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The PMs

They earn a living from doing what most of us would only attempt once in a lifetime – and vow never to do again. And once they’ve completed the job, they don’t even get to enjoy the end result. Fiona Galea Debono meets two project managers, who have to handle workmen and other complex construction hurdles, while keeping it all together.

Annaliese Muscat Azzopardi has been a freelance project manager for about 10 years

What skills does a project manager bring to the table that not even the most hands-on, organised and on-the-ball client has?

If it is someone’s home, then it is probably the largest investments the person is making in their life

There are two main ones, and I’d call them advantages, rather than skills. A client, to whatever extent, always has some emotional attachment to the property. If it is a residential property, someone’s home, then it is probably the largest (or one of the largest) investments the person is making in their life. Naturally, there is an amount of anxiety related to making sure that the property is as practical, functional and aesthetically pleasing as possible. When the property is commercial in nature, then it is likely that there are business prospects involved, which create the same kind of worry as that involved in a private home. As a project manager, there is no emotional attachment – you look at the job with more objectivity and are able to make decisions related solely to the interests of the task at hand. Another key element would be the fact that clients already have a full life before the idea of a house refurbishment comes along. Whether it is work, kids, or travel, the amount of time doing up a house takes is not usually readily available. As a PM, I wake up to do specifically this.

Does project managing ever become a walk in the park, or does it always throw up unpleasant surprises and frustration, despite the years of experience?

Preparation is a key factor and unless there is something impossible to foresee at the start, or a change in plans, then there are no real unpleasant surprises. This does, however, depend very much on the clients’ consistency in decision-making and on the choice of and negotiations with the contractors involved. It is pointless to obtain ridiculously low prices or guarantees of extremely speedy jobs that are unrealistic as problems are then only to be expected.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt along the years?

That people speak different languages. The main tool in the job is communication, and to get through to everyone, you cannot address all people in the same way. It is normally much easier to get things done talking to people in the language they are comfortable with, rather than trying to get them to understand your way of thinking and talking.

What is the biggest problem you normally encounter on the job and how do you overcome it?

Delays, whether caused by contractors not turning up to do their job, or clients changing their minds, or taking long to make up their minds… Every job, every site, every team engaged in every project is different and requires different handling. A PM co-ordinates between the elements on the project to try to achieve the most timely, cost-effective result for the client. With contractors, you try to choose those who have delivered efficiently on previous projects, even when they had no penalties imposed for delays, rather than counting on penalties as the instigator for the contractor to deliver on time.

With clients it is harder to force a decision since any choice is something they would normally have to live with for quite a while… And it is understandable that clients want to choose the best for themselves, so I must admit I do struggle to push clients too much to make the bigger decisions when they seem wary of them…

Have you ever felt like blowing up a place, or at least, throwing in the towel?

Yes, but that’s usually the point where it starts getting better. Somehow, when you get to the point where you feel you cannot get through, you become more creative… I don’t know whether that makes sense but it seems to work that way.

What do you love doing most?

I like the fact that my days are all varied – I spend a lot of my time out and running around, but have those quiet administrative days too. I love doing what I do because there is a start and an end date to every project. I am always working towards a deadline. It feels a bit like changing jobs every few months… I work with a different set of people – architects, contractors, clients – for every job and the experience changes every time. But more than that, I think the experience of having a group of people come together for a finite amount of time, working towards achieving the same goal, who then go their own separate ways after, is what keeps me doing what I do. The greatest sense of achievement I think, though, is passing by the project even years later, seeing it still looking good and being proud to have done my bit towards it

What kind of attention have you given to your own property in relation to that of others?

None. During the time I was working on finishing my own property, I was also working full time on a commission-based job, which meant that if I did not perform, I wouldn’t get paid. It was a nightmare. Now that I am doing what I do, I would love to take care of a project for my own use… which, hopefully, I will start shortly.

Do you feel the same sense of satisfaction as an owner would once the project is over?

Hmmm… The end of a project for me would be the beginning of the owner’s life in the property… There is usually that one day towards the end of a project, normally when the light fittings are installed and it’s late afternoon, where I turn to leave for the day and suddenly the property looks complete.

Since I spend time on site practically every day, I see all the steps in the development, and rarely appreciate major changes (the way a foreign client would, for example, if they come back to the site after months of work). So that one evening, where I look back and find the finished product behind me, is thrilling. For an owner, once the project is complete the fun is usually about to start.

Why do workmen have such a poor reputation for simply not showing up, or disappearing from the site and delaying the process? What’s the antidote?

While there are many diligent workers, who come to work, start and complete a project, there are, of course, also those who take on too much work at the same time, or who commit themselves to deadlines on different projects, which, through no fault of their own, end up coinciding.

While it is normal that unforeseen issues crop up on site, a positive attitude by the workers – answering the phone, explaining why they are not on site and stating when they will be back – helps to make a negative situation slightly better. What I believe gives the worst impression is when workers disappear from site, hold projects back and make themselves completely unavailable, leaving the client and other contractors in the dark as to when works could proceed.

