Time is Money

GBA Projects

Today it can sometimes seem as though everyone is a “project manager.” Can it really be that simple? “No,” is Greg Betros, Managing Director of GBA Projects Pty Ltd’s firm answer. “It really takes a long time to become a project manager.

GBA provides professional project management, construction management, planning, scheduling, monitoring and control services to industries and organisations across diverse sectors including infrastructure; building and construction; energy; mining; information technology and government. Greg started the company more than 26 years ago and now his sons have joined him; he delights in the “blend of youth and experience” tag. The latter includes what he terms “dinosaurs” like him, with their years of work on a vast array of projects at home and abroad; the former includes the kind of innovative in-house software that provides a new dimension in support, procedures and guidelines for clients’ projects.

Greg believes it takes at least five to ten years of experience in any chosen profession to become a true project manager in that particular field. In the construction industry specifically, it is necessary to work on a large number of projects; “indeed, dare I say it would be good to work on a few that didn’t go right, to know what you shouldn’t be doing,” Greg explains. “We find that too often people get a piece of paper that says, ‘I am now a project manager,’ or get some project software, but don’t see how things go together. I have seen over the years that people claim to be project managers or planners and schedulers but come up with what I consider to be inept plans and project management practices that actually cost the project quite dearly.”

This deficiency is industry wide and global. “Currently we are involved in a project overseas which is a major civil project in dispute and we have been asked to prepare extension of time claims which will be arbitrated on in the next couple of years.” Greg says the problem is becoming worse, too. Particularly when things get tight, it can be tempting to cut corners in bids and tenders to save a few dollars and this often takes the form of skimping on experienced people because they are too expensive. Mistakes get made because the people engaged on the projects lack the experience to avoid them. “Experience,” Greg says, “is not valued as highly as it should be.”

This could have led to difficult times for a firm of GBA’s expertise, but Greg says the company has successfully diversified – into defence and the resources sector among others, working on major projects for many of the top names. “Currently we are working in dispute projects as expert witnesses both in Australia and overseas.” Two senior staff have so far spent more than two and a half years on one particular overseas dispute, “and we are only just getting to the bottom of what happened on this eight-year project. But that is the type of situation people get themselves into, then they start fighting over sums that may exceed 200 million dollars.” Disasters on this scale can stem from the simple matter of selecting inexperienced (read ‘cheap’) people to manage a project, says Greg.

GBA Projects has considerable experience nationally and internationally in providing expertise over a broad range of projects which require dispute resolution processes. Detailed forensic investigation processes can help clients identify and address key pieces of evidence relating to a dispute. Experts provide accurate advice to help deliver favourable outcomes on all contractual issues. In the event that matters proceed further to a legal resolution, GBA can also provide expert witness services to support clients. Services in this area include adherence to contractual obligations, contract dispute resolution, forensic analysis, expert witness and arbitration advice, preparation of expert witness reports and presentation to the court process.

Greg concedes that the national and regional industry outlook is not terribly cheerful, even in South Australia – GBA is based in the centre of Adelaide – and that this depressed market tends to encourage disputes, general head-banging and an adversarial environment. GBA is particularly engaged on a large number of building projects where disputes have arisen concerning extensions of time. “They are getting more and more complicated and we are being asked to act as an independent referee as to what should be the time extension granted on a particular project.” In some instances, he says, this is a result of construction companies promising the earth just to win the business; his team is often in a situation of having to advise a client completing a tender that they are in danger of not completing on time and that they need to increase resources in certain sectors. “Sometimes this advice is ignored, but fortunately for most clients who use us, they take heed.” But that can mean they then do not win the projects, because they are allowing correctly for time and resources compared to rivals who under-bid and store up trouble for the later stages of the project.

There is a warning, too, that obligations are two-sided. “Clients in general need to administer their contracts properly as well. They also generally have an obligation, even if it is not claimed as an extension of time, to grant extensions of time to contractors whom they have delayed. What we see is clients – or more usually, their representatives – trying to browbeat the contractor. You need to analyse what the effect of the time is.” You can’t just double the resources on site to achieve completion on time, he explains, not least because the resources in many parts of Australia are already in short supply. “It’s all very well to say ‘you are running behind so get more resources’ – but where will you get them from?” Perhaps the only way out of such an impasse is to “work smarter. If you take the experience of people who have been there before, you can work out different ways of doing your construction,” such as switching to pre-cast concrete which won’t cost less but may enable a catching up of time.

Greg adds that even major clients, such as the top resources names, are sometimes guilty of underestimating things like lead times for equipment and supplies needed for projects. They can snap their fingers and requests of suppliers, “but there comes a point when you just can’t do it any better.” In many cases right across industry, “not enough attention is devoted to what you need to procure on time to deliver your projects on time. It’s a large area of dispute: ‘I couldn’t get my materials on time.’ ‘Well, did you order them in time?’ This gets worse with the larger organisations, who are very prone to impatience once they have approved a project, wanting completion before it is feasible to supply long lead-time items. This happens quite a lot in the resources industry where they require things to be done yesterday.”

Ideally, GBA would be consulted at a very early stage so it can carry out a full risk analysis on the delivery of the project, allowing for contingencies that would assure completion within certain parameters. Greg and his team are also happy to be consulted on matters such as shut-down management, although he concedes that dispute resolution is taking up more and more of the company’s time.

Being at the epicentre of large-scale disputes in the construction industry is not the place to make friends, Greg admits. “But we do get respect.” The nature of the work means that GBA’s staff are establishing performance targets for contractors and it can become adversarial. “The people we have in these organisations to help them plan and control their projects are sometimes considered almost as an enemy by the internal staff because they are being judged on their performances. Part of the training we give our staff is how to communicate with people and tell them we are there to help them work better and more efficiently rather than just to provide information that tracks their work.” Absolute down-the-middle impartiality is an essential. “We will tell it like it is and occasionally we lose a client over it – but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. We get called back by clients who know we will tell them what is really happening.” They may not like what they hear, but at least they will know what is required to fix a problem.

It’s an ill wind, of course, that blows no one any good, and Greg agrees GBA has indeed been fortunate in that clients either employ the company up front to prepare a project properly or, if they don’t, have to employ them later to sort out the mess. “I believe we have a reputation now of having people who know what they are doing in terms of extension of time claims.” He has taken care to train his younger staff in this field and says clients are now confident that the knowledge of the younger generation – “and that’s not just my sons” – is good enough to help deliver a project on budget and on time.

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

January 17, 2019, 4:55 AM AEDT