DALLAS — Managing a fast-track project is like eating an elephant — you have to eat it one bite at a time, said Keith Bell, the owner of a Forney, Texas, electrical contracting firm.
“If you stand here and wring your hands for two or three weeks about all you have to do, it's too late,” said Bell, who founded Intex Electrical Contractors Inc. in 1983. “If you fail to plan, then you actually plan to fail.”
Bell, 38, should know. After 20 years in the electrical business, this industry veteran has discovered the secrets to finishing fast-track projects on time and within budget. His successful business philosophies and hands-on management style have not only boosted the revenues of his company, but also helped Intex build solid relationships with suppliers, clients and owners.
“We've got a reputation that if it's too big or too fast, then call Intex,” said Bell, wearing a white Intex T-shirt, jeans and a proud smile.
His company wrapped up its latest landmark job — a fast-track shell and tenant finish project for Mackie Automotive, a pre-assembly plant for dashboards and consoles and a major supplier to General Motors — in just under 11 weeks. Intex not only became the only subcontractor to complete its work on time, but also doubled its budgeted profit through pre-fabrication, well-coordinated purchasing and intense schedule coordination. Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), Alexandria, Va., awarded Intex's craftsmanship with the 2000 National Quality Award in Industrial Construction.
Bell attributes his team's success to a few key business management secrets: underpromise and overperform, create and stick to a critical path schedule, use goal-based management, prefabricate materials and partner with your suppliers.
Electrical contractors might find the following words of wisdom useful to meet deadlines, avoid the typical mad rush in the final weeks of a fast-track project and win the trust and respect of their partners.
1. UNDERPROMISE AND OVERPERFORM.
Project managers often agree to an impossible schedule to please an owner or win a bid. Instead, they end up falling behind schedule and failing to meet both their deadlines and the owner's expectations.
“When people get frustrated if they're behind schedule, you'll either have indecision or knee-jerk reactions, and either one of those will cost money,” Bell said.
Bell encourages contractors to negotiate in the beginning rather than waiting until the final weeks of the project.
“Underpromise and overperform — that's the way to run a business,” Bell said. “Most folks don't understand that. Rather than fight the battle and have the confrontation upfront, they'd rather put that off until the end.”
For example, the owner of Mackie Automotive, ProLogis, Dallas, requested that Intex complete their fast-track project in eight to 10 weeks.
“I told them I can't do eight to 10 weeks; I need 11,” Bell said. “Well, they weren't very happy with that news, but came back later and said, ‘Well, I know you're doing the best you can.’ But when I came back and completed it in 10 weeks, it looked good. If I had come in at 10 weeks upfront, I wouldn't have gotten a letter or a high five. I would have just got a check.”
Intex has always had success with this business philosophy, Bell said.
“It's going to be a problem to tell a company you can't do what it asks, but it's a whole lot smarter to do it upfront than to do it at the end,” he said. “I've never lost a job for telling someone the truth.”
Doug Blevins, the Dallas/Fort Worth manager of Nacogdoches, Texas-based Elliott Electric Supply, one of Intex's partners, said Bell is brutally honest and direct with everyone on the project from day one.
“When he comes into a situation that is somewhat confrontational, he'll just tell them, ‘Look, I'm just going to apologize to you upfront,’” Blevins said. “At that point, he just tells the facts exactly how they are going to be and everybody knows where he is coming from. People in construction appreciate the fact that you're dealing with a ‘known.’ You don't have to guess what everyone is thinking, what is going on and what can be done. He just comes right out and tells you.”
Bell not only “underpromises,” but he can also overperform with his strong team of electricians.
“I've got some crackerjack people working for me,” Bell said. “That's the key to any successful business. I'm only as good as my weakest employee. You can't underpromise and overperform if you have a company full of weak people.”
2. STAY ON THE CRITICAL PATH.
After assembling a strong team, a contractor needs to develop a plan and stick to it. A critical path schedule can keep contractors focused on the ultimate goal — the project deadline.
“We sat down at a conference table and said, ‘This is what we have to do in 11 weeks,’” Bell said. “Then we could take a project like this and break it down into a whole bunch of little pieces. We became task-oriented instead of becoming engulfed in the sheer size of the project.”
Each person at the meeting was assigned a task and then expected to complete it. Bell used goal-based management to make sure his team was on track.
