Potential Pitfalls of Commercial Trim Jobs

If you're new to commercial work, be careful. Payment schedules can slip, and you can get roped into extra work you hadn't counted on. July 27, 2008

I was recently given the opportunity to bid on a yacht club. This is the first commercial job I've ever bid on, and I have no idea what's going on! I was originally asked just to bid on the cabinets and tops (what we typically do), but when I arrived at the builder's office to pick up a disk with the blueprints/specs, he also asked me to bid on the trim. First, how do I figure out what trim they want where? (He told me almost nothing.) Second, what chance do I have of not getting the job if I don't bid on both?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor M:
Typically I bid on just the cabinets, and if I do bid on the trim, I am usually supply only. You should be able to get everything you need from the drawings. If not, then contact the general contractor to get a hold of the architect to clarify stuff. Lots of times I ask questions and then the architect will issue an addendum to clarify. Normally you need to go through your contractor though.

If you are just getting into commercial, make sure you have good cash flow, as some contractors are slow to pay. Typically I will put in for a progress draw before the 25th of each month to get a cheque in the following month. I always give better prices to the ones who pay regularly. There is also a 10% holdback until the job is substantially completed. If it is a large job, this can take several months to get. Don't get me wrong, I find the money is much better doing commercial (you just have to wait 30 days or so). Residential, the people are writing your cheque as you are packing your tools up. As for the trim, hire a trim carpenter to install it. Save yourself money in the long run.

From contributor R:
One of the first things I would ask myself is why this contractor is asking someone who has never bid commercial work before to bid on what may be a large and complex project. Has he burned his way through all of the qualified commercial firms already? Is it his first commercial job too? There are a lot of unknowns right off the bat, and you haven't even gotten into the complexities of a job that I assume is toward the high end and may involve finishing, radius work, tight specifications, brutal commercial construction schedules, etc. How will you bid all this work if you only do cabinets and tops? Do you have the manpower and shop space to handle work that you don't usually do?

If you have reason to believe you have an inside track and can get the job through a relationship, go out and find the nearest AWI shop in your area and joint venture it. Sit down with an experienced estimator and project manager and pick out the things that your shop does well and let them do the rest, and watch and learn during the process of bidding, negotiating, fabrication and install. Do this a few times and you'll be ready to deal with it on your own.

From contributor C:

While I agree with contributor R regarding teaming up with the existing commercial guy, I think you need to be careful in who you select. Your reputation is then tied to someone you, for the most part, are not controlling. Also, if they believe they are training their future competition, they may be less than forthright with you. I would call architects some distance away (100 miles) and get their recommendation. That way you get a true opinion and you are not viewed as any sort of threat. The delivery distance for a large commercial job is not a big deal.

From contributor V:
I had a contractor do this to us also. What I offered first was a bid on the cabinets and the trim at cost plus. He was fine with this until the board he submitted the bid to said they needed an exact quote. We do not do trim either, so I found some with great reps and asked them for a bid. Just take their bid, make sure what kind of bid it is, figure any profit onto it, and turn that in. But beware, as the other guys have warned. If this guy bails before the job and the next guy wants more, it's your problem, not the contractors you work under.

From contributor J:
Contributor M is right - go to the GC first and get absolutely all the details about what will need to be done. If he is stubborn to help, watch out! I've seen them select subs with weak experience in an area, and lure them into a big mess by evading the full story. They cut you and laugh while you bleed. Get it all spelled out, even if you have to do the take-off with what you have. Then get him to sign off that that's all there is. Architects can be helpful, but they aren't the ones paying you.

As for experience, do a small scale study if time allows. Trim out the office at your shop, or home. A good investment is to do a three hour mockup in the shop if you are serious about getting into trim. The practice couldn't hurt. Note every tool you need and the ones you will need to buy. It's surprising how different the equipment and process is from cabinet installs. Clock everything you do and create a labor base so you'll have some idea how long it will take you for a process. Assume you'll get faster as you go, but know there will be unforseen complications and build them into your number.

From the original quesitoner:
Much good advice so far. Thank you. We also supply and install trim, but usually residential. The reason the contractor called me is that I put my name in the hat to bid on the cabinets and tops for a condo they will be starting soon (we also sell and install boxed cabinets). He called and said he was short on cabinet guys bidding on this job and asked if I was interested in a custom job. Sure... y'all know the rest of the story. This being the biggest company I have ever tried to work with, I was a little nervous yesterday. I am going to call the contractor today and just ask him some things, now that I'm cooled down.

From contributor L:
Just be very careful about getting involved with big GC's. Money is always slow, especially at the end of the jobs. Punch list will hit you for things you don't think are your fault but you will have to take care of to get paid. Things tend to walk off on big jobs. Just use a lot of care and cover your behind so you don't get stung. Experience has taught me not to bid to some GC's while others are fine if I take precautions to cover the unknowns.