DNA of a Chief Estimator

Interview with Brad Ens, Chief Estimator, PCL

Brad Ens | Hays DNA of a Chief Estimator
Was construction always your career path?
Like many Estimators I fell into the estimating position after finishing college and joining a small construction company. I really didn’t know much about estimating and my only estimating experience at the time was gained during a course I attended at SAIT for Architectural Technologies.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
The role I was offered was a mix of estimating and project management and it wasn’t long before I realized that I enjoyed the estimating part of the job more. It was the variety of experiences that I was exposed to daily. Everything I estimated was lump sum tendered so there was a degree of finality, which I loved. You would work on an estimate for a week or so and at 2:30 pm on the day of closing you had the result. I learned quickly that in the estimating side of the business you are exposed to and involved in a lot of the decision making in construction.

I enjoy working with consultants, trades and material suppliers and finding creative ways to make a client’s expectations happen. There is so much conflict in estimating between what different people want and what you can do to fit the project into a determined budget, so being behind the scenes and able to engineer a situation that satisfies everyone is a good feeling. It is extremely fulfilling when you pass on a well thought out plan to the operations team. It’s not often when you have a job that offers you the closure that estimating does.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along your career path?
The misconception of estimating as a career by others is a constant challenge. Even within estimating there is a perception that the job is just measuring quantities and looking through binders for historical data. It’s much more than that. Measuring quantities is easy; building relationships is hard. Anticipating how certain contractors will price a project is hard. Normalizing ten quotations all with different exclusions is hard. I must admit that I get a certain amount of pride in my skills when a person that doesn’t understand the intricate workings of our job is exposed to a tender closing. You can see that moment of realization when they realize that an estimator’s skill is different than that of their own.

I find that estimators tend to not like the limelight, but we do want some recognition of our role in the success of a project. PCL is working hard to raise the profile of Estimators by ensuring compensation is equivalent to operations and restructuring the estimating stream so the career opportunities are aligned with estimating.

What technical skills are integral to the role?
You need a combination of analytical skills and a vivid imagination. A Project Manager and superintendent may physically build one project a year, but an Estimator may conceptually build ten or more. You need to be able to completely understand construction documents and drawings including contract types. Estimating is something that depends on a process and procedure that can be repeated on all estimating projects. An estimator needs to be the type of person that can follow that process and procedure every time you work on a project.

Projects these days are definitely getting more complicated. Sites are smaller and the buildings are more complex. This is forcing the construction methods that were once fairly straight forward to be more and more complicated. New estimators are having a harder time grasping the scope of projects drawings because of this. Being able to develop a very strong technical understanding of drawings early on is important so you can scale that knowledge up as you work on more complex projects.

What soft skills/characteristics are integral to the role?
Technical knowledge alone will only get you to certain point in your career. If estimating is your long-term goal you will need to develop your behavioral skills. An estimator can close their office door and measure quantities and build spreadsheets all day in peace and quiet. A Senior Estimator, however, needs to leave their door open to be available answer questions and mentor others. You need to be a master at communication and have good presentation skills. You need to have the ability to sell ideas to colleagues, architects and clients and perfect the ability to get information to whoever needs it to help make decisions.

When you get to the role of Chief Estimator, depending on your company, you don’t really do estimating anymore. You are now responsible for mentoring all staff, overseeing and developing better processes and procedures and make sure they are followed. You are also responsible for guiding your team in their development of their careers. I like to think that my job as Chief Estimator is to remove all obstacles that are preventing the team from fulfilling their maximum potential.

What is your advice to someone moving up the ranks in the function and wants to pursue an executive career?
You can only make it so far on your own. To have a fulfilling career as an estimator you need to build and surround yourself with honest relationships from all aspects construction.  You will need the help of your peers and you need to build a good team around yourself.

You also need to get noticed through innovation. If you come up with an idea that shines it will get noticed by the right people.

How important is it to be exposed to all areas of the business?
It’s very important to understand how the company operates to progress in your career. You need to have a good understanding of how contracts and the accounting system works. You will also need to be involved in the human resources end of the business to fully appreciate the hiring process and how the company culture affects good hiring decisions.

What is the one thing you have to have to be a chief estimator in your opinion?
Patience. You cannot develop your team to produce quality work without patience. You need to understand that everyone has the same skill level and that can be frustrating. Not only to you but to the person learning.

In your opinion, how important is networking?
Very important. What makes a good Senior or Chief is the relationships you have with people. Making and keeping relationships can be tough in construction as people move around or trade relationships can be damaged by performance issues but it’s important to keep working on them. The key is to make the relationship real and relevant and understand that they have to be a two-way street. You will not succeed without good relationships.

Is there anything you would have differently looking back at your career path?
Working for a bigger company earlier on in my career may have sped up how quickly I could have become a Chief Estimator. It is a tradeoff though. At a bigger company, you have the benefit of structured training programs, an established human resources department and proper resources that allow you to properly learn how to be an estimator. At small companies, you get a lot of experience in all parts of the job very quickly. It can be a “sink or swim” situation but if you manage to survive you can be better for it. This type of background makes you more self-sufficient although you may have learned some bad habits.

Compared to five or 10 years ago, how would you say your role has evolved?
Five years ago, my job was estimating. Today it’s managing people and process. I have enjoyed it’s evolution. Managing people is challenging but it is also rewarding when you can make a difference in someone’s career.

What advice would you give to the next generation of professionals aspiring to become a chief estimator?
Self-reflect on your skills. Understand the difference between behavioral and technical skills. Push yourself to be in uncomfortable situations that highlight areas that you may not have mastered yet or are just not very good at. It is the act of pushing ourselves into those situations that will make you who or what you want to be. You will be rewarded for your efforts. It may not be immediate but it will be inevitable. If something scares you then that’s probably a sign that you need to focus on that area for development.

The job of a Chief Estimator is not the same in every company but the job is what you make it. Don’t have a preconceived idea of what the duties of a Chief Estimator are. Just know that you are able to lead people and there will be freedom to adjust processes or roles as long as you get good results. It’s all about supporting people and not dictating what they do. You make sure the supplies, time, resources and knowledge are there to make the team productive, and tailor how you run your department to how you work best. At the end, you want people to come to you for your advice and not instructions on what they are to do next.