Back in the late 70’s things were going pretty well for us in the construction business, but had slowed a bit. As things often happen, a miracle job fell out of the sky.
A Burnet County fellow had gone off to Houston and was doing well contracting with Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. I knew of this guy but mostly just by name. He was a generation ahead of me, about my Dads age. He had been offered an opportunity to bid a project for SWB in Victoria. He didn’t have the manpower nor the proper sized equipment for such an undertaking, so he called us. He didn’t really know us, but knew of the Lewis boy’s.
We bid the project and was the low bidder. The job consisted of a large duct bank (that is a multiple arraignment of conduits in a single trench – with concrete poured around them) with several large concrete manholes. It ran right down Godwin Street in downtown Victoria to the main SWB office. The project was about 6 blocks long.
This wasn’t something we did everyday, but had done some of this type work before in the past. The job was split between us, doing the duct bank and the other fellow forming and casting the manholes. We no more than got started and our newly found partner (he was the contractor and we were the subcontractor) got disgruntled with the SWB people because they were giving him a hard time. He pulled up and left. We were going along with our end fairly well except for one thing. They were requiring that we saw cut the concrete street prior to demolishing the existing concrete. We did not have to cut all the way through the 6″ or 8″ of concrete but had to score or cut an 1 1/2″ deep so when we repaired it, it would look nice and maintain the integrity of the old concrete.
The first block or so we did had a seam or joint from prior construction that allowed us to not saw cut prior to destructing the concrete, so we were well into the project before we were faced with disaster.
You see, when we estimated the cost off cutting the concrete we based it on our experience back in Austin. What we didn’t know was Victoria’s aggregates are much harder and more abrasive than we had ever seen before. Down that far, most gravel deposits are mostly flint rock. This is due to the tumbling action of being transported downstream over the years most rock is already reduced to sand, with only the hardest minerals surviving to be gravel sized aggregate.
This all meant that instead of using a $20 abrasive saw blade to cut a 100 feet, it was taking a $400 diamond blade to cut 10 feet. Do the math. It was a Disaster in the making.
By this time we were so invested in the job, we couldn’t leave, but we couldn’t stay under those conditions. Kenny was down on that project and doing everything he could to continue on. He sure wasn’t getting much help out of SWB. It seemed like they did everything they could to hamper our production.
There was a reason for them riding us so hard. I’ll explain that a little later in the story.
The manholes weren’t getting built, but we knew that could come afterwards. It wasn’t our contract, so we didn’t concern ourselves with it too much. But the concrete cutting costs were going to take as much as we had in the project.
Kenny came in one weekend and told me he’d tried everything to get them to waive the saw cutting requirement. He mentioned that the inspector wasn’t going to be there the next Monday and Tuesday. Since I hadn’t been involved directly on the job, I figured I could play dumb and show up in Kennys place on Monday and make things happen. There wasn’t specific language about the saw cutting, but they laid it off as their customary procedure and we should have known it.
We brought in every available man and a fleet of air compressors with concrete breaking equipment and in two days broke out all the rest of the concrete for the remainder of the job.
I had a very unhappy inspector when he got back on Wednesday. All I could do was apologize for not knowing what was customary in excavating in the streets of Victoria. He said we would have to cut it prior to repairing it, since we hadn’t precut it. He finally calmed down and we went forward with the job.
In the end the contractor never did return so we made a deal with SWB to buy and install precast manholes so in the end, the job got completed and we survived to see another day. After we finished, for a long time we would get invites to go back and bid on other jobs, but I figured I’d seen enough of Victoria. And by the way, we repaired the street without doing any more saw cutting.
These pictures are not the actual project but will give you an idea of what we were doing. The top picture looks like they saw cut the full depth of the slab.
Your Friends Can Create Havoc For You – And Maybe Not Even Realize It
I had a couple of friends back in Austin. One had owned a very well established contracting firm (a friendly competitor that had sold to a big national conglomerate). Besides cashing out with big bucks, he was hired to run all their Texas operations. This big firm did a lot of contracting with Southwestern Bell Telephone all over Texas.
The second friend was an equipment dealer that sold literally hundreds of backhoes and other machines to this big national company. I bought several machines from him, but nothing on the scale of the big guy’s. Besides our business relationship, we were neighbors. He lived across the street from us.
One day Mr. Equipment guy stopped to visit when he saw me out at the mailbox. Inquiring about what all was going on in my world, I told him about my new venture that was getting ready to happen down in Victoria. A few days later he we ran into each other again. He further inquired about my relationship with the guy out of Houston and the Victoria project. He ask a lot more questions that an equipment peddler normally would. But I didn’t think that much about it, just thinking he was interested in me.
What I found out some months later was he was feeding all these details to his friend, the guy with the large contracting company. The guy with the big contracting company was in turn meeting with the SWB folks down in Victoria in an attempt to lessen his competition. Victoria had been a very good market for them. I think they call that “having someone in your pocket”.
Strange how those things happen. I really don’t think either man thought they were doing harm to me. They saw it as only keeping another competitor away from the trough, the Houston guy moving in on their territory. They only saw me as lowly subcontractor, so they weren’t talking us down. But what they didn’t consider was the trickle down effect it had.
Funny thing about business. I went on to do business with the equipment guy. A short time later the construction guy retired but then helped his son in law start a construction business. In doing so I went on to work with him on several projects, through his son in laws company. Both people treated me very well in our future dealings. I think perhaps the guilt they each felt played a big part in it.
When it was clear to me what had happened I went to each of those 2 men and explained to them what they had done. They never readily admitted that they had done what I accused them of, but they also couldn’t deny it either.
They are both dead and gone but I still value the lessons I learned at their hands.
It’s strange how things go sometimes.