By Sara Sankowich
The fall season is prime time for vegetation management line-clearance companies to bid on utility projects. Many tree companies inquire about bids and about getting onto a utility’s “storm list” for the winter season. Contract companies should be aware that utilities consider several factors — such as insurance, whether workers are line-clearance qualified, and each company’s community relationships — when evaluating contract bids or seeking vendors for storm emergencies. Utilities, through careful planning and open communication, also can take steps to form positive relationships with vendors and improve outcomes during utility projects and restoration work.
Meeting basic requirements
If yours is a tree care company, you can enhance your chances of entering a competitive bid on a utility contract by first ensuring you meet criteria in two major areas: insurance and qualified workers. Utility insurance requirements for contractors will vary from state to state, but required coverage is often greater than what you may normally carry for non-line-clearance work — especially if yours is a small business. Line-clearance companies can start evaluating these requirements, and determining whether they can meet them, by gathering all the facts and asking questions. The utility’s procurement and/or legal department can advise you of the best way to qualify or reach coverage levels.
Contract vendors will also need to employ qualified line-clearance arborists. To have a “qualified crew,” you must meet the requirement of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) 1910.269, which includes having at least one qualified line-clearance arborist on site who, among other requirements, is able to identify the electric line, how much voltage it conducts, and the appropriate minimum approach distance for work. A second line-clearance tree worker must be within voice distance when the first arborist approaches within 10 feet of a conductor energized at 750 volts or more. To ensure your company is qualified, the utility will review your safety manual, which must be up to date. It always helps to reference the applicable OSHA requirements and current ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards.
While qualified workers and proper insurance are vital, you can also stand out in other ways. Consider highlighting positive relationships you may have with local municipalities. A company looking to be a go-to vendor in storm restoration work, for example, will be well served if it is locally known and respected. If you have knowledge of historic trees, scenic roads, and alternate routes, you likely will be able to work more efficiently and be more resourceful when dealing with road closures and downed lines during storm work. You also could have an advantage dealing with sensitive customer conditions if power outages turn into multi-day events. Capitalize on these local relationships and strengths by adding them to your bid. Highlight past successes — especially if they show a proven ability to respond quickly and work well with municipal contacts. Sell yourself and the relationships you’ve worked hard to build and maintain.
Succeeding in the proposal process
As a contract line-clearance company, you can take several steps to set yourself apart from the competition during the utility’s bid process.
First, consider presentation; a clean and well-written cover letter that is professional-looking and includes your company logo can make a big difference in how you are perceived. Unless the utility has requested hard copies of a proposal document, it is usually easiest to submit your bid electronically. Take the time to make sure it reads professionally and accurately, and that you have addressed all the requirements in the request for proposal (RFP). If you have questions, concerns, or alternate ideas for completing the work, don’t be afraid to note them — especially if your ideas have the potential to save the utility time and money. Smaller companies concerned about bidding against larger companies may consider highlighting unique resources that can set them apart or designate them as specialty partner on a job-by-job basis. These resources may include special equipment such as a crane, a backyard bucket, mowing equipment, climbers, or the ability to handle large, difficult tree removals.
One mistake bidding contractors often make — that is easy to fix and may make a big difference in the outcome of work award — is not fully responding to the utility’s questions in the RFP. When a vendor declines to answer certain questions or responds with a blanket statement such as, “To be disclosed upon project award,” the utility may not have enough information to make an informed decision. It may also view the contractor as lacking credibility. Assume the utility will review and evaluate each question, and will evaluate your responses based on both price and information provided.
The biggest mistake bidding contractors make is not taking the time to ensure they fully understand the work or requirements of the bid. If you don’t understand part of the RFP or aren’t sure how much information is required, ask! Get clarification on the process of bid evaluation. Avail yourself of the opportunity to present yourself in best light by highlighting both required [ital>and<ital] specialized skills.
The following tips can also help you stand out in the bid process:
- Give as much detail as you feel comfortable providing. If you could offer different pricing for different volumes or combinations of work award, explain this with as much detail as you can.
- Provide safety manuals electronically whenever possible. These documents can be hundreds of pages long and unwieldy for a utility to sort or file.
- Designate milestones that will indicate your progress on a project. This can help the utility feel confident that you are capable of tracking the project and meeting required completion dates. Consider building in “extras,” such as incentives for early completion.
- If yours is a small company and you want to bid on a job but are worried about having enough resources for emergency events, look for ways to partner with other small companies that can complement your crews in emergency situations. These partnerships show you aren’t only thinking about this particular job, but the utility’s interests and storm response needs as well.
- Highlight unique initiatives. Have you made special efforts around sustainability or technology? Perhaps your company uses “green” trucks that run on biodiesel. Maybe you’ve implemented GIS technology for crew tracking. Differentiators such as these may give you an edge over an otherwise similar vendor.
- Explicitly point out places where your process can save the utility money (e.g., if you can do the work with less traffic control required, at a lower impact to customers, or in a shorter timeframe). Think outside the box and show the savings.
- Highlight your experience with similar work to demonstrate you can handle the job. Consider including large-scale projects with major deadlines, city or municipal work, government work, etc. Provide references without being asked for them.
Additionally, if you didn’t win a bid, it’s never a bad idea to contact the utility for feedback as a learning experience for next time. Some utilities routinely hold “after-award” meetings for both successful and unsuccessful bidders to learn about the process and how to improve for future projects. These meetings offer a chance for both sides to more accurately determine risks, clarify areas of confusion, and clear up misunderstandings. Remember, you don’t need to wait until the bid process has ended to ask questions. Contact the utility before the RFP due date to clarify any areas of confusion.
From the utility perspective
Utilities can also take several steps to foster positive relationships with their vendors, which can benefit both sides (and customers) — especially during restoration work.
When issuing an RFP, utilities should work closely with their procurement departments to make sure all bid process information and material is provided in detail, including timeline and expectations, as well as job scope and specifications. Doing so will help ensure qualified vendors understand the project upfront and price it appropriately.
Utilities can also add to their resources for storm restoration work by forming relationships with local companies, which may mean just qualifying companies and adding them to the roster in the case of a storm. Having these relationships in place before a major storm hits can make a big difference in the first 24 to 48 hours following a storm event. Even a few extra crews on-call means the utility can get a jump on the critical first-phase restoration work while waiting for more out-of-town crews to arrive.
Although a contractor’s price and qualifications are important, utilities will also benefit from selecting vendors who align with their core values. For example, if community goodwill or positive relationships with municipalities are of importance, the utility will want to select contractors who have good reputations locally and experience with town or city leadership.
After a major storm event or project completion, an acknowledgement of effort can go a long way toward maintaining a positive utility/contractor relationship. Utilities might consider offering T-shirts, hats, or a simple list of stats touting number of trees removed or customers restored in a given timeframe.
A positive relationship on both sides
Selecting the right vendors and having local crews in reserve for storms is critical to a utility’s ability to ensure safety for its customers and deliver reliable electric service. Line-clearance companies who hold the appropriate insurance and employ qualified line-clearance workers meet the critical basic requirements to bid. While these factors are important, the ability to communicate clearly and openly, ask questions, and work collaboratively with municipalities, other companies, and the utility itself cannot be overemphasized. Open communication can only help in building a positive relationship for both sides.
Sara Sankowich is system arborist at Unitil, a public utility holding company, headquartered in Hampton, New Hampshire, that provides electric and natural gas distribution services in New England.