EP 112

How to navigate the choppy waters between material supplier and customer, as a subcontractor. (EP 112)



This week, Paul is joined by Nicola Barden, Managing Director at BSF Solid Surfaces, a specialist subcontractor specialising in 3D Thermoforming and producing bespoke centrepiece designs since 1998.

During today’s show, we talk about inflation and how this has affected Nicola’s business in the past few years. Nicola shares tactics on how she has managed her relationship with her suppliers and then with her clients to ensure that her business best navigated this situation.

In this entertaining episode, Nicola also shares her thoughts on retention, payment and how she would improve construction.

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Paul Heming: Hello and welcome to episode 112 of the Own the Build podcast with me, Paul Heming. Before we start, this is the last week, I’m going to remind you guys that we are doing a bit of a giveaway for all of our listeners. In the podcast description today, you’ll find links to three free resources, which we’re sharing with you. So there’s a vesting certificate template, an EOT template for claims and extensions of time, and my very own clause by clause guide to the JCT design and build contract. Hope you find those useful and you get them downloaded this week, what you can. In the studio today, we are joined by Nicola Barden, who is managing director at BSF Solid Surfaces, a subcontractor who specialize in 3D thermo forming to produce amazing works of art from solid surface. Solid surface is a man-made sustainable alternative to traditional materials such as stone, marble, and granite. And Nicola is going to tell us all about that among many other things here. Nicola, I’m blabbing again. How are you doing?

Nicola Barden: I’m good, thank you. How are you today?

Paul Heming: I’m very good actually. Yeah, I’m in a very good mood. Like I said, the sun is shining. Can’t ask for much more than that in life. Can you?

Nicola Barden: Nope, not at all.

Paul Heming:   So Nicola, I’m really pleased to have you here. You are a fellow specialist subcontractor. That’s my background, my history. Tell us about you and tell us about your business.

Nicola Barden: My business is a family business that was born out of Shop fitting. My parents were shop fitters by trade and decided 25 years ago this April, to start BSF solid surfaces, which is a solid surface fabricator specializing in materials such as Korean High Max and many others, all of which are a manmade stone. As a business, what we major in is producing worktops reception desks, curves, and shapes of all sorts of things. So if you’ve ever seen a molten brown –

Paul Heming: Works of art.

Nicola Barden: Works of art, yes, works of art. We’ve done a job for Molten Brown where it’s like a Faberge that they had as a display unit. 

Paul Heming: Really? Fantastic.

Nicola Barden: Yes. Thank you. So that’s it. Us really, we’re a subcontractor that completely specializes in that sector of producing these works of art for our clients.

Paul Heming: Wonderful, wonderful. Now I’ve seen some of the work that you’ve done and it is pretty fantastic and very unique. Can I ask, you said that it’s a family run business? Am I right in saying that you run it with your brother?

Nicola Barden: Yes. Second generation.

Paul Heming: How is that? Because if I was running a business with my sister, oh, I don’t know. I think we’d argue all the time about absolutely everything. 

Nicola Barden: I have to say, it’s interesting. I’ve been working with –

Paul Heming: Very diplomatic.

Nicola Barden: Well, I try. My parents started the business as I mentioned before, 25 years ago, and I joined them a year later. So I’ve been here 24 years. My brother Paul joined us six years ago. So in that period of time, the businesses evolved. My mother’s retired, my father’s semi-retired, near enough on the way to being fully retired. So leaving me and Paul running the ship. It was difficult at first, I can’t lie because I’d been here and was well established and then he came along and wanted to get involved in it. But over the years, yeah, we’ve had some skirmishes and we’ve had some strong words exchanged. But for the most part –

Paul Heming: There’s nothing like sibling rivalry, is there? It’s totally unique.

Nicola Barden: It is totally unique and something no one else can do anything about. It has to burn out. It has to run its course. 

Paul Heming: Sorry. And no, I also think like your sibling is the one person in the world, they’re going to spend their entire life mirrored along your side, your life. Right. Almost, there’s almost no one like them. Your parents won’t be there forever. Your partner isn’t there at the start. And they’ve got a fantastic way of just pushing your buttons, like I think, nobody else does. Which is why if I was working with my sister, I think we would personally struggle.

