Canadian Contractor

From commercial pilot to general contractor (1): Flying by the seat of my pants

An empty field, time, money and the thought that renovation contracting might be fun... a rookie contractor begins his quest for reno knowledge with his first ever new home project


June 4, 2014
By John Bleasby

EDITOR’S NOTE: Meet John Bleasby. John is a retired commercial pilot attempting to transition to life as a general contractor. There was obviously a time when he had to do his first solo, as a pilot. Evidently he took off and landed safely. And did it thousands of times, thereafter. Now, as he attempts to do his first solo as a general contractor, building his family home north of Toronto, he has kindly offered to share his experiences with us, weekly, in Canadian Contractor online. Veteran contractors, go easy on him – but all comments are most welcome.

Early April 2014: John's 2 acre lot waits quietly for the arrival of the excavator

Early April 2014: John’s 2 acre lot waits quietly for the arrival of the excavator

By John Bleasby

“You can do this – you’re an organised fellow. You don’t need a general contractor.”

I was sitting in the home office of a veteran supplier of commercial building products who had seen it all. He was serious but I was doubtful. It’s one thing to be a retired guy with time on his hands, someone passionate to see his house built just-so. But to take the bull by the horns and research and contract all the various pieces of the puzzle?

But maybe this was the new business adventure I’d been waiting for. Maybe if this works out, I can hang a shingle and offer site supervision to other projects, strictly on a fee basis, not a percentage. It certainly would be a different approach than the industry norm; but heck, why not find out if my ideas work on my own house first.

I was really left with little choice any way. For several months I had tried to motivate a local contractor about the project. But after several meetings it was clear that not only was I more interested in the project than he was, I was also more willing to embrace some of the new construction technologies like ICF. We’d started talking in August and it was now December, with little resolved. It was time to move on if my wife and I were to move in before Thanksgiving.

I anticipated raised eyebrows when I started making my first calls, but I was armed with architectural drawings from a respected local designer and a rudimentary grasp of construction lingo. And I had hired a trusted friend and master carpenter to be my ‘eyes and ears’ throughout the planning and execution of the project.

And, yes, I was organised. This was instinctive; I’m a retired commercial pilot. I’m used to checklists. Flight safety demands precision and accuracy.

And once I sat down face-to-face with the trades, showed them I was serious, had a plan, a schedule and the money to pay deposits as required, they took me seriously.

I made some rules for myself:

  1. Low price is good, but the person is more important. Can I work with this man? What do others in the business say about him?
  2. Have I properly explained the project and the timing? Is my timing reasonable?
  3. Start the conversation with the trades early, really early.
  4. Buy stuff on sale. Research the internet, make ‘wish lists’, and wait for clear-outs. Rent a large heated storage unit to stockpile the bargains.
  5. Keep everyone informed about progress. Give a heads-up as soon as you know the schedule is changing, and revise each trade’s schedule with a realistic revised start.
  6. Don’t tell the trades how to do their jobs; contract the right people and let them use their skills.
  7. Don’t get caught up in the moment. Keep my eyes on the schedule and material needs for next week and next month so that there are no last minutes panics.
  8. Maintain financial control with detailed spreadsheets for budgets and expenditures.
  9. Plan to build, then build to plan.
  10. Pay everyone on time! For me, given my background, none of this was rocket science. It was the same disciplined approach I would use when running any other project or business or even flying a plane. I was off and running! Over the next few weeks, I’ll keep you posted on how it’s going. And I’d love to hear your comments.

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3 Comments » for From commercial pilot to general contractor (1): Flying by the seat of my pants
  1. I stopped flying at the early part of my flight career in 1984 , returned to NBCC, became a CET and started building, now after 28 years I wouldn’t trade the choice.
    Many a day in the early years standing in mud or knee deep in water that was coming from god knows where into my nice foundation excavation I looked skyward, (perhaps for divine guidance), to see the contrails overhead and wondered why did I ever stop flying.
    You will have good days, you will have other days, your training and career taught you to remain calm, think through the process, always do things safely, “learn from the mistakes of others, you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself”.
    Enjoy the ride, love the landing and buy the Canadian home builders manual !!

  2. Roger says:

    I like your check list!
    two things I might add

    …Expect the unexpected

    … be careful of the “might as well” factor (it can really add up the costs) this leads to looking way in the future, an extra inexpensive “rough in” can save thousands of dollars later, review your plan now for things you may want in the future and way the balance of cost and need.

    a example, 20amp outlets in the garage or shop for a compressors etc., or maybe a 220 outlet, extra sink hookups etc. 20 amp outlet for a built in vacuum. The list is endless, look at the plan closely before building, learn about the client. Sometimes it is the simplest things and suggestions that can set you apart from other contractors. Let your creative side out to play. clients love it, just be aware of the costs associated to the result.

    • John Bleasby says:

      Thanks Roger. You’re absolutely right. I touch on this in my next couple of blog installments. I call it ‘Foresight versus Hindsight’. Thanks for your comments. JB

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