Construction is a high-risk, low-margin business, with some sectors faring better than others. According to Tyler Paré, principal with FMI Corp., a construction-focused consulting and investment banking firm, when barriers to entry are high, margins improve.
Data from Risk Management Associates supports this view. The average profit margin before tax was six per cent or higher among electrical contractors, highway contractors and utilities in 2019. General contractors had the lowest profit margin before tax of just over four per cent.
"There are inherent risks in construction work that can negatively impact overall net profitability," says Paré. Contractors know all too well how labour shortages, supply chain delays, design errors, underutilisation of equipment, job site accidents and change orders can negatively impact profitability.
Corporate strategy plays an important role in how firms mitigate these risks and improve contractor profit margin. I asked three industry leaders to discuss the reasons for lacklustre profits and some profit-boosting strategies.
You are not focused on reducing construction waste
Don Swasing, CEM and COO of site prep firm Schlouch Inc. sees a lot of waste in construction. "There are plenty of people using a fix-when-fail fleet model, who don't give a thought to the complete cost of equipment ownership," says Swasing. "We run a high-performance fleet model which means I'm trading at the sweet spot prior to major component failure and not wasting dollars on major repairs. It keeps our team in the latest technology and most reliable equipment. Schlouch tracks equipment utilisation very closely and if a machine is underperforming or not meeting utilisation targets, it's addressed quickly."
Troy Guevara, a former contractor who is now a construction technologist for Digitek Solutions believes contractors are still using a lot of manual processes for tasks such as accounts payable, project reporting and estimating that can be replaced with technology. "They are paying people to do things they don't have to do," says Guevara. "You can take those people and put them in other roles."
You do not have the best people
"The best contractors have the best people," says Paré. "The best firms are serious about finding, attracting, and retaining the best people. They become a destination employer that attracts highly qualified project managers, superintendents, and craft labour."
Swasing agrees, saying: "Skill equals profit in construction." To retain employees, Schlouch utilises individual job descriptions, performance feedback and merit increases. They show employees a career path. Employee retention is measured monthly and strategy around retention and employee development is discussed weekly.
When the company experienced a shutdown due to COVID-19 in 2020, it carried healthcare costs for employees. According to Swasing, it is a move that will improve retention and help nurture the culture of trust among its 300 employees.
There are no systems in place
"The number one thing that high-performing contractors utilise are systems that hold them and their employees accountable," says Guevara. "Systems help employees avoid mistakes."
Without one complete system for estimating, accounting, project management, inventory and tool tracking, Guevara says contractors are leaving money on the table. "The truth is they don't know what they don't know."
At Schlouch they understand the importance of getting employees on board with new systems. "We engage them, listen to their ideas, understand the business problems they want to solve and collaborate on expectations and accountabilities," says Swasing. "It doesn't matter what you are trying to do: improve equipment reliability, safety management, or project management. If you can't get the people rallied around your idea, where you want to go and what you want to do, you are not going anywhere."
You do not have real-time visibility
Paré finds that those contractors who have more control over project risk, have better project outcomes. "Technologically advanced contractors are going to have more clarity and more control relative to key performance indicators," he says. "That should lead to better financial results."
"With today's technology you should have at a minimum daily real-time job costs," says Guevera. He adds that contractors with real-time job costs can see the trends before they peak and make adjustments accordingly.
You do not pick the right clients
According to Paré, high performing contractors are more selective about the jobs they take on and will only go after work they know they will make money on.
This is one of the keys to success at Schlouch, a company that has been in business 38 years. "We ask potential clients tough questions about their history, how they select a contractor, ability to pay, their public reputation, and safety," says Swasing, "We are looking for shared values."
"The world of the lowest bidder is not the best place to be," says Guevara. "If you do go after low-bid work, it's essential to understand your costs."
Take the first few steps to improve profitability
Now that I have identified the key areas where you might be leaving money on the table, Swasing suggests taking two steps. The first is to create a clear vision for the business. The second is to look at your business with a fresh set of eyes.
"Allow yourself to see the waste and inefficiencies, the guys who aren't making money, the equipment that chews on your balance sheet and the customers who you can't make money on," says Swasing. "You have to be brutally honest."
For contractors who are behind the curve on understanding the financial aspects of the business, Paré recommends focusing on improving the integrity of field reporting, locating a strong accounting partner and improving financial knowledge with help from associations like the Construction Financial Management Association. "A good accountant that specialises in construction is worth their weight in gold," says Paré.
Once the areas for improvement are identified, look at ways to include and improve your people and your processes. You can then expect that the bottom-line improvements will not be far behind.
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