Nicola Barden: I thought the same. I have to say I did think the same, but it’s worked out remarkably well. So I guess it’s just you have to give things a go. And if it’s not destined to be, then a crack will appear. But no touch wood, it’s been all right.

Paul Heming: Well, I can assure you, Nicola, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not going to give it a go inviting my sister into my business. I can assure you of that. So anyway, obviously I know about your business, I’ve seen what you guys do and very impressive. I think I’m probably not speaking out of turn here when I say that 3D thermoforming and solid surface as a material isn’t something which absolutely every listener will think, I know what they’re talking about. Some will, some won’t. But could you talk to us just about what the product is and what the material is?

Nicola Barden: Of course. No problem. The material is, as we mentioned before, a manmade stone. So it is basically a derivative of aluminum, which is combined with acrylic in most instances. So it becomes this harder stone material that’s created in sheets. So that’s where you get a different colors and shapes and bits and pieces. So the sheets themselves come into us basically as big raw, ugly sheet, and then we can transform it by using our multi-therm oven, which heats the material up to about 168 degrees. And so that makes it a floppy material at that point. But it requires skill and obviously it requires the correct tooling. And then we can create shapes and different curves and what have you, using specific forms that we create in our workshop mostly as well. And then after that you can get like a seven form shape. So if I was to show you, for example, we did a reception desk which was shaped like a tablet. So the idea was that it looked like a tablet because it was for a pharmaceutical company. So that had to be curved and heated. Had to be curved and heated to create that look. And that’s something that you can’t do with lots of products, but you can do the solid surface because whilst it’s in that floppy state, you can curve it and manipulate the material into what you need it to be. And then of course, after that it requires the techniques and the sanding and all the seeming which is joining to get the finished article to look like a tablet with no lines in it. It isn’t something anybody else can do, just walking off the shelf. I mean, there are others in the industry obviously, but it isn’t an everyday job kind of job. It does – Sorry, go on.

Paul Heming: No, sorry. My apologies for cutting over. I think that what I’m interested in, obviously we’re going to talk about supplier relationships, supply chain relationships today and how you manage them. What I’m interested to understand from you is as a specialist contractor myself, Curtain walling, glazing was one of the things that I spent the most time doing. I always felt I had a technical edge with all conversations when it came to those conversations with my clients. For obvious reasons, I spent a lot of time doing curtain walling. Not many people do. It’s a niche. So you have that technical expertise. It strikes me that you must have even more expertise. Cause as I said at the top, not many people will know what solid surfacing is, solid surfaces are, will not know what 3D thermoforming are. And when you are brought onto projects, I’m imagining you are brought onto projects where as you’ve just described, the client has a really bespoke specialist needs. It’s almost like the feature of the project. Does that specialism, that uber specialism present you more challenge or more opportunity?

Nicola Barden: Both. Which is a strange answer, but because we are very good at providing that there’s more opportunity, because there’s less of us that are capable of producing those items. However, the downside is that people that ordinarily might come to you for an ordinary slab worktop that we are happy to do every, day in, day out, may actually have the wrong idea about us and think that we only want to take on large projects and large features, when in fact actually what we’d rather do is be considered for both and then have the opportunity to work on both types of projects. So it’s a blessing and a curse, but it does mean that we can identify things that our clients might not think about. We always try to think outside the box to present them with options in all cases. And I think being able to create something like that when they may not have even realized that it was possible is an edge that we have because they’ll possibly start talking to us about something and then go, wow, I didn’t even consider that would be something I could have in my project.