“I think the hardest thing that most contractors have to overcome is the ability to delegate,” Bell said. “The key is learning how to manage with goal-based management. You establish the goals and then you hold someone accountable for achieving those goals. It's a no-brainer. It's not emotional. It's black-and-white.”
To keep the project on schedule, Bell also appointed dual general foremen.
“We split this job into two pieces and had one responsible for lighting and power and one responsible for the service and distribution,” he said. Then on a project of this magnitude, somebody has to be held ultimately accountable for its overall failure. If you put two people in a equal position, you have no singular accountability.”
Bell solved this problem by taking on the role of the project manager.
“As high profile as it was, as big as it was and the dollars that were involved, I chose to do the project management for this project myself,” he said.
Bell led the first pre-construction meeting both as the CEO and project manager, along with his director of operations, both of his general foreman, his field superintendent, his pre-fab shop foreman and the estimator.
“What was unique about this project was as fast as it was, we put our entire project team in the office and had a pre-construction meeting,” Bell said. “As a team, we determined what materials we were going to prefab.”
The team decided to prefab branch wiring and lighting whips, which were all premade in the Intex warehouse and shipped out to the job site on a daily basis.
“If we prefabbed it in the shop, it would take less manpower on the project on a daily basis,” Bell said. “It would circumvent the logistics of getting material here and finding a place to store it.”
After only a few weeks had passed, Bell could tell that his project was on target to meet the completion deadline.
“Typically for us, we can tell within 25% of the project with a critical-path schedule whether or not we're going to make that job,” he said. “That's the key. I'm a big believer in job cost management.”
Intex uses software to separate jobs into different tasks and then phases. From there, the estimator can determine how many man-hours are needed for each phase and then how many man-hours it will take to do the task.
“The hours that have been assigned are paralleled with our budgeted hours. Therefore, at each task, if you can get the task done in the parameter of time that is allotted, you're going to make the budget as well,” Bell said. “If you start seeing that your tasks are being completed earlier, then you accelerate your critical-path scheduling. That's when you see yourself gain days.”
Contractors who fall behind schedule, however, need to identify the root of the problem as early as possible in the construction schedule.
“If you're not getting those tasks done, you have to discern if there's a problem — material, productivity, manpower unavailability or indecision on the contractor's part,” Bell said. “If you don't fix the problem the first week, you're going to fail. So many times, people say they're going to make that up the next week and the next week and then all of a sudden, they run completely out of time. Then there's going to be a circus at the end of the job and it's going to go around the clock.”
On any project, however, contractors are challenged with obstacles that might prevent them from meeting their daily goals. Bell recommends building extra days into a construction schedule to deal with these issues.
“If things get out of sequence, you have to either adjust your manpower or accelerate other pieces to take its place,” he said. “As long as you can stay on that path and always build three days into the front end of your project, you'll be fine.”
Intex, for example, worked a total of 14,000 manhours in 10 weeks on the Mackie Automotive project. This can be broken down into 1,400 hours a week/six days per week = 233 man-hours per day. Three extra days add up to 700 man-hours, which are built into the estimate, and account for 5% of the total man-hours.
“You have about 5% of your hours in variance in the event you get into a bind,” Bell said. “If you never get in a bind, you finish the job a few days early.”
Intex ended up being the only subcontractor to meet the deadline.
“Even though a lot of other folks didn't get finished on time as far as the schedule date, it really didn't impact the tenant moving in. But it just doesn't count if you don't finish it on time. That was our goal.”
3. PARTNER WITH YOUR SUPPLIERS.
Intex Electric met its 11-week deadline for the $1 million project by not only sticking to a critical-path schedule, but also partnering with its vendors and suppliers, such as the Lighting Alliance, Carrollton, Texas, for lighting fixtures; Moon Township, N.J.-based Cutler-Hammer for switchgear and Elliott Electric Supply Inc. for miscellaneous electrical supplies.
“Without partnering with our vendors and suppliers, there's no way that we'd gotten the job in the matter of time required,” Bell said. “You cannot do a project of this magnitude without bringing everyone to the table, putting together a team and having everybody on the same page. It's just not going to work.”
Elliott Electric Supply Inc., which has its regional distribution center in Arlington, Texas, became a part of the project team from the beginning.
