Gerry Findlay was born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, where he earned a degree in construction management and surveying from the City of Glasgow College of Building and Printing. After graduation, he moved to the United States and began work as a project engineer at Billingham Construction in Berkeley, California. Today, he is an estimator at Monterey Mechanical, a contractor specializing in complex water/wastewater, industrial facilities, metals fabrication and installation, and HVAC projects, where he has worked for 12 years. It’s there that he dedicates his attention and close eye for detail to structuring estimates for the company’s incoming projects. Construction Business Owner spoke with Findlay about his work, how the role of estimator has changed with technology, and how software impacts the estimating process.
CBO: What does your normal day look like?
GF: Estimating is always job-specific work. After the management group selects which jobs they would like to go after — projects they think we have the best chance of being awarded or are most suited to our specialty — we’ll start estimating. The size of the job determines whether we split estimating responsibilities among the four estimators on staff, or if we do the work individually. For example, one estimator might take care of all the piping and process equipment; another might take all the civil or structural work; and an administrator might solicit bids from suppliers and subcontractors. We’ll continue working at that until we have to merge all the accumulated information. After the merge, we begin a review process, in which we’ll present and critique our work, and have management review it to assess the risk involved. We’ll add an appropriate markup suitable to the risks, and then we’ll bid the project. Depending on the size of the job, it might take a couple of days to estimate, or a couple of months. Jobs in the $1 million range could take a week or so to estimate and finalize. Right now, I’m working on two or three bids, plus some change order work. We are continually starting or closing one or two large project bids. One job we’re working on now is about $80 million, so it’s had all of our estimators working on it, on and off, for about 6 weeks.
CBO: Tell us about the tools you use for estimating.
GF: Our primary estimating software is Sage Timberline — we’ve been using it forever and we work mainly individually in that system until we merge our estimates. It does have limitations: it only allows one person to work in an estimate at a time, which is somewhat of a disadvantage close to bid day. Additionally, we’ve purchased a new program called BidMatrix that allows multiple people to work in an estimate at the same time, which is helpful, especially on bid day, when you’re inundated with information and revised pricing from vendors and subcontractors — it really helps cut down on chaos whenever we’re bidding a project. We plan to utilize it for our bid closing program. We use Microsoft Outlook for email, and it’s mostly a standalone program — our vendors will supply pricing to scope letters and proposals, and then we’ll review them and add them to our estimates. Next, we use Procore extensively in the project management side, and Procore’s estimating software for bid solicitation and administrative functions. Plus, our library for subcontractors and vendors, where we’ll invite/solicit bids and receive proposals through Procore. Afterward, we’ll implement that in Sage Timberline, although there’s no link between the two. We use Microsoft Excel for spreadsheets, mostly for comparative analysis of bids before we enter information into our main estimates. We’re sitting in front of a computer all day long, really. The bulk of the work is done independently until we compile that information into one complete package, which is done as a group.
CBO: How is this different from previous methods?
GF: For a complete estimate today, there are thousands and thousands of line items grouped together. Back then, it was the same, but we actually had an office with administrators who basically did only the arithmetic and math. We had a huge spreadsheet of about 30 or 40 pieces of paper with multiple calculations and an entire office set up specifically to check calculations with a calculator. Things are much more efficient today. Technology has drastically changed the estimating process — even the software tools available for quantity take-off, bid comparison, analysis and closing have changed dramatically over the years. As one example: we use Procore for our bid management and it’s helped us reduce turnaround time with a single platform for creating bid packages, finding the strongest possible bids and converting bids to subcontracts. Processes that used to take days can now be completed in a matter of hours.
CBO: How has materials pricing affected the process?
GF: We keep track of materials prices and modify our database as necessary. Even though we hope to always have a current database that provides current labor and material prices, we will go out to solicit materials to quote to spec before we bid a project. The database gets it in the ballpark, and, hopefully, the solicitation from our vendors will bring in firm prices that won’t be a huge adjustment. We’re completely shocked right now, too, with some of the materials pricing. It used to be, a vendor would say, “Here’s your price, it’s good for 60 days.” Now, it’s 2 days, 3 days. A lot of materials — lumber, pipe, pipe materials, steel, stainless steel particularly and copper, any big metal — they’re reluctant to put a firm price on.
CBO: What are some of the benefits of using software?
GF: Speed, for one. It’s a lot faster to type things on a computer than to write and add it by hand, and, in the way that a lot of the estimating programs are set up now, there are prompts to remind you about certain things, which helps you get the whole picture and minimizes missing items. Another advantage to a lot of the take-off techniques, especially with Sage Timberline — the way they have the take-off procedure set up, it’s a list of a bunch of items that you can analyze, and they’ll basically build the rest of it for you. It inputs certain dimensions, the criteria and materials you want to use and provides an estimate that you can check and modify as needed.
CBO: What are some of the challenges?
GF: Sometimes, the training can be overwhelming — there’s usually a difficult startup period, trying to find out how to use the software and apply the database. But once you get familiar with it, it works quite well. Like a lot of people, one of our pet peeves about software is the updates. You get your training, you’re familiar with your programming, you’re working well and then all of a sudden, you get a software update that messes everything up — and nobody knows what to do for a while, until it becomes second nature again.
CBO: What is the hardest part of your job?
GF: It’s not the technology. The hardest part is figuring out what the owner wants. Really. Typically, we’ll get a set of contract documents, plans, specifications, etc., and a lot of the information seems to contradict itself. What do you exactly want? Tell us and we’ll provide an estimate. We can do that work, but to drag the information out of a client to figure out what they really want is difficult; to interpret what the contract documents are trying to say. Once we can figure that out, we get to do what we do best and work up our estimate.
CBO: What is the most rewarding part?
GF: For me, the most rewarding part is always seeing the finished project. Knowing something was built from the ground up and I was a part of it is extremely fulfilling. Also, the adrenaline rush at bid day can be exciting — especially if it’s successful.
CBO: What is your advice for estimators?
GF: Being an estimator is a rewarding career. Certainly, there are new challenges with every job, but it’s a great job overall that offers a lot of financial stability. Estimating is detail-oriented work. An estimator should try their best to understand potential successes and pitfalls of the project, and gauge their financial implications. A bad estimate is difficult to overcome. It can result in massive budgeting problems down the road and impact the entire building process.