Paul Heming: See, that is something that I find really interesting, just that, oh wow, I didn’t even know that was possible kind of terminology that you’re using because I feel like even just in curtain walling, “in my specialism”, we could add a lot of value to a project that a man tractor, a client didn’t always ask us to because they knew something about our products let’s say, or it was on almost every scheme that they were working on. So they understood it. Obviously, didn’t understand it as well as we did. But that we didn’t quite get to the point of really impacting projects in some ways because there’s kind of main tractors almost holding off a bit because they think that they understand it better than they perhaps did do. But you are talking about, oh, am I fantasizing a bit here in thinking that because you are such a specialist product that people actually listen to you when you say this is how this product needs to work, this is how it will fit into the program, what we need from you or am I being fanciful? You’re smiling.

Nicola Barden: Sometimes. I wouldn’t like to say every time, cause sadly there is information out there and like you’ve just said about your industry, they get this idea in their head, they’ve got it, they’ve had a little bit of training or they’ve been on a course or they’ve read something and then they think they know everything there is to know about it. Which in fact, no one can because knowledge is infinite, isn’t it? You can continue learning and we do struggle sometimes with people that think they know everything about it. But then on the other side of the coin, you get someone that’s so excited by it, wants to know everything about it because they haven’t experienced it and they just want to use it in as many ways as they possibly can. And I find that refreshing because I wish people would be more like that open to learning cause so many people have such a closed mind, they think they know everything and they’re not prepared to listen and they’re doing themselves with injustice really. Because if they listened, they might actually get a better outcome, which is what they probably want anyway. They just want to be right. And that’s not necessarily the right way forward, is it? So open mind is open mind, open heart. You find out all sorts of things if you actually pay some attention. So that’s basically my experience. 

Paul Heming: Yeah, absolutely. And so one of the things you really helped me to understand and the listeners understand kind of just exactly the needs which you serve, I think it’s fair to say incredibly niche, really specialists. So you kind of approached me and said, you would like to talk on the show, which always pleases me endlessly when people do that. And you said, I would like to talk about how to navigate the choppy waters between material supplier and customer as a subcontractor. We’ve talked about this, we’ve talked about how subcontractors manage their supply chain in a different way to how main contractors manage their supply chain recently, which was really interesting and had some very positive feedback and took quite a lot away from that myself. Why did you want to talk about this?

Nicola Barden: Because I don’t think people understand and I think they think that us guys in the middle have more control over things beneath us and above us and we are always the ones, we like the meat and the sandwich that’s in the position where the material is very expensive. So that’s one thing. The material is inex expensive material. Customers don’t always grasp that actually before we’ve even began a project, the material itself is expensive. Then we have our own overheads and our own company that we are running. And at the end of the day, we’re all in business to make a profit. Some customers will expect to have extended credit terms, they will hold onto retentions, they will be awkward with payment. And then you get that kind of, well I’ve got to pay my suppliers because if I don’t pay my suppliers, I can’t continue fabricating for other customers. So I’m in the middle of these choppy waters where I’ve got to worry about getting paid and being paid and its continuous chain. Then you’ve got the other issue where they put their prices up, then they put their prices up again, then they put their prices up again and the customer’s like, what? Why have you done that? You are so expensive, you’re putting your prices up. And it’s like, well, because it can only absorb so much before, actually I’m the only person in this game that’s not making any money cause you’re making money cause you’re selling it. They’re making money because they’ve put their prices up.

Paul Heming: As a supplier. 

Nicola Barden: Absolutely. And then we are in the middle going, well how do we do this? Because their expectations as a supplier, particularly if you’re part of the quality network, which are for Korean and the quality club for High Max, is that you spend X amount of money, you buy X amount of sheets a year. Well okay, that’s great, but if your material is higher then and these guys don’t want to pay more money for it, then it becomes a game if you like. So what we have to do is educate them about the material more and more and more, which is fine, I have no issue with it. But that understanding needs to sort of organically get through that you aren’t buying a cheaper chips product. You are buying something that’s a skill, it’s a craft, it’s a luxurious product.

Paul Heming: So explain that to me then. So you are, I totally understand really specialist, really high-end bespoke product that you guys are doing. What do you feel is not landing. You wanted to talk about this, what is not landing that is your point of difference? You’re saying this isn’t plastible, you’re not buying it from British gypsum. It’s not like that. What isn’t landing?

