Lettings are strange animals.
Most people in this world have no idea what they are. People often ask why I'm attending a "wedding" on a Tuesday. It used to frustrate me, but now I just laugh. I'll say, "No, not a wedding. A letting--a bid letting. It's how we get work." Most of the time, the conversation ends there because it's a foreign, somewhat boring-sounding concept. While the concept may sound boring, the actual process of a letting is anything but boring.
The "older" generation tells the "younger" generation how much we've missed out on; how the lettings used to be about relationships, gathering with other folks from the industry who lived around the state, and all-nighters to work on strategy and tweaking numbers. Fortunately, I am just barely old enough to know what they are talking about. Sometime in the mid-nineties, it was the rage to purchase a computer, a massive printer with rolls of paper, and floppy disks. These would accompany you on your monthly journey to each state capitol and would make you super-high tech during the process. It only required two whole hotel luggage carts to get this modern technology into your hotel room.
I know this for a fact, because as a child, my father employed my willingness to endlessly enter numbers into a computer. At first, he only used my skills at home. Once I had proven that I was capable of listening to and entering accurate numbers, he decided that I could progress in my responsibility. On a few rare occasions, most likely during summer break, he felt that it made sense for me to join him in Nashville to enter his numbers into the computer for him. This was a special treat. I got to travel with my daddy, stay up late, and enjoy the Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Krystal cheeseburgers that arrived at the hotel promptly at midnight. I got to meet the people who my father respected and talked about when he was discussing jobs. I got to feel the energy and the tension that is generated by a group of people who know they must be low in order to be awarded a job, but high enough to cover their costs and make a profit. And I got to witness exactly what a bid letting felt like. I am probably one of the few people in my 20s to have this experience, since none of us were of working age to have experienced this professionally.
Fast-forward to 2011. All state-wide lettings are electronic. There is no gathering of the industry--everyone works from what is most likely a number of sleekly designed laptops, all inside a home office. There is no dash to deliver the sealed envelope--a bid is sent with a click of a button. There are no Krispy Kremes or Krystals, but that probably has something to do with being headquartered in Mountain City.
In our office, what remains, though, is the energy. The days leading up to the third Tuesday of every month are filled with energy. This was most clearly exhibited during the December NCDOT letting. It is common for the State of North Carolina to let their paving projects in the winter. This allows the contractors who are awarded the project time to plan for the project, line up subcontractors, and coordinate the work with the State. It also allows us to work on these projects during the entire paving season. What is not common is for all of the counties we would normally bid to be in the exact same letting. They would typically be spread out over 2 or 3 months. This year they were not. We bid 10 jobs in one day. To say that there was energy in the office on December 20 (and many days before), would be a huge understatement. All hands were on deck for our biggest letting day of the year. Boo-boos were unacceptable. Uh-ohs could not be allowed. To screw up one job is rough, to screw up on 10 jobs could be disastrous.
The amazing part to me, is that with all of this pressure, our office maintained a light-hearted approach to the day. One of our head estimators has been with Maymead since I was a toddler. He has taught me how to run our systems, how to compare quotes, and how to enter things in the way that "Pard" likes them. One of our other estimators has been with Maymead almost as long. He taught me how to swim when I was three. He has also taught me much of the spec books and how to understand the nuances of the mix designs. My father runs the ship, but relies on them and many others. He is truly a master of strategy, a numbers wizard, and a shrewd businessman. However, in the middle of it all, he takes the time to explain to Bart and me why he looks at items in certain ways, how bonding on a particular job works, or to answer any of our other questions. These three men have worked with each other for over 20 years. So while we may not have had Krystals at midnight, when we went home to eat spaghetti that my mom had prepared before going back to the office to keep working, it was like having family dinner.
Many people say that the transportation industry is like a big family. And I think that many people across each of the states that we work in would agree. It is unfortunate that the contractors don't come from around the state to bid work in a central location because the younger generation misses out on the exposure to other experienced people from across the state. But I am fortunate to have received the tutelage that I receive each month within our own corporation.
It is absolutely impossible to describe the electricity associated with any bid day. Faxes blare, emails ding, phones ring off the hook, and people run up and down the halls all day. It is necessary to keep focus on the hundreds of numbers on any given computer screen or quote page. Likewise, balancing the numbers with the descriptions of a work item in the ever-changing spec book or proposal is critical.
Honestly, the set up may not be in a capitol city's hotel, but I'm not sure that a whole lot of the process has changed. The excitement may not be quite the same as when I was in awe of the hot Krispy Kremes, but being tasked with assisting in the process of ensuring that we have work for our company day-in and day-out has a responsibility, electricity and enjoyment all of its own.
The technology may be more advanced, and the venue a little less swanky, but I'm still entering numbers for my daddy. And enjoying every minute of it.