“I think the main thing is for us to be intimately involved in the project even before the materials are even shipped,” Blevins said. “If we know the scope of work that is involved, there won't be any surprises as the job progresses.”
The bulk of Elliott Electric Supply's materials are stored at its regional distribution center, making it possible for the distributor to make multiple deliveries a day.
“We were close by, so fill-in orders to keep the job going smoothly were not a problem for us,” Blevins said. “It's a whole lot easier to be responsive to a partner when the little things come up that were not planned for. You drop what you're doing and you make it happen.”
Partnering also became paramount due to the lack of material storage on the job site.
“When we started the project, it only had a roof on 25% of this building,” Bell said. “Therefore, there wasn't a lot of room and it was very difficult to store or manage materials.”
The Lighting Alliance, a lighting rep agency, shipped the materials as they were needed due to the lack of storage space.
“I took the job to the Lighting Alliance and said, ‘This is how many fixtures I need. I've got to have this many lamps, but I can't take them all at once.’ Lithonia just shipped them directly to the project in phases.”
Cutler-Hammer, which has a satellite plant in Arlington, Texas, built the switchgear and delivered a panel at a time. They then stored their switchgear at their plant.
“You just don't normally get those kind of services,” Bell said. “It takes years to partner with suppliers. It's based on relationship and trust.”
Doug Blevins of Elliott Electric Supply said his company has partnered with Intex for the past five years.
“We consider Intex to be not a partner on a job, but a partner all the time,” Blevins said. “When you've got a good relationship with a customer, it makes things go a whole lot more smoothly. Business is a whole lot easier to do. We feel like the service level we can offer a partner will always be better than to the general Joe contractor out there.”
Intex has been able to successfully complete fast-track jobs because of its solid partnerships with suppliers and vendors, Blevins said.
“You talk to most contractors in town and they couldn't get that kind of effort out of their vendors because they're not supporting them day in and day out,” Blevins said. “Keith partners with the people he does business with so that when something like this comes up, it's not a question of, ‘Are you going to help?’ or, ‘Can you be found?’ Keith has developed a network of support people that know that he's going to support them. We'll do whatever it takes to support him in return.”
Intex Electric not only partnered with its suppliers and vendors to wrap up the electrical installations on time, but also won another job — a service contract at Mackie Automotive.
“We picked up all their maintenance work after this facility had been built,” Bell said.
“That's one of our goals. If my people in the construction business don't get this job on the front end, my service department doesn't have a leg to stand on. If you do a good job doing it, somebody has to maintain it.”
The Mackie Automotive plant, which once was an empty shell with a quarter of a roof and no doors, now has a flurry of activity, with trucks buzzing up and down the aisles and workers preassembling dashboards and consoles. Bell said Intex enjoyed the challenge of the $1-million, fast-track job.
“Without partnering and prefabbing, there's no way that we could ever make this happen,” he said. “It's been a great job for us. It's one of those jobs that you take and it's an all or nothing kind of deal. If you make it happen, you get accolades and kudos. If you fail, you're done with the owner, and the general contractor.”
Intex met and exceeded its goals by getting electrical inspections done days before the actual deadline. Rather than trying to swallow a whole elephant, Intex took a step back, assembled a strong team, partnered with suppliers and took it one bite at a time.
“Everybody was on the same page from top to bottom from the start,” said Blevins of Elliott Electric Supply. “From the conversations we had during the course of the project, I believe Keith was on top of it from the first day.”
Owner. ProLogis, Dallas, John Clinton.
MEP Engineer. Tolk Inc., Dallas, Russell Wing.
General Contractor. CF Jordan LP, Dallas, Karl Steen.
Electrical Contractor. Intex Electrical Contractors Inc., Forney, Texas, Keith Bell.
THE POWER OF PARTNERING
Partnering with suppliers on a daily basis gives contractors like Intex someone to depend on, not only during a fast-track project, but also during an emergency situation.
In summer 1988, Doug Blevins of Elliott Electric Supply Inc. said Intex was called in to replace the switchgear for a 13-story tenant building in downtown Dallas.
On a Friday, a short in the penthouse sparked a flame, which set off the sprinklers. Water from the sprinkler system ran down from the top of the building down the bus duct to the basement, which destroyed a 4,000A switchboard.