Nicola Barden: I think that part of it isn’t landing. I think that unfortunately a lot of customers, they embark conflicts, price contracts and then sadly with no gap, with no elasticity for any change in it. So they don’t leave themselves a danger gap and therefore, when things that are unexpected happen, they don’t have any room to maneuver. So then their option is to lean back onto the suppliers. But we only have so much room to maneuver as well. So then it becomes tricky. I mean, plus of course, we are not just talking about the solid surface, we’re talking about substrate material here. So I mean MDF has gone up on and on and on and on and on for at least two, three years. Same with play. And you add into shipping problems and all the rest of it and that compounds the compounds some of your problems. And unfortunately we’ve since been in the middle of those problems.

Paul Heming: Yeah, understood. And I wanted to talk to you probably in the second half of the show about inflation, how you’ve managed it. But without naming names, I’m not expecting you to talk about certain clients, but what happened to instigated, this feeling in you that something in the industry is not working? I want to talk about this. Like what was the situation? Can you contextualize it for us?

Nicola Barden: Well we had one customer that had entered into a fixed price agreement and we were talking to them for quite some time. And then when it came to it, because all the prices had gone up, they were having to task themselves with driving the prices down. And sadly, we lost an element of that job to another fabricator who has lower living costs because they’re from a different part of the country. Cause don’t forget, I’m based in near London so of course, those costs are higher and subsequently, we lost that contract and it upset me on two levels. One, it was a loyal customer that we dealt with for years and I really don’t, I really hate losing, I didn’t lose the customer, but I don’t like the idea that someone else that you could lose a client. You work hard for them, don’t you? And number two, I didn’t like the fact that I’d worked hard to win the job and the reason we weren’t going to win, it was nothing that anyone had done wrong. It was a set of circumstances that had just driven us into a position where we couldn’t do what they needed us to do cause unless we’d make a loss if we’d done so. And obviously, they needed somebody to do what they needed them to do in order to help them get themselves straight and it just –

Paul Heming: Hit their budgets. 

Nicola Barden: Exactly. And it just made it a bit tougher on everybody. So that was one of them. And then it does happen and it happens, and starts we get the age of you how much, you are so much more expensive than x, y, z and it’s like –

Paul Heming: That’s standard response, stock response. 

Nicola Barden: Exactly. And it’s like, well, okay, and my question will always remain the same. Who am I up against? Are they a like caliber fabricator because we are not all created equal and have you checked them out? I don’t try and put the boot in but equally, I want to know why because I guess in your industry it was probably the same. There’s always going to be people that you know will always be cheaper and you know that there’s no point even attempting to meet them.

Paul Heming: Free market. It’s always going to happen, isn’t it?

Nicola Barden: Yeah, absolutely. 

Paul Heming: Okay. So yeah, really interesting foundation to the conversation. I want to go back in the second half of the show to elements around inflation, fixed price contracts. Because I think you’re really onto something that is interesting there. But we will do that right after this break.

So Nicola, that’s probably all the long-term listeners to this show understand a bit of a nerd, a bit of a geek, a bit of a loser almost with regards to like subcontract, tendering, procurement, the way construction procurement is done generally. Can I ask, and then you can give me a relatively simple answer here. What as a subcontractor do you consider to be an appropriate number of subcontractors to be up against inattentive? So I’m a main contractor, I’m tendering and I say to you, this is a tender of you and you say to me, how many people am I up against? What is the correct answer?

Nicola Barden: Two or three.

Paul Heming: So you are one of three or one of four?

Nicola Barden: Yeah, one or three or four. I think four. I think anything above four is excessive and just will add to confusion personally.

Paul Heming: Yeah, I agree. I agree. I think four is about the magic number. To be honest with you, I did, like I said, I’m a bit of a nerd, did some surveys on it a while back and three and four were the two correct numbers. I always felt more comfortable when I was doing procurement with four knowing that someone might win a job and you always kind of want three to be able to do a thorough process, have the right conversation. So that makes sense to me. Can I also ask while I’m on it, because I had an interesting episode a few weeks ago where we were talking about this? How many tenders do you typically receive in a month?

