By Jim St. George
I recently floated down the Grand Canyon with my family. After setting off from Lees Ferry, it was almost six days and 90 miles before we saw any modern infrastructure — a riveted steel suspension bridge. The guides told us that the bridge, which was a steep 8-mile walk down from the canyon’s South Rim, was built in 1921. To me, that meant no helicopters or other modern equipment. It got me thinking — it must have taken a lot of mules and a lot of human sweat to get that done. I wondered what the winning bid for the job looked like.
That bid is how it usually starts for us contractors, the beginning of that familiar rhythm. First there’s an advertisement for the job. You look at that advertisement from all angles to see if it fits your business, and if it does, you sit down and try to figure out what it would really take to get it done. All the real work comes later, along with success or failure or something in between. But at the beginning, it’s just possibilities. For me, and I think probably many contractors, it’s one of the most exciting points in the process.
I remember some of my first bids, back in the early 1990s, in the Kotzebue region. I was trying to get small jobs building tank farms and power plants for the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, or AVEC, Alaska Energy Authority and others. I’d sit down and think about all the equipment I’d need, about how long it would take, about who I’d need to hire. I’d think a lot, too, about how I might do it a little bit smarter, a little bit better than how I’d done it on past jobs. I also wondered about how my competitors might tackle the job. You don’t know until the bid opens. Of course, in those early years, most of the jobs I bid, I didn’t get. The learning curve was steep. I lost some jobs because I overbid. Others I won, only to find out during the job that I’d underbid and ended up losing money. A bid means betting on your own foresight, ability and maybe luck too. It’s tough.
But I did learn. Each missed bid and each tough job taught me something. And it was more than just trial and error. Of the modest success I eventually found, I’d like to chalk it entirely up to my own powers of prediction. But I have to admit that I also had a lot of help from friends and colleagues. Sometimes they shared their experiences from similar jobs they’d worked on before. Sometimes they knew something I didn’t about the job under bid. The more jobs I got, the more generals and subs I came into contact with, the more people I found to talk to about my ideas of how I might do the job a little bit better and about how the competition might be thinking. I was helped along the way by all the experience I gained but also by a growing network of people willing to help me out.
This is where the Associated General Contractors comes in. A lot of us have competed with each other in the past and will compete with each other in the future, but at least as much as we compete with each other, we also rely on each other. Working in Alaska brings a lot of unique challenges, such as tough weather, remote locations and difficult logistics. A week’s delay on a shipment from the Lower 48 can mean a missed barge, an expensive charter flight or even a missed season. In trying to anticipate these challenges, it helps to be surrounded by people who have faced them before. It’s easy to feel like we’re each out there by ourselves, trying to crack this or that tough nut, but I think it’s by working within the community that we truly find success.
I’ll be honest — I wasn’t really thinking about all of that as I floated under the Kaibab suspension bridge at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I was mostly just thinking about how, almost a century ago, people slung a bridge over the Colorado River. I later learned a little bit more about how they did it — as I’d imagined, lots of mules and lots of hard work. One picture I saw showed a crew of Havasupai tribesmen carrying a cable as thick as their arms down a row of switchbacks. It made me glad we have helicopters for that kind of thing. But as I think about it now, I think that the people who built that bridge were probably a lot like me, and probably like a lot of contractors — the type of people who get excited about the possibilities of a new job, who might look at a bridge and wonder how it was built, and maybe even how they might build it a little bit better.