Regardless of the size of the job to be undertaken, choosing a contractor to carry out the work needs careful consideration. A contractor is only as good as his last contract and, in a relatively small industry like ours, news of bad workmanship will spread like wild-fire.
So, how do you go about choosing the right contractor, especially in these recessionary times when prices may be 'cut to the bone' to secure the contract?
There is, perhaps, nothing more informative than seeing a contractor in action on other sites, monitoring the results and talking to the groundsman or greenkeeper who employed them.
Personal recommendation by a colleague goes a long way to settling the nerves of those having to decide how best to spend the club's budget. But, even then, you will need to know that the standard of the work carried out meets 'your' expectations as your colleague may not have the same level of requirements.
Project manager and agronomist, Gordon Jaaback, says that "making the final choice, especially when the budget is tight, can be a daunting exercise. Judging on price alone can bring disappointment in performance, whilst making proper allowance for all the pertinent factors invariably increases the contract price."
Gambles taken by contractors to cut corners to secure the contract will, Gordon reckons, eventually lead to inferior results. "Such opportunists simply do not have the resources to carry out the work specified, or cope with the unforeseen circumstances that are bound to arise at some time."
David Goodjohn of Green Infrastructure Ltd. agrees. "It is important to get a very precise specification of the works you're planning. This can be done in a number of different ways; the 'traditional' method has been to employ a consultant or project manager, and for various testing to take place on site in order to draw up a site specific Bill of Quantities for what you intend to do."
"Then, the consultant/project manager checks, at various stages throughout the work, to ensure that standards have been met and you are getting what you are paying for. The main drawback is that consultants do not come cheap, but they do give you expert backing and the confidence that you are getting the right person/company to take on the work."
"On other contracts that I've worked on a member of staff has carried out this complex role. But, it requires an understanding of the contract from top to bottom, so it is no easy task, although I have known it to have been done successfully in some instances."
"With reputable contractors" says David "you can expect a complex specification to be drawn up for you which is site specific and, through testimonials, you can help assuage any fears you may have about their suitability. There really are some good ones out there."
"The club must have a very clear idea on what they want" says contractor Gordon Gill. "In my opinion, the first thing they should do is always employ an independent specialist to draw up the specification and provide a Bill of Quantities specific to the job."
"Secondly, they should ask around for recommendations of reputable contractors. The independent specialist should be able to recommend a couple at least. I will not consider pricing for a job unless the first two are in place."
"I am amazed at how often I am asked to price without a specification. I always lead the club to an independent advisor and work from there."
"Clubs who think they can put someone up to project manage, to save a bob or two, are misguided in my opinion. Very often a contractor will run rings round these people, eventually costing the club more."
"Apart from everything else, I want to be known as one of the best," says Gordon. "I want to be seen as reliable and honest, and not just a quick buck earner."
Barry Pace of Speedcut Contractors says that the most important factor is to know what you want. "Draw up a brief of your requirements, what you want to achieve and to what standard. But, be realistic. If you don't know, then you should be employing someone like the STRI, or an equally experienced consultant agronomy practice, to advise you. This forms the basis of your requirements, on which a contractor should provide the best priced solution."
"Ask for an itemised quote, let them show you exactly what they have allowed for - in detail - this must be provided."
"Decide at what point you want to take over. For example, as soon as the site is seeded or after full germination. Be clear as to when responsibility is to pass over to you and your staff, as this also has an influence on cost."
David Warner, Grounds and Gardens Manager at Millfield School agrees. "Make sure you know exactly what it is that you want and contact independent advisers to help with your specification, design and Bill of Quantities. You need this level of information for your contractors to be able to quote accurately, and that they are all pricing for the same requirements that the customer is requesting."
"Have all your tenders itemised so that you can see the cost and types of materials being suggested for each section of the contract."
"Select three or four contractors to tender. Once you receive the tenders take time to read through them with your adviser. Look at the pros and cons of each tender and invite the contractors to a meeting to discuss the project to see which company suits your needs."
But, Malcolm Gardner, Grounds Manager at BA Clubs, offers a word of caution. "At what level would a project manager need to be considered, i.e. would it be better to consider a project manager on projects over £50k or £250K? What are the advantages of a project manager, i.e. what would they bring to the project?"
"Personally, I would say that most experienced project managers do have a portfolio of their own preferred contractors that they can trust to deliver a quality product at a fair price. This will take out a lot of the checking process though, of course, you will also need to check out the credentials of your chosen project manager to ensure that he will deliver!"
Similarly, at what level should a specification be drawn up? I think this needs to be taken at face value. For a large construction jobs it would be wise to get a list of the materials that you will expect to be delivered and used on the project, along with a description off the construction method, but I wouldn't bother with a small scale project, such as laying a couple of steps or erecting a line of fencing," suggests Malcolm.
"Contracting can be a tight, cut and thrust operation" says Gordon Jaaback, "with contractors battling to produce desired results, to keep within cash flow and make a profit. The soundness of the business operation, staff complement, range and condition of equipment and integrity of management all determine the capability of a contractor."
"The financial stability of a contractor is one check where clients are often negligent. In complex projects, where the weather plays a major role, conditions on site can severely disrupt progress, impair the quality of work and increase the time needed to complete the agreed tasks. This disruption can become a considerable financial drain on a contractor's resources, and one with minimum reserves, that has to dig deep, may easily succumb."