Nicola Barden: About a hundred, give or take. Which is quite a lot.

Paul Heming: Yeah, it is. Right. So I was asking how many subcontractors do you think you should be up against. You said three. How many tenders do you receive in a month? That’s a hundred. Roughly, again, very roughly here. How many of those 100 do you price?

Nicola Barden: Between 90 and a hundred percent. I would say there’s probably a couple in there that –

Paul Heming: Really? Okay. 

Nicola Barden: Yeah. We aim to always offer prices and if we don’t offer prices, we offer a reason or we investigate it. So for example, if it’s not feasible in the material they’re asking for or the material is, yeah, if it’s not feasible or appropriate, then we wouldn’t. We would offer them an alternative or ask them to reconsider. And sometimes, we just don’t have enough detail so therefore, we’ll wait and wait and wait for somebody to come up with the detail. And that might not end up getting priced purely because they never return to give you what you need. So, yeah.

Paul Heming: Yeah, yeah. Amazing how many times that happens, right? No cause it’s interesting because, and I guess your niche is perhaps I’m going to be, it’s probably wrong here, but is it a simpler to price because it’s more product focused. The scope is generally not as wide. I don’t know, but a lot of people that we’ve spoken to, how do you feel about this? I guess, so a lot of subcontractors I’ve spoken to will say they don’t receive a hundred, but maybe they receive five a week and of those five, they may respond to them all, but they’re not going to price five. They’re maybe not price one or two, they’re going to be selective about it. So I’m not surprised by the volumes that you’ve got, I am actually surprised about the fact that you return them all but many don’t.

Nicola Barden: I think there are two schools of thought, aren’t there? There are those that, I mean tendering is a resource at the end of the day. So you know, if you’re going to spend your money pricing then you should choose the correct ones to price. I don’t disagree with that. However, most of ours come from places that we probably either do work for or want to work for. So I mean there’s going to be the odd one or so that we think, oh no, I don’t want to get involved with them. So I am a little bit like you’ve got to be in it to win it. And I feel like, yes, people might respond, we respond as well. We respond particularly if we’re delayed in returning a price. But it can be a bit shortsighted just not to price something because if that’s an opportunity that you might not like the look of the job, for example. But the customer and for me, it’s all about the customer. So if the customer is somebody that you’re interested in talking to and you would like to be considered for future business, then you at least need to try, even if you can’t price it to get a conversation going because otherwise, you’re cutting off your opportunity because they may never come back again. They might just go write you off because you haven’t at least tried. So I get the whole, it’s a resource and people pick and choose, but I also think by picking and choosing how are you sure that you’re picking and choosing the right ones? So it is all very speculative.

Paul Heming: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean it’s interesting, isn’t it? I think the niche in which you sit maybe gives you, or it feels like you have a bit more power versus a roofing contractor where there’s endless roofing contracts. I know I’m a bit prestigious there, but do you see what I mean? Maybe I’m completely wrong here, but that’s really interesting to hear. Anyway, you see I’m always a bit of a loser, going off on a tangent about tendering. Let’s talk about inflation, the impact of inflation and how you have managed it because you were touching on it with fixed price contracts, etcetera, before the end of the first half. So my question to you is, we’ve just gone through a massive period of inflation. Could you first talk to us about some of the percentage increases you’ve seen in materials in the last year or so?

Nicola Barden: Well, I can. I mean Corian went up, I think it was something like 15%, 8% and another 10. So it went through up –

Paul Heming: 15, 8 then 10. 

