Construction Leadership Insights

Return the Call: How to Be the General Contractor’s Go-To Subcontractor

I recently had a conversation with Tim Hogan, the President of Bayside Interiors, an $80m subcontractor in Northern California that specializes in: metal stud framing, dry wall, taping, strut work, clean rooms, CAB design, architectural specialties, access floors, acoustical ceilings, and painting. Well-regarded projects include: the San Francisco 49ers stadium, the first Apple store (“the Cube’) in Manhattan, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland in Southern California.

From School to Sales to CEO

Tim got his start in construction while pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, when he took a part-time job as an estimator for a dry wall firm. He made some connections, and after graduation got hired by Unistrut Corporation, in their construction side, straying from his educational path in a new direction.

Over time he grew to be the #1 sales guy in not only the company, but all of Tyco, who eventually owned Unistrut. Because of his success, the company kept fiddling with his compensation program, pushing him to frustration and thoughts of other opportunities. “I’d gotten to know Steven Rivera, president of Bayside Interiors, through golf,” Tim says. I told him, ‘Would you guys be interested in opening up a special side of the business or a new company?”

Within a few months they’d started up a side company called Bayside Metal Systems, providing the kinds of specialized construction like strut framing, architectural metals, and access flooring that Tim had been involved with at Unistrut. They asked Tim to lead the business.

Though he was nervous about certain responsibilities of his new role, Bayside assured him that they had the back of the house in place, so that he could concentrate on more familiar tasks like sales engineering, estimating, and building. “Listen,” they kept telling him. “You can do this. Trust us.”

Getting Past Growing Pains

Within a year, he joined Vistage, the coaching program for CEOs. “That’s been a tremendous learning support program for me,” he says, “In addition to the day-to-day trial-by-fire program that running a company has taught me.”

Some of that trial-by-fire involved bringing on employees, setting up responsibilities, and creating a structure for the company. He was fortunate to be able to bring along some horsepower in the form of former Unistrut co-workers. One by one, they left to come to work for him. Those relationships would necessarily evolve. At Unistrut he was a leadership figure, as top sales gun, estimator, and project manager, but now that leadership role was more firmly etched in the hierarchy. “Our friendship/relationship became more boss-employee relationship, but still with that long-term familiarity.”

Another example of a leadership duty he focused more on over time was accountability. Because of his background as the top sales gun, he assumed everyone brought a similar commitment and maturity level to their own work. “I tend to trust the people working for me will be doing their job. If they’re gonna work a 40-hour week, give me a 40-hour week.” In construction, people don’t sit at their desks for 8 hours a day. Tim saw over time that some people weren’t trustworthy at job sites. Some went missing during the day. “I’ve learned that I can’t be that free with people,” he says, “because if you give them an inch, they’re gonna take a mile. We’ve had many lessons where I trusted people and wasn’t keep on top of them, and not having them report to me in a timely enough fashion. So there’s been several employees that I’ve had to fire because of unfortunate choices they’ve made.”

“So, it’s required us to create tracking and reporting procedures. We had to keep tightening the strings.”

In general, though, his employees responded well. “Predominantly, once we explained to them that, ‘We gave you freedom and you abused it,’ there was not much fight back, especially when we showed them the evidence. We just came out of our ownership meeting this morning and it was topic again, like it is almost every week. I’ve got friends in Vistage groups with many other leaders. And we all talk about this.”

How to Be the Partner of Choice

Fortunately he’s had mentors at Vistage and elsewhere to help him navigate some of these challenges. “The founder of Bayside, Burke Nicholson, was a great mentor to me. Yeah, Burke Nicholson. And then my Vistage chair is Ben, who’d run Camelback and several other large companies. So, he and the whole Vistage program became a great peer group for people in the leadership world.”

Tim attributes much of Bayside’s success to specific mindsets they have cultivated over the years. As a union subcontractor, Bayside emphasizes promoting and sustaining partnerships with General Contractors. “There are companies that we won’t work for because they are a low-bid, grind-you-to-death company,” Tim says. “We don’t wine and dine. We don’t entertain. We perform. And that’s our mantra. Perform so that they wanna hire you. Kick butt on it, and be a top sub on the site to be able to get the next job. Our company’s slogan is, “We provide solutions,” and our whole goal is to be the first person the GC thinks of when they look at a new project and think, ‘Who the heck can build that?’

As a result, Bayside was pulled into the early days of building Apple stores, and they are now deeply involved in building the Star Wars experience at Disneyland. “We’re the guys that say, ‘Hey, we can do that. It’s never been done before, but we can do it. We’re creative. We’ve got ingenuity. We’ve got incredible craftspeople. And we don’t fail.’”

Part of establishing that reputation started with a simple approach to communication. “We return phone calls quickly. Meet a client and answer quickly. Need a proposal? Get it to him on time. I mean, I tell this to people all the time. You wanna be in the top 10 percentile in the industry? Return a guy’s phone call right away. I’m not kidding.”

Know Your Niche

A common current complaint from GCs and developers is that subs are so slammed with work, that they’re not emphasizing quality, and they end up limping across the finish line of the project. Bayside addresses that pitfall by establishing the boundaries of their specific lane, and not stretching past it. “We now know our niche job size and niche company size,” Tim says. “There’s no push here to grow past that, otherwise we’ll get to a point where we can’t control it, and we start failing at the tail end of projects. When we look at jobs, we ask, is it in our vein, can we be successful, can we build a relationship doing this job, or will it ruin the relationship doing this job?”

Taking on a project like Apple, or the Levi Stadium project, or Disneyland’s Star Wars experience, was challenging because they couldn’t be done with an existing template. It pushed Bayside to expand and grow in terms of their technological expertise. “Just the training of our people to be able to understand the technology that’s needed now with 3D,” Tim says, “and everything that’s needed at the coordination level. Our personnel has grown as we’ve taken on these large, technical projects.”

