Canadian Contractor

A contractor is a machine: Are you revving too high – or too low?

Different contractors work at different intensities. But like any engine, there is a sweet spot for the most efficient output. Have you thought about yours?

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April 27, 2018 by Steve Maxwell

I’ve been around long enough to see more than a few contractors come and go in the building business, and one of the biggest factors of success is what I call “personal RPM.” Think engine speed and revolutions per minute and you’ll know where I’m coming from.

Many ill-fated contractors turn over too slowly, like my 1953 International tractor. It chugs along at a pleasant and laid-back 1650 rpm at full-tilt. That’s fine for a tractor built 65 years ago, but way too slow for a contractor looking to make the grade today. What does slow RPM look like in the world of contracting? Too much pointless talk, too much irrelevant thinking and too long at coffee. Even the walking pace of low RPM people tells the tale. Taking twice as long as it should walking to and from the truck a dozen times a day adds up. Eventually low RPM catches up in the form of low profitability.

By contrast, some contractors rev too high, burning out and missing too many important details. It’s not that these high RPM people necessarily get a lot done, either. Having too many balls in the air usually means you’ll drop some. Rev too high for too long and missed details causes your reputation to fall. Burned out health and relationships will put you on the sidelines.

Most of the best contractors I know spin at a nice, steady 2500 to 3000 RPM, so to speak. They’re still far enough from the red line that they won’t blow a connecting rod or bend a valve, but they always seem to operate with a sane but persistent level of high output urgency. They remind me of a big bore V-twin motorcycle engine on the open road as you drive for hours at speed. The output is high, the engine is hot, but it just keeps on putting out hour after hour.

Free market capitalism has done more than any other economic system to pull people out of poverty and into affluence world wide, but capitalism isn’t sentimental. It doesn’t care how nice you are or how much you need your business to succeed. The bottom line is efficiently doing enough of what the market pays for. And from what I’ve seen, the “enough” part has a lot to do with consistently hitting the right personal RPM.


Steve Maxwell

Steve Maxwell is the tools editor for Canadian Contractor magazine. You can follow him on his website (, on Facebook or via Twitter.
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