Getting Commercial Millwork Jobs Without Being the Low Bidder

For various reasons, low bidders occasionally drop out of the game before the work starts. So, if you bid enough jobs, you'll get a few at your price. September 6, 2012

This question is for all the millwork companies who do commercial millwork. I know it is a tough economy and everybody is trying to stay busy and land good jobs. How is it done anymore without just being the low bidder? I have bid work for the past year and I have been low balled by many of my competitors to get jobs. I understand they go low so they can get the work, but how low do I have to go? I can't justify bidding work way below cost. What are other ways to land this commercial work aside from being the lowest of the low?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor E:
In my limited experience I have found that the contractor already has a supplier or fabricator that they use on a regular basis selected for the job, and bids from other shops are just a way of satisfying the " process" requirements . High bid, low bid - the only chance of getting the job is if their go-to guy is busy with another project, or they owe him too much money.

From contributor J:
Well said Contributor E.You may notice after some observation time that one by one, those outfits making the low bids are shutting down. There have always been competitors that are always low, but in this climate, it is eventually fatal.

From contributor T:
Some general contractors only do low bid public work. It's very difficult to get on their jobs without being low. There are others who do all or part of their work in negotiated or limited bid list contracts, and these are the ones to concentrate on. You can find them by talking to architects, designers, and developers.

I find another key is to develop competence in other disciplines of the trade than plastic laminate casework. In my shop we bid the entire scope of millwork in every job we bid, the weirder and more complex the better. This includes finishing and installation. We get a lot of work just by being the most complete. Parceling out a large project to several millwork subs is more trouble than most contractors want to go to- they respond warmly to someone who will take the whole project and be responsible for it. We don't get many straight, easy casework jobs but we get a lot of jobs that have a large casework component if they include other more complex things.

One more key is to become very responsive. I run two shifts, and I have a few more employees than I probably need, but when the fast track jobs come around, we are among the very few, and often the only people in the game. There are problems that come with my approach too, but we get a lot of work in a down economy.

From contributor L:
We work in a similar manor to Contributor T. Things like schools are a waste of time to bid, bottom dwellers. By far the majority of our work comes from negotiated jobs where time is short. The standard casework part is usually not big but the curvy work is our job getter. Curved sales counters, nurses stations, thermoformed decorative plastic, or solid surface with resin inlays.

Any molding you want, straight and curved exact matches, quick at a reasonable price. Locally two millwork shops have gone out in the last year. Both did quite a bit of school work for big contractors. If you can make a buck at it fine, I can't. A contractor recently told me he came here because we were the only place he could get it all. Not that we necessarily make it all, but we will source what is needed.

From contributor T:
We also bid lots and lots of work. The straight casework jobs are easy to bid and don't take much time so we go after them aggressively even though we only get 1 in 30. Every year we get a few that we were the only bidder on, and a few where the winning general didn't get the low bidder's number or where the low guy had burned so many bridges that nobody would use him. Every year we get one or two where the low guy couldn't get bonded. Every year we get one or two where the low guy couldn't or wouldn't get AWI Certified per specification. Every year, we get a couple of big meaty projects from contractors who took the low bid and had their woodworker fail, usually only a few weeks before installation is ready to start. I have some good long term negotiated relationships that resulted from this kind of rescue job. It all adds up.