What makes a good main contractor?

So, what makes a good main contractor?

A year or two ago, I was asked a very interesting question. It went something like this: Over the years, you’ve worked closely with many main contractors (some may call them builders). What, in your opinion, makes a good main contractor? What makes certain main contractors stand out from others?”

To put this in context, the abovementioned question was raised by a main contractor/builder in response to my question, which was: “In your professional opinion, what makes a good plumbing contractor?” By the way, his answer to my question was very interesting indeed. Perhaps I will share his very enlightening perspective at a later stage.

I decided not to answer his question straight away, and requested he give me a day or two to ponder, and ponder I did.

I gathered my thoughts and cobbled together the piece below.

Firstly, my humble disclaimer: the opinions mentioned herein are mine and mine alone. I speak not for all South African plumbing contractors, nor do I speak on behalf of any organisation, body or party.

They say a good main contractor is hard to find. I don’t fully agree with the statement. I have been fortunate enough over the years to work with very good main contractors. I do agree that some are not so great, but good main contractors do exist. I suppose the same could be said about plumbing contractors. Here a just a few points that I believe separate the good from the bad…

In my experience, the success of a project can be attributed to the manner in which a main contractor manages the day-to-day running of the project. One may have the crème de la crème of sub-contractors, but if the main contractor is disorganised, there is little hope for the project.

Time and time again, I’ve seen that construction projects succeed when there is cohesion between the sub-contractors and the main contractor, and – crucially – between sub-contractor and sub-contractor.

A main contractor who treats his sub-contractors with respect and values their experience and expertise creates an environment where people are motivated to perform at their best. On any construction project, small or large, a driven and productive workforce is essential if the team is to meet the expectations of the client. Main contractors who realise the inherent value of working as a team and understand that a project cannot be successfully completed without sub-contractors are already streaks ahead of their competition. The amazing thing about this ethos is that it doesn’t cost anything, but delivers innumerable results for the main contractor, the sub-contractor and, indeed, the client.

That said, teamwork will only take one so far. An effective team requires effective leadership, thus a project needs strong leadership to succeed. Main contractors who understand that their role is to lead and not dictate, to direct and not command, and to be proactive and not reactive, get the most out of their sub-contractors.

Main contractors who have mastered the art of effective communication between themselves, their sub-contractors and the professional team see immediate results. Communication, or lack thereof, can make or break a project. Personally, I believe in the effectiveness of talking face-to-face where possible, or telephonically. WhatsApp groups, blanket emails and other such platforms tend to be less effective.

There are construction programmes for a reason. Main contractors who aggressively work to the construction programme and enforce this with the sub-contractors deliver the project on time. Clients love this. The sooner the client gets his building, the sooner he or she can gain from its actual purpose. Main contractors who engage with their sub-contractors and ask for their valued input when construction programmes are initially put together, and when the programme changes during the execution of the project, finish the project on time, and the right quality is achieved.

Main contractors who pay their sub-contractors on time, every time, get the most out of their sub-contractors. I have experienced this time and time again, year after year. It’s no secret that the construction industry is a tough one. A cocktail of physically back-breaking work, an army of people on each site and immense pressure from every angle, fuse together to make every project a challenging project. Talk to any sub-contractor and they will tell you the same thing: “My job is difficult enough. Don’t make it more difficult by not paying me on time.” Pay your sub-contractors on time and watch them perform!

Sub-contractors who are on the receiving end of timeous site instructions from the main contractor are more than happy to carry out the work. If you want to know how to quickly lose production output from sub-contractors, instruct them to carry out work with no official site instruction. It’s a sure way to slow down progress. It is standard business practice (at least in South Africa) to furnish a merchant/supplier or service provider with an official purchase before the merchant/supplier or service provider will supply what you’ve ordered. “I will send you the purchase order later or next week” simply isn’t sufficient for a merchant/supplier to act on. Why is it that some main contractors expect their sub-contractors to carry out work without an official purchase order? After all, an official site instruction is effectively an official purchase order for work to be executed. If you are a main contractor, try issuing site instructions consistently; you won’t regret it.

Main contractors who are happy to pay their sub-contractors for the domestic extras create a fair and equitable work environment. Be fair, be reasonable and the production will follow.

I’m a neat freak, so for me, a disorganised and untidy site inspires little confidence. I’ve realised that organised, clean sites are usually well run, well managed sites. Main contractors who see the value of a broom and know its purpose get the thumbs up from me.

There is nothing more valuable than human life. Main contractors who are serious about the safety of personnel on site and are prepared to sacrifice profits to ensure a safe work environment will not struggle to find willing sub-contractors to work with. Nobody wants to be the person who has to phone the spouse of an injured or deceased worker due to negligence by a main contractor. Sites with unsafe scaffolding, unsafe formwork, overloaded tower cranes and passenger hoists have no place on earth. Safety starts with the main contractor. It’s virtually impossible to work safely on site if the main contractor pays little regard to health and safety. The motto should be: everyone home safe, every day.

In summary, the construction industry is not for the faint hearted. If you possess an innate passion for constructing buildings, but you are reckless or you’re not careful, the industry will chew you up and spit you out.

So, why do we continue? I believe that we keep coming back for more because there is just so much satisfaction when a project is complete. We love the adrenaline rush injected when the pressure is on! Every pipe we install, every brick laid by the bricklayer, every tile laid by the tiler and every stroke of the painter’s brush comes together to form the buildings of the future. The story below illustrates how having the right attitude can change the perspective of a sub-contractor:


A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly: ‘I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.’


A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently, and when asked what it was that he was doing, he answered: ‘Well, I’m moulding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.’


A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work, he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, ‘I… am building a cathedral!’


Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job.


You cannot put a price on having motivated sub-contractors on a project!

Love what you do and do what you love!

Dean Cane