The word “subcontractor” has gradually gone out of vogue. Break it into its two natural parts and you'll see why: The prefix “sub-“ means “under,” “below,” or “beneath.”
The movement away from “subcontractor” toward “trade contractor” isn't just a product of increased sensitivity and political correctness. Rather, it reflects a shift in the prevailing attitude that trade contractors are inferior to general contractors. The new philosophy is that trades are most effective working with remodelers and builders, not for them. “We look at [trades] as an extension of our business,” says Bill Fannin, co-owner of Post & Beam Design Build, in Forest Hill, Md. “We're just as concerned about their bottom line as we are about ours.” Those sentiments were echoed by nearly everyone — remodelers and trade contractors — interviewed for this story. That a strong working relationship between the two is mutually beneficial and profitable seems indisputable.
IT'S A MATCH Working efficiently with trade partners means identifying companies that have values and goals that mirror your own. To find the right trade contractor, remodelers must first “figure out what kind of remodeler they are,” according to Dick Cissel, president of Apple Electrical Services, in College Park, Md. For example, “If they are trying to be a budget-conscious remodeler, they need to use electricians and plumbers who are also budget-conscious.”
The closer you align your business with your trade contractors', the closer you'll be to being a team. Remodelers and trade contractors who have accomplished this goal note that they are more effective overcoming the unforeseen obstacles that are inevitable in any remodeling project. “Very few problems are one person's fault,” Cissel says. He adds that the best way to approach them is not for the remodeler to ask the trade “What are you going to do about it?” Instead, both parties should ask themselves and each other “What are we going to do about it?”
Jim Strite, president of Strite Design + Remodeling, in Boise, Idaho, strongly believes that good trade contractors are essential to his company's success. “We're looking for raving fans,” he says, “and that applies to trades as well as clients.” Strite has paid for personality profiling for some trades, so that his project managers can learn to communicate better with them. He's also given them the kind of training he might give an employee (such as “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” seminars), and says he consults with them on business practices, even helping with a succession plan, in one instance.
DO THE EARLY WORK There is no consensus among remodelers as to when to bring trades into a project. Even the trades themselves differ greatly in their preferences. Some don't like to be involved much until they're needed in the field — “I put in the pipes; I know how to do it and I'm good at it,” says Boise plumbing contractor Jim Romano — while others like to give as much input as they can. “I'd rather help establish the budget than have the remodeler make a wild guess,” Cissel says.
Strite likes to gather his trades for what he calls a “trades party” for medium-size and larger jobs. Together, they all go through the proposed design, discussing budget and potential trouble spots. “It gives them an opportunity to buy into the project so that once we start, they aren't coming back to us with stuff,” Strite says. “We impress upon them that they'll need to eat some of that if it occurs, but we give them the opportunity up front.”
Keep in mind that trade contractors aren't much different from remodelers. Both are small businesses for which time is money. Just as you may not want to be asked to come up with a design before receiving financial commitment from a homeowner, trades don't want to be asked to submit bids without a reasonable guarantee that they'll get the work. “The contractors who drive me crazy are the ones who aren't respectful of my time,” says Shane O'Harra, owner of Boise cabinetmaker and installer Timbercraft.
Before his “trades party,” Strite secures a design agreement from the client. “Trades know that if they are invited, they have a 75% chance of getting that project,” Strite says. “We're not inviting five electricians to bid on it. So only if they are way out of the ballpark on price, or if the client doesn't do the project [would they not get the job].”
But not all remodelers work with trades in this way. Those who don't, tend to think further in advance by getting general pricing information and keeping it handy. Geoff Horen, CEO of The Lifestyle Group, in Indianapolis, says that he typically does his estimating based on unit pricing. “If I have their pricing, I don't need to go through the process of getting a bid from them,” Horen says. He adds that he revisits pricing with individual trades every year or so — more often in the rare case where rising material prices necessitate an immediate change. If a trade initiates a price change, “anything already in the hopper remains under the old pricing,” Horen says.