Keith Bell collaborated with his partners to assemble a team to measure, design and build the custom switchgear by Sunday evening.
“It's one of those things where you have a lot of tenants in the facility and when power goes off, they don't like that too well,” Blevins said. “To go down on Friday and to be back up and running by Sunday evening is pretty miraculous.”
February 2000 — The owner, ProLogis, awarded the contract for the shell building and interior finish-out to the general contractor, CF Jordan LP, Dallas.
April 17, 2000 — Intex received the electrical subcontract for the shell building and finish-out. At this time, the tilt-wall panels were erected and the roof framing was complete but not decked. Intex began installing the light fixtures in the warehouse and the associated conduit and wiring immediately after the installation of decking and roofing.
May 15, 2000 — Intex energized the service and 50% of the lighting by working with the owner, general contractor, suppliers, consulting engineer and the staff engineer to acquire the necessary approvals and materials.
May 29, 2000 — Intex receives $150,000 in change orders, which hinders the company's ability to meet the proposed substantial completion date.
June 19, 2000 — The deadline for substantial completion for the project.
June 30, 2000 — Intex received a final inspection green tag and was the only subcontractor to finish the project on time.
July 5, 2000 — Final inspection and occupancy date.
HOW TO SET UP A CRITICAL PATH SCHEDULE AND STICK TO IT
Keith Bell, owner of Intex Electric, offers the following tips for contractors who are striving to finish fast-track projects on time.
Meet with your entire pre-construction team including your foremen, field superintendent, estimator and pre-fab shop manager. “The first order of business is to assemble your team and have a pep rally,” Bell said.
Create a critical-path schedule.
Make it clear what the goals and expectations are. What are the ramifications of success or failure?
Look at the whole project and ask yourself, “How can we prefab this job? How can we value engineer this job?”
Compare the additional costs of the materials to the labor hours saved. “In a project this size, even if it's more expensive from a budgetary standpoint in materials, but it increases your productivity and reduces your daily manpower hours, then that's an investment for a successful project,” Bell said.
Get the pre-fab and value engineering issues approved with your engineers.
Determine which suppliers you can partner with and start building relationships with them before the project begins.
Start taking the project apart by tasks. Start with the primary goal — the completion date — then back that into “What do I have to get done in each of these 11 weeks?
Once you know exactly what you want accomplished in each week leading up to the completion date, then break that down into days. Once you break it down into days, then you break it down into crews.
Use goal-based management. “If you hold each person responsible for the task, and you see that each task for each crew is completed each day, you'll wake up at the last day and as long as you didn't leave out anything within your critical path schedule, the job will be completed.” he said.
FAST-TRACK JOB FACTS
Intex Electrical Inc., Forney, Texas, completed the electrical work for an Arlington, Texas, preassembly plant for Mackie Automotive, in less than 11 weeks. Intex which was founded in 1983, specializes in telecom carrier, light industrial and commercial tenant finish-out projects. Below are the facts and figures on the project.
485,000 sq-ft-building with 12,000 sq ft of office space and 473,000,000 sq ft of manufacturing space.
26-acre job site
4,000A, three-phase, 480V electrical service
798 high-bay lights
151 lay-in fixtures
35,750 lineal ft of MC cable
39,790 lineal ft of feeder cable
49,800 lineal ft of conduit
A 28-man crew of Intex electricians worked four 10-hour days, eight-hour days on Friday and 10-hour days on Saturday for the first six weeks of the project.
10,032 regular time hours
3,764 overtime hours
Q&A with Intex Owner Keith Bell
Q: How did you get interested in the electrical industry?
A: When I was 15, my best friend called me and said his cousin, who was in the electrical business, needed some more helpers for the summer. I actually worked for that fellow for three years part-time. I was in the industrial cooperative training program and a member of its association, VICA, in high school. I went to school half a day and worked half a day.
Q: When did you found your business?
A: I was 20 years old when I started Intex Electric in 1983. I had to hire a master electrician to work for me because I didn't acquire my master's license until 1985.
Q: What made you decide to start your own company at such a young age?
A: By the time I graduated from high school, I was making $11/hour and had a brand new truck and a boat. How are you going to quit and go to college with that? That was really good money in the late 70s and early 80s. I worked for some other contractors after high school and got promoted to a service manager. I was doing everything but signing the checks. I started my own company and have been doing it ever since.