Tech That Works, Tech That Doesn’t

To that end, Tim’s company has found some technologies to be more beneficial than others. “All of our foremen are on iPads, with the drawings uploaded. They can do an RFI on the iPad, as opposed to calling the PM to write the RFIs. They can process time and material tags on the iPad and have the superintendent sign it on the iPad. They can mark up the shop drawings send them back to our CAD department for change.”

Some technologies, though, have been less helpful. “A tremendous money drainer is the BIM modeling program. It’s out of control. It’s a great idea. But in general, you are entrusting a bunch of CAD guys who don’t seem to have cost control as one of their skillsets. So, these guys will sit in 8-hour meetings, 4 days a week, just spinning through. And when all’s said and done, it goes out to the field, and there are still conflicts everywhere. Dimensions are wrong. Stuff’s wrong. So, I think that BIM in its base concept is phenomenal, but in its execution is a disaster in the industry right now.

Tim has observed that GCs might be shirking responsibility for this broken process, leaving mechanical in charge of the BIM modeling process, maybe so that if something goes wrong, the GC can put the blame backwards. “I think probably 8 out of 10 jobs, we see mechanicals in charge of BIM,” Tim says.

Bayside constantly fights against the time waste inherent in the BIM process. “You have people that will just sit there on the conference call for 8 hours doing nothing,” Tim says, “until a project manager says, ‘Why the heck do I got 400 hours on this job?’ We are battling that all the time, saying, ‘Hey, you have a budget of 100 hours. You best start reporting when you get to 50%.’ So, we’ve had to put that in place with our CAD department, because they definitely turn loose on us, and we see it on other jobs, and you talk to any mechanical or electrical and they’ll tell you we put an X amount for BIM on every job and it never seems to be enough. Never seems to be enough money. And you’re talking a major hospital. Guys putting a million dollars in BIM time. You know, it’s just absurd.”

A Place to Stay

Bayside has more than its fair share of long-time employees. “I’ve got guys that have been with me for 30, 25, 27 years,” Tim says. “We just retired a 38-year employee two weeks ago. The culture is such that we get employees that don’t wanna go anywhere else. I think it’s our business model, where we stay in our vein, and we tackle interesting projects that challenge the employees. We don’t necessarily overpay. We don’t over-bonus. But the people that like the culture stay forever.”

Tim has on occasion held on to a problem employee longer than he should have. Because of their three-partner structure, one partner may have an employee they really like, that the other two would like to see go, or the accounting department advises could be a problem. But standing in the way of that necessary change is the fear of fulfilling their role with a new person or having to hire on the street.

“We’ve had some situations where we’ve held on to people a long time,” Tim says, “because we didn’t have an answer for the replacement who would have to step in quickly into a high volume and high level of work. But we had some situations where we’ve gotten better at “All right, here’s the situation and they’re done. That was agreed. ‘Yes, thank you for working for us.’”

Clarity in Hindsight

Looking back on what he’d do differently, if he had to do it all over again, Tim references the early need for tighter, more efficient procedures and thought processes from the beginning. “How everything’s done the same across all the divisions,” he says. “which our accounting department has been adamant about.”

The structure of three partners has both advantages and disadvantages. Because the three have different areas of strength, various tasks and responsibilities can be divided according to those strengths. “The weakness,” he says, “is we are 3 different people. Two of them are stepbrothers. So, we have at times strained relationships, which is natural. It can be clear to employees that it’s not always harmonious amongst the three of us. And we are constantly trying to work on keeping our disagreements inside our conference room. We don’t walk out slamming the door anymore. We don’t go talking to our right-hand people immediately after a meeting. We keep our stuff internal. That’s been a growing-up process. I’m 55 and I still feel like I’m a 2-year-old learning every day.”

The structure of three lends itself to resolution of emotional or intense problems. If two agree on it and one doesn’t, then that’s the ruling. “And then we just all learned how to go, ‘That’s the answer. Let’s all move on.’ So, our childishness and snippety behavior had to go away. And then luckily, our business is dynamic. So, you walk out of the office and everything’s on fire. The roof’s blown off the building in business. So you have to tackle the next thing.”

A Legacy to Maintain

When it comes to his personal career legacy, he feels grateful that he’s been involved in some of the most interesting projects in construction. “I’ve gotten the reputation as the guy that people call when they don’t know who can do a project,” Tim says. “I’ve built the first big Apple Store in Manhattan, the Cube. So, that legacy is built and now it’s my job just to keep maintaining it and keep getting involved in the next new front. We’re gonna be involved in the Lucas Museum down in L.A.  Just keeping that mantra that we provide solutions. Because our legacy is built and done. I’ve built that over my 30-year career. So, it’s just not burning out in flames. “

Three Steps To Favored Status

That reputation, and those projects, come from working with companies like Apple and Disney, who aren’t known for their lack of standards. When asked what advice Tim would give a fellow subcontractor looking to maximize the positive relationships they can have with GCs and owners, he offers three concrete steps:

  1. “Put some kind of procedure in place where e-mails and phone calls get returned that day. No hiding, no not returning, no being too busy ever. If you just do that, you put yourself as your GC’s favorite sub.”
  2. “Don’t complain about a problem. Have the solution attached. An immediate suggested fix.
  3. “Next and foremost is to find niches,…that specialty that puts you in a position where the contractors are calling you at pre-con, or calling you when the architect shows up, or the architects are calling you going ‘Hey, you know, we’re thinking of doing this. Do you think this is buildable?’ And that niche world allows us to be at the beginning of conversations and not just getting sets of plans.”

With these steps and years of hard work, Tim and Bayside have grown their business and reputation as solution providers in the most unusual situations.

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