Nicola Barden: Yeah. So it could be the wrong way around, but it was within those realms three times in a year. MDF for a period of time was literally going up something like 14% every month it felt. So it got to a point where we were like, well you can only pass on so much. So you have to start considering how you can do things more productively in your factory. So things like the way we use MDF, we’ve altered, we’ve got better ideas of how much, you know, we’ve just changed the way we use it, changed the way we fabricate with it. We’ve reverted to a few more old school techniques. We waste as little as we can, which is good because it makes us more sustainable as well. But we waste as little as we can. You buy smart basically. So you’re buying volume, buying volume, you hold it here. I have some good relationships with people so if we are in trouble, someone else can help us out. And we buy ply as well. So it kind of is a shift. So if MDFs too high then we’ll buy ply. If ply is too high then we’ll buy MDF and so on and so forth. So we’ve kind of got a bit of a get out of jail card with that cause that’s one of the things that’s really been increasing. With the material itself, we only hold our prices for 30 days now. I’ve heard of people that only hold their prices for 15. So I think a month is a reasonable timeframe and then we review it and if it doesn’t –

Paul Heming: I heard at one point, there was steel work contractors or suppliers holding their price for 24 hours, sometimes 12 hours. 

Nicola Barden: I heard that. 

Paul Heming: It was insane.

Nicola Barden: I heard that as well.

Paul Heming: So 30 days is very nice. 

Nicola Barden: 30 days is a bit of wiggle room. 

Paul Heming: Yeah, no, 30 does make sense. So some eye watering numbers there, to be honest with you. 15%, 8%, 10% all in one year, three times over. You said we can’t pass it all on. Can I ask why?

Nicola Barden: Well, I guess eventually you do end up passing it on because that’s the nature, isn’t it? As things change you have to, because you can’t talk forever, but you’re correct in asking why because why shouldn’t you. Ultimately, it’s been inflicted and imposed upon us. I think the game plan is to try and mitigate that as much as we can because we kind of want to keep our customers, you know, we’ve offered prices to x, y, z and it can be a shock when you’ve had a price of X and then it really does escalate over just like a month or two months. And we are aware that people are offering their prices in it based upon hours and if it suddenly rockets, it can put a whole project in jeopardy. So we try to work to minimize that whilst maintaining our own business. But for us, because customer relationships are so important, you’re trying to keep that kind of happy medium if you like. It’s very difficult because we are not in the giveaway business. Ultimately, nobody is, but at the same time, no business survives without a customer. And that’s just the facts. 

Paul Heming: I mean, and also I can understand that it sounds like through this process you’ve actually revisited some of your production design, manufacturing processes as well, refined them, reduce wastage, which actually kind of differentiates you. Fantastic. Could you talk though about, you’ve said that 30 days is quite, I think that’s more than fair in the current climate or in the last 24 months of climate, more than fair tender fixing. How are you able to do that? Are you taking that risk on because you’ve got exactly the same down the supply chain with your suppliers? Like how are you managing that relationship?

Nicola Barden: It depends on the material and it depends on the supplier. So for example, if a client, if it’s a big job and there’s lots and lots of volume to be put to be purchased, there’ll be a deal that we can come to with the supplier on the price whereby they will hold the price for longer and if we win the order, then they’ll bring material in and hold it against us and that sort of thing. So that enables them to do what they need to do to get the ordinate and us as well. So I think also our suppliers provide us with priceless. So normally they would give us a month or two notice before they impose a new price increase, which gives us time to implement the same, look at our processes and also warn our clients that this is coming so don’t be too shocked. So I think it’s all about communication personally. If they communicate with us and then we can communicate with our client base and then they are aware and then they know what they need to do. For example, if we know that there’s a price increase coming as we have done in the past, we’ve known Cori, we’re putting a price increase, say in the September, but an order’s due and they want to place, then that’s an opportunity to tell the customer, if you place now you’re going to get this rate. I mean if you don’t place now, you’re going to get that right. And then that’s their decision, isn’t it? Because then they have they –

Paul Heming: Good. Isn’t it? A good way to instigate getting the order, isn’t it? 

Nicola Barden: It is.

Paul Heming: Do you ever say it when that’s not the case? Because it does help to move things on, right.

Nicola Barden: To be fair, no, I don’t but it’s tempting but no I don’t but I do feel that people need the full picture, don’t they? They need to know and no one, I’ll be angry if I waited to place an order because of credit like I think I’ll place in the first of the month cause it gets me my next month’s credit and then discover if I placed on the 31st, I could have had that price. 

Paul Heming: It would’ve saved me too.

