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5 Tips to Prioritize Any Job

Too often, contractors accept jobs without factoring in other time commitments, resulting in project delays and frustrated clients. Stand out from your competition by avoiding this pitfall — plan ahead, stagger contracts and budget for extra staff and management for more complex projects.

Full-service remodeler Mike Blank, owner of Lancaster, Pa.-based MBC Building & Remodeling LLC, handles many jobs in-house, but he does hire contractors for some larger projects. Last winter he was about to start an addition to a house when a snowstorm buried any chances of getting any work done that week — the kind of occurrence that could derail a small business with too many projects in the pipeline.

A simple management system helped Blank stay on track. “I try to make sure I don’t start too many jobs at one time,” he says. That means handling just six or seven contracts at once and mapping out every stage of construction in advance, from digging footers to holding inspections. A 60-hour week leaves him enough time to take on the occasional emergency without jeopardizing quality.

Some jobs take precedence because of a settlement or move-in date. Others make sound business investments. Here are five key management techniques to keep your priorities in the right order:

1. Pad Time Frames

Many companies pad their time frames to compensate for weather delays and other unexpected glitches. Julie Eaton, president of Eaton Realty Advisors Inc. in Thousand Oaks, Calif., manages numerous commercial construction projects and handles leases for roughly 70 tenants. Her rule of thumb? “I triple whatever [estimate] a sub tells me for day jobs and double the time for long-term build-outs,” she says.

This way her subcontractors are scheduled so that if one is running behind, the progress of other jobs behind him are not disrupted. With the extra time provided, she keeps her build-out projects within their projected time budgets, while leaving time for her to subcontract out urgent tenant requests.

2. Match Project Load to Manpower

If you employ only one or two people, spread projects out over a period of several months, so that one is in negotiations while the paint is drying on another.

But as your business grows, you should rely on more than your memory to keep track of the smaller details, like tracking warranties and subcontractor insurance. Find out which organizational techniques work best for you. Small changes can make a big difference, such as color-coding files for each building or using automatic reminders for upcoming tasks.

Also, know when to staff up. A good manager could give you the availability to take on a job you might otherwise decline.

3. Stock Your Database

To prepare for the unknown, continually update your cell phone’s contact list with a diverse surplus of reliable contractors. “I’m on call 24/7, so if someone’s toilet [breaks] on Sunday, I can call the right person to fix it,” Eaton says.

And don’t let business cards pile up. Create a file for each contractor you’d consider using in the future so you don’t have to go digging through drawers when the need arises.

4. Map Out a Timeline in Advance

It can be difficult to turn down work, particularly if it could snare a long-term client. Eaton recently began using a new software system that churns out contracts, invoices and bids. “On each job it probably saves me six to eight hours of paperwork, and that allows me to take on an extra project,” she says.

When the number of projects starts to climb, project management software targeted at general contractors, subcontractors and specialty trades can help you tackle accounting and estimating duties. The right software can streamline the process by tracking change orders, billing clients and managing subcontractor liability so you don’t have to.

5. Budget in Communication

If you’re cutting down visits to job sites or leaving calls unreturned, that might be a sign you’re in over your head. The more you communicate your expectations to everyone involved in a project, the more realistic you’ll be with the next offer.

“I give people a heads-up,” Blank says. “Plumbers, electricians, flooring guys, dry wall finisher — they commit to projects at least a month in advance.”

Not only will communication routines keep jobs on track, but they’ll also save time by eliminating unnecessary follow-up calls. Eaton suggests responding to emails twice a day: in the morning and again toward the end of the day. She also lets vendors know her bill payment schedule, saving both of them time.

When weighing your options, be sure the opportunity to make money in the short term is a good business decision in the long run. 

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