have a source for pre-laid up laminate sheet stock?

From contributor O:
I totally agree with the AWI standards statement, but you have to bid and get your foot in the door. A local shop that's been around here 35 + years I don't even think has a clue what AWI is, nor abides by something as simple as balanced panels. We do, and a friend of mine does, but the shop with the years is getting a lot of work.

From contributor T:
After being in the business for 21 years plus, the same basic rules apply.

1. Low price will most likely get the job. I have seen way too many commercial jobs where the GC lost a multi-million job by thousands. Most GC's are stuck using the lowest bid that is floating around at bid time. If they don't, they can lose the job. No matter what loyalty you think you have with a GC, that low number on bid day will put you out of the running if your number isn't right. The most the loyalty issue will buy you is a possible second look after bid day and even then, you will most likely be forced to drop down to that low number they used to get the job. I haven't seen a GC yet that will voluntarily give up potential profits just because they like you. Just doesn't happen.

2. Trying to go in the back door with the architect, by getting specified, guarantees nothing. If the GC can convince the architect and owner that he may be able to save some project monies by getting competitive bids on your portion of the work, you bet there will be other bidders. Most architects will just put "...or equal" in the specs. If you can get directly to the owner and convince him to buy directly from you and you will just supply the GC with your materials, you may have a chance. This does not always go over good with the GC, as they lose the markup on the goods and services you are supplying to the owner.

3. Do everything you have to get paid on time. If this means stopping work on the job, so be it. Remember, most GC's are masters at using other people's money. They will forestall paying you for as long as they can if they think they can get away with it. I have learned the hard way over the years that playing hard ball is the only way you are going to be assured of getting paid on time. Remember, you are not in the banking business and most banks charge interest when they don't get paid on time.

4. As far as residential work goes, always get at least 50% down before touching anything. I have seen too many tales of shops not taking down payments and then putting themselves in the position to be beat down in price after job completion. Remember, once that item is installed in the customer's house, the law says you can't remove it. The customer now has the upper hand in negotiating a price. You must remain in control of the price.

I hope this helps somewhat and if at all possible, do everything you can to get your name and product capability out there into the marketplace. If they don't know of you or can't find you, you won't get any work. By all means, don't sit and wait for the phone to ring.