Nicola Barden: And it would’ve save me huge amount of money.

Paul Heming: That makes perfect sense. And often, I think a lack of communication between main and subcontract is, if that was front and center it would be understood and it would really push the main contractors to operate more quickly and with more focus. Right? Can I ask, if you were to give main contractors any advice on this topic, what would that advice be?

Nicola Barden: To ask questions and not make assumptions. Because if you don’t ask, like if you don’t make yourself a little bit busier researching, maybe research is not the right term, but just be a little bit more aware of what you are buying further down the food chain. Because it doesn’t take five minutes, you don’t have to talk to a fabricator necessarily, but you can speak to the supplier of the material and just go, are you aware of any price increases coming in? Cause then that gives you that opportunity to review and talk to the fabricator network, whoever you’re talking to and ask them about it.

Paul Heming: I think that in an environment, pre pandemic, let’s call it, where material increases were generally end of the year, January time, once a year, maybe maximum twice a year in a more stable market, let’s say since the pandemic, it hasn’t been like that you are describing every month, you’re talking about every quarter increases. I think that maybe is the difference now it’s that you can’t rest on your laurels as the main contractor buying because we’re not in that space anymore. So what questions do you want to be hearing to be able to build to improve that communication and build that relationship and make sure that you are giving them that value for money, that they’re not the person spending the extra percent because the communication hasn’t been there?

Nicola Barden: What we do, and what I would like them to flip over, I guess is we tend to ask the question near the beginning as much as we can. So do you know what color it is? Do you know what budget you’re at? Do you know how many sheets or how big it is? So we can work out how many sheets of material and these are the three main questions that enable us to find out stock for them of whatever given material it is. Because availability is another issue. I mean, at the end of the day, if they don’t have it in the UK and it’s going to take them six, 12 weeks to get over from Korea, America, wherever it’s got to come from, that has a bearing on everybody’s project and their program. So we check that, we check if there’s going to be in price increases and then advice them accordingly about timeframes and how they can mitigate that risk and just keep them aware of any, then say actually I’m looking for a different alternative, a cheaper alternative. Then we help them out when they assist them with that. I think for them it would pay them to actually do a little bit more research into what they’re buying. Don’t assume that the colors that are shown on the website are available in the UK for a start because after the pandemic, suppliers got much more difficult. So people are holding less in the UK, they’re tending to bring it over more as they need it. And people make that assumption that because it’s in a, in a catalog that actually it’s available and it isn’t potentially. So that one question can save them a whole load of heartache and tipping your hands as well. A little bit about what your budget is so that people can do what they can to assist you to actually achieve what you are looking for. Because most of us want to help.

Paul Heming: You’re asking a bit too much now.

Nicola Barden: I know. 

Paul Heming: You’re being a bit coy about it there though. You kind of said tipping your, kind of showing your hand a little bit. When you say that are you expecting me to say 37,432 pounds and 25 pence? 

Nicola Barden: No, but –

Paul Heming: What are you expecting?

Nicola Barden: I guess, not maybe giving me the budget, but just give us a steer of what you are looking to pay. Like they know –

Paul Heming: So I’m going to pay sub 40,000 pounds.

Nicola Barden: Yeah. Like, give me, because I can tell you straight away won’t take very long for us to work out whether that’s achievable from us and if it’s achievable in the material that you’re looking at. And it would save people a lot of time and effort because then you get the you’re too expensive.

Paul Heming: We’re scared of that though, QS’s.

Nicola Barden: I know, but unfortunately I get that cause deal with them all the time and unfortunately, they’re very scared of it. But it would save them so much cha because the argument we pose is you –

Paul Heming: Do you really think that?

Nicola Barden: I do because I think if they understood before they began their, QS’s start with a value in mind, obviously they start with a value in mind. So if they start with a value in mind, then they come back and say you’re too expensive. Based upon what? Where did that information come from? Based upon what? They’re insider of info of my industry or based upon their impression of my industry or just something they’ve decided. Yeah. And if they’ve decided their budget is 40k but they’ve got 50 grands worth of work they need doing well, obviously, the one and the other aren’t going to meet. But knowing that and being able to guide them down a path where maybe they can achieve more better and buy better would help everybody, I feel. I know I’m asking a lot and I know that it probably would never happen, but it is something that I do think –

Paul Heming: Don’t think you are, really.