"A check of the last three annual accounts, and the conduct of financial management, reveal a lot about a company and whether they are able to cope with unforeseen setbacks. Credit consultancies provide up-to-date financial reports on all companies," suggests Gordon.
"All contracts of any significant size are bound to give rise, at some point, to contentious matters where dispute follows. The handling of these sensitive issues generally outlines the backbone of the contractor, and it takes a soundly financed organisation to overcome differences in opinion to put the client's needs first and foremost. The conduct of the contractor at these times can put him in a class apart from his competitors."
Staff conduct generally mirrors the integrity of management, suggests Gordon. "The attitude on site, particularly the attention to detail, highlights the difference between good and poor contractors. In detailed contracts the itemised work plan, and the provisions made, determine the degree of success that will be achieved."
"Adequate staff, properly trained, fully briefed and following a well thought-out plan of action, give confidence to the most sceptical client. Generally, the client knows little of the detail of execution, and it is the integrity of the contractor's management and staff that determine the cost-effectiveness of the work undertaken."
Extra costs on site are inevitable. Detailed plans and contract documents are only a guide and cannot accommodate unforeseen circumstances that are bound to arise. There are, in general, two types of extra costs:
• those where there is scope for improvement at extra cost where there is added benefit to the client
• those inevitable costs that arise due to unforeseen situations, often due to soil and weather conditions
"Without an unbiased mediating consultant at times of extra claims," continues Gordon, "it all hinges on the contractor's approach and his attitude to the contract. There is the natural conflict of interest. The contractor wants just reward for any extra work, whilst the client, uninformed as he often is, is looking to save costs and achieve the most cost-effective result. The conduct of contracting staff at this time is the key. Disputes can easily sour a contract and early settlement of differences of opinion is essential. Left to the end of the contract, when memories have faded, there can be unnecessary haggling and ill feeling."
First impressions can be profound. The equipment transported to site in preparation of the works ahead gives an immediate insight of what may be expected. The selection, condition and operation of specialised equipment, in most cases, determine the quality of work that can be achieved. The maintenance of contract equipment, and the ability to quickly attend to repairs and breakdowns, influences the rate of progress through a contract. However willing and able the staff are, poorly maintained equipment leads to eventual downtime and ill feeling - especially when time is of essence. Making thorough investigation into the company's equipment fleet and back-up resources is time well spent.
"But," says Gordon Gill, "how many contractors have staff that are passionate about sport, about what they are constructing and why? Most have someone in the office who has a good idea, but many employ machine operators, not construction specialists."
Gordon Jaaback points out that there are many ways to achieve the desired result. "In sports pitch and golf course construction there are not the same expected procedures as laid down in structural engineering. Ineffectual equipment does not reveal the shortcomings at the time of operation - the results come later. Short cuts taken by the contractor are seldom evident to the uninformed client and are generally not visible on the surface. What is out of sight is out of mind."
"In the end, it all comes back to the effort the client makes in choosing the contractor. He can only have that desired trust if he has taken the time to check out the standing and reputation of the contractors he is considering."
Barry Pace agrees. "Check us out - it is so simple. All you have to do is ask! Good contractors will give you any number of references. Personally, I prefer my last job."
"Okay, not everyone has perfect jobs every time. We, collectively, as contractors don't always have an easy ride. Try and understand all the factors - worst rainfall for twenty years, outdated specification, poor germination, client decides to slash the budget half way through or, even worse, decides not to pay half way through. Ultimately it is your budget that should dictate the quality. It should not be down to who has the cheapest price. If you are comfortable that the cheapest person can and does regularly provide a quality job for people then go for it. If not, choose the next one."
"Whether you're buying a kettle for the shed, a gallon of oil for the mowers or chemicals for the ground, you will use who you feel you can trust for service and value for money, and that only comes from experience, recommendations or referrals."
"But, no matter who you choose, at the end of the day the job will generally come down to four things - budget, specification, weather and 'The Laws of Buggerance' that affect virtually every job. The first two are fixed, its how the contractor deals with the last two that is important."
"Always keep control of the purse strings," says David Warner. "This can be done by staging payments against agreed deadlines and quality throughout the process. But, always hold a retainer for after completion so you, as the customer, can have an independent assessment of quality and workmanship before signing the project off."
"I'm sure that some managers would benefit from a course on project management," says Malcolm Gardner. "After all, working on large scale projects can be very daunting and, even if they are not taking on the actual responsibilities of project management, it will help them to understand the processes that are needed and to identify when things look to be going wrong at any stage of the operation."
In summary, always ensure that you are comparing like-for-like quotes from a specification drawn up by an idependent consultant agronomist. If that is not possible, ensure that the person who will be designing and overseeing the project has the relevant experience and understands all aspects of the job.
Ensure that you fully investigate your chosen contractor's previous work and financial stability. Talk to your colleagues and don't always go for the cheapest quote.
By following the above you will benefit from a good working relationship that will stand you in good stead for many years.
The last word goes to Gordon Gill. "In my opinion, anybody who has a complaint about a contractor often only has themselves to blame, mostly for not following the above advice. There is a vast choice of good, reputable companies out there that will value your custom and do a damn fine job for you. It is how and who you choose that counts the most."
With thanks to:
Gordon Jaaback - firstname.lastname@example.org
Barry Pace - email@example.com
Gordon Gill - firstname.lastname@example.org
David Goodjohn - email@example.com
David Warner and Malcolm Gardner
Images © Mike Beardall and Pitchcare