Canadian Contractor

John Bleasby   

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

Canadian Contractor Business Commercial Financial

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

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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