Nicola Barden: Well, I don’t know anymore.

Paul Heming: It rallies against your instinct as a QS or probably as most people forget, QS has been mean to QS’s here. I am one. But I think most people when they’re thinking about buying something whether it’s even doing a build at home or whatever, you think I’m going to keep my cards close to my chest. That’s a better way to do it. But perhaps what you are saying is that I don’t want to know that its 37,000 whatever, but I do need to know the ranges that you’re looking to achieve. Because if you tell me that there’s Corian, there’s other plenty of different options that I have to make your project work. But if you say there’s no number and then I come back with a 50,000 pound standard option, you say, oh, that’s not what I want. Then that has been a counterproductive process. So the question, I’m going to go back, the questions that you would want a main contractor to ask or the communication that you would want to have upfront is an indication as to budget range. You would want them to ask you about whether there’s material increases. You would tell them that anyway pending, right? And you would want to talk about lead times. Is there anything else?

Nicola Barden: Not especially at that point, I don’t think because at that point there are so many things to consider with solid surface. The thing that I offer and I offer frequently to people because I’m aware that there’s a lot of misunderstanding and education that needs to be done as we offer a lunch and learn or we offer CPD. And I feel that that’s something that quite often if I get a flavor for the fact that the person at the other end of the project is uncertain, then I’m offering that straight away. Because there are limitations, there’s limitations with any material out there. It doesn’t matter what you use, whether it’s stone, marble or solid surface and understanding the limitations and if what your expectations of it are reasonable or unreasonable could save you a hell of a lot of time as well and make your life easier. And I think at the end of the day, as a supplier, it’s my job to try and make my customer’s life easier and that way everybody in the food chain works better. And that’s it really.

Paul Heming: Yeah. I completely agree with that. And I think we’ve actually uncovered quite a lot of interesting talking points or thought, like ways to craft, tenders, things that you should be thinking about particularly in today’s climate. I want to ask you one final question. If you could change anything about construction and the way it’s working today, what would you change?

Nicola Barden: The secrecy that’s around a lot of things. Cause I think people –

Paul Heming: There’s that same thing again, I’m not going to tell you my budget, I’m not going to tell you this.

Nicola Barden: Yeah, like even, I don’t know why people are so secretive. Like when you say who am I up against in terms of who am I pricing against? Well I can’t tell you that. Why? You’ve just told me that I’ve lost the job. I’m too expensive. What possible calm can there be and let me know who I lost to, because actually that’s information that’s valuable to me because then I can understand whether I’m up against one particular fabricator all the time. That’s my competition at the end of the day or whether or not I need to go and review my prices because I normally win against that person, but somehow I’ve lost on this occasion or whether there’s just someone that’s always cheap and they undercut everybody anyway. So what’s the point in wasting everybody’s efforts? So I don’t understand why that’s a problem to know, to be fair, but people do get a bit secretive with that information, I guess it’s just one of those things.

Paul Heming: So open up, clients. 

Nicola Barden: Yes. Open up. 

Paul Heming: And specialists will come and they will help you craft better projects, quicker projects, better quality projects. So that’s what you guys want to do, right? 

Nicola Barden: Yes.

Paul Heming: Nicola, I come here with an agenda to ask many questions. I’ve asked hardly any of them. We’ve gone down a different route in many ways to what I envisage. But that is a good thing. It’s been a really interesting conversation. I will be sharing your details, BSF’s details, almost got it out there, didn’t I? In the podcast description. I really honestly recommend everyone goes and checks out the products that you guys deliver. They’re awesome. And thank you very much for coming on the show today. 

Nicola Barden: Thank you for having me. I much appreciate it.

Paul Heming: The pleasure was all mine. And everybody, I will be back next week and I will speak to you then. Have a great week. See you later.

Agile Construction Management

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