Managing Suppliers: Planet of the Masons

In an April post on Spend Matters, Spend Visibility — Use RFPs with Home Maintenance Contractors, Jason Busch advocated using an RFP to make sure that contractors are bidding the same job and to help make it easier to compare bids. I wish it were that easy. We’re grappling with a trade that seems to think it’s exempt from that approach – masons. Even with a written RFP, every mason who comes to our house sees the job differently from us, and from other masons. All we thought we needed was to have the bricks on our 3 chimneys pointed and then coated with waterproofing. How hard is that? In fact my husband, who is not a mason, used to do this himself, but now would rather not be climbing on the roof.  We have had 4 masons/contractors come out to see the job, and their descriptions of the work has varied widely as has the price. Interestingly, the highest bid is FOUR TIMES the price of the lowest bid. And the scope of the second highest bid contains the least amount of work. Each mason has a different view of what he thinks needs to be done compared to our RFP (and compared to all the other masons).

We started with accepting and signing the lowest bid from a mason whose firm has good references and has been in business for three generations. Great. However, not only did he never show up, but he no longer returns phone calls or emails. The mason with the third highest bid wanted to do the least amount of work for the money. And the highest bidder actually is doing the most work, as he showed us that there is, in fact, a lot of brick work to do. He actually brought binoculars to look at the chimneys, while the others took a quick stroll around the house before bidding. The second lowest bidder (who is 2.5 times the price of the lowest bidder) is a chimney sweep who had a completely different scope from our RFP and from the other bids, including a quote to install a state-of-the-art brass cap on a chimney that other masons felt needed just a screen to keep out animals. Interestingly, no one would discuss the scope and negotiate with me. Their bids were immutable and they become incommunicado if questioned about their bids.

In something of a desperate move, we chose the highest bidder who spent the most time scoping the job and was doing the most work, and we felt that his bid was based on something factual. Also we chose him partly because he used to coach my younger son in soccer, we know that he is an honest and hard worker and he has good recommendations. However, he has yet to show up to do the job.

I’ve reached a few conclusions. First, contractors will give you a price based upon where you live and how eager you seem to do the work. If you live in a higher calorie town, so to speak, the price shoots up. Masons in our area must be plenty busy, even in a recession, as none seem very eager to do the work. And there are absolutely no standards of professionalism among the masons we contacted, despite many years in business and good customer recommendations. No one follows the RFP, no one wants their bid questioned, and no one wants to show up even if you do accept their bid as is.

Despite what Jason said about taking charge of home maintenance contractors and treating the process professionally as you would in any procurement process, I’m finding, unfortunately, that masons are not on the same supplier management planet.

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