Q: How did the industry respond to a 20-something owner?
A: It's been a hurdle. Almost every banker in Dallas County looked down their noses at me during the first few years. They don't like contractors anyway, and they sure don't like kids in the contracting business. I showed up 18 years ago and they weren't gray-headed and neither was I. Now we both are and we're working together.
Q: How is your business doing now, 18 years after you founded it?
A: We have 100 men and will do $13 million. We started a plumbing division in 1995 and started a datacom division last year. We relocated our business to Forney, Texas, a town of about 5,000. It's about 24 miles east of downtown Dallas. In Forney, Texas, I'm the third largest employer behind the school district. When you're out of Dallas, it's a little easier to be a big fish in a little pond.
Q: What are Intex's specialties?
A: We do a lot of telecom-type work with Allegiance Telecom here in Dallas and Frontier Telecommunications both in Dallas and Denver. That's our forte — fast-track, design-build finish-outs and telecom switch sites. That's the mainstay of our business. We've also been successfully doing fast-track industrial projects.
Q: Describe a day in the life of the owner of an electrical contracting company.
A: When you own a company, it's 24/7. You wear so many hats. I'm the project manager, technical consultant and engineer and I'll go back and be a CFO this afternoon, a school board member tonight and a dad when all that gets done. I can be whatever I need to be, from just one of the guys to a businessman in a suit and tie.
Q: What is the most difficult part of running a business?
A: There were some hard times in the 1990s. We went from 33 to 9 people in one day. That probably was the most difficult time we've ever had. It was a learning curve. The economy was slowing and we ended up getting all our eggs into one basket. The good thing about that is it's a learning experience that a lot of folks today don't have. The economy is going to slow again and having weathered that storm; I know exactly what I need to do to make it through a recession. You just have to make difficult decisions. It's not easy to pick nine out of 33 and tell the rest of them, “Check you later.” You've got to make those decisions or you go out of business.
Q: The electrical construction industry has experienced a major labor shortage. What is your secret to retaining good employees?
A: A lot of my foremen today I hired prior to the 1990 layoff. I have eight of the nine that I kept in 1990. You have just got to be able to motivate people through trust, respect and compensation. I can't tell you that everyone works for me because I'm the best thing since sliced bread. They make good money working for me, and I spread the wealth. That's the key. If you can't motivate someone with money, they can't be motivated. We try to give them a good work environment and benefits and good or better wages than they can make anywhere else. It's like a major corporation but with a home-boy atmosphere.
Q: What does it take to be a successful leader and garner the respect of your employees?
A: Many rank-and-file employees think all owners do is talk on the phone, eat lunch and play golf. I can tell you I've gained more loyalty and respect because I'm a licensed master electrician and will go and work with them. Last night I spent half the night downtown on a shutdown hooking up a generator. They called me at home at 10 p.m. because they had encountered a problem. I left my home at 10:30 p.m. and didn't get back home until 3:30 a.m. I worked with them for about three and a half hours actually in the switchgear terminating the conductors. You'd be surprised how much camaraderie that builds within the company. It becomes a pep rally. I could tell the demeanor of my employees changed when I showed up at 10:30 p.m. They had confidence in me and said, ‘He's on the job and he's going to take control of it.’ You then work side-by-side and they respect you for that.
Q: What are some other key management secrets?
A: Management is about trust. If your people trust you, they'll walk through the fire for you. You also have to start out with crackerjacks and you have to be a good cheerleader. For example, General Electric is one of the largest innovators in the world and CEO Jack Welch is one of their best cheerleaders. He could walk up to your desk and do your job or walk into a room full of employees and get everyone fired up. As a CEO, your big job is to be a visionary and a coach — those are the qualities of a true leader.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I'm a local school board member in Forney, which is a full-time job. That venue probably has helped me more than anything as far as running a business at this level. I'm also on the board of directors on the IEC of Dallas, the president of the IEC of Texas chapter as well as chair of the legislative committee of the IEC. I also coach my oldest daughter's softball team, which recently qualified for the USFA World Series in Panama City, Fla.
Q: Overall, how do you feel about your career as an electrical contractor?
A: God has blessed me and it's been fun. It's been a great experience and I can sit here and give credit to God and every single employee that I've ever had working for me from 1983 to present.