So many workers seem to have so much work on their plate and actually turn down jobs. Is this a true picture of the industry?

Many Maltese workers are one- or two-man bands, who can only commit themselves to one project at a time. They generally have one main set of tools and, therefore, cannot work in different places at the same time. In my experience, they are often the better workers, and get paid well enough for what they are doing to justify staying put until a job is complete to the satisfaction of all concerned.

What is hardest to deal with: the clients or the workmen?

Again, if you can speak to either in a language they understand, use logic in relation to problem-solving and have respect for opinions and experience, most people become very easy to deal with.

What’s the worst type of client?

If you understand where a person’s coming from, you can usually understand what they need to make them feel comfortable and can eliminate most of the negative elements that can lead a working relationship to turn sour.

The worst type of project?

One with too many leaders…

Your greatest achievement?

I would say my experience at Bay Street was probably the job with the greatest learning curve… It was the project with the shortest deadline, and the most clients and workers to deal with at the same time.

And the job you’d most like to work on?

Too many to mention!

What unforeseen surprises have you unearthed when doing up a property?

I would say subterranean rooms in old properties. One time, an owner, over-excited at having already found two new cellars underlying his property while the workmen cleared debris out of the existing cellar, asked them to clear away the stones blocking yet another arch within the same space. The workmen complied, and a short while later, found themselves staring at the next-door neighbour, who happened to be watching TV in his living room at the time…

What’s your advice to someone embarking on a project?

Check your requirements and lifestyle. Make your decisions, write them down so you’re committed to them, place your orders and then take your project on site.

Starting a project without having firm decisions is a recipe for disaster, as is starting works just to get the works started. The length of time that works take is much shorter and cleaner, and allows less possibility for mistakes when the planning phase is given its due importance.

How do you keep sane?

My friends probably don’t think I am! Other tricks are a bit of exercise as many mornings as I can manage, and avoiding tackling work issues over the weekend, plus a 20-minute stop for lunch during the day with my phone ringer turned off.

Sean Arrigo has been a project manager since 1995

What skills does a project manager bring to the table that not even the most hands-on, organised and on-the-ball client has?

Once workmen/contractors realise they are not indispensable and can be replaced at the flick of a finger, they become more and more reliable

I think the technical knowhow, avail­able contacts, together with the ability to put together all the requirements into an always very tight timeline is the key to being successful in this trade.

Does project managing ever become a walk in the park, or does it always throw up unpleasant surprises and frustration, despite the years of experience?

Some jobs are sometimes more pleasant than others, but I wouldn’t say it is ever a walk in the park. Obviously, experience makes you choose different routes for your next journey – slightly more comfortable ones!

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt along the years?

To learn from previous mistakes!

What is the biggest problem you normally encounter on the job and how do you overcome it?

I would say the biggest problem I always encounter is the deadline, topped up by delays in starting the job due to many reasons. The only way to overcome this is to work the project on paper over and over, using all the resources to your best advantage, without jeopardising the cost in the process.

What is the worst phase and how can it be mitigated?

Although it’s all pretty tough I would say the final phase would normally be the most challenging as that is what’s visible to the end user.

Have you ever felt like blowing up a place, or at least, throwing in the towel?

Almost, but I’m not the type to give up!

What do you love doing most?

To sail! Other than that, commercial works are my favourites.

What kind of attention have you given to your own property in relation to that of others?

A lot, but most of it is still on paper, although I must say, things are finally starting to happen.

Do you feel the same sense of satisfaction as an owner would once the project is over?

Yes, indeed. I still feel an immense rush even on jobs I finished years back.

Why do workmen have such a poor reputation for simply not showing up, or disappearing from the site and delaying the process? What’s the antidote?

I think that is a trait one learns to work around. Yes, workmen do have that reputation and it is also a fact in many cases. But once regular workmen/con­trac­tors realise they are not indispensable and can be replaced at the flick of a finger, they become more and more reliable. I can say that, at this point, I don’t face this problem much. As a precaution, I think knowing exactly what you or your client needs the first time round reduces the workmen’s frustration of having to come back for something silly.

So many workmen seem to have so much work on their plate and actually turn down jobs. Is this a true picture of the industry?

That seems to be true at the moment and, to be honest, I’d rather have a job offer turned down by a contractor than have him take me on one of those very long and unpleasant rides – of not turning up. But on the whole, if you can build a good relationship with a contractor, then you would normally be at the top of their list, and wouldn’t be faced with this problem too often.

What is hardest to deal with: the clients or the workmen?

I can probably say that both give their fair share of grief, although I have always had happy endings with clients. I can’t say the same about some workmen.

What’s the worst type of client?

A woman! Just kidding... I think the worst client is actually the undecided one.

The worst type of project?

That would be when the client is unsure of what he wants.

Your greatest achievement?

Having done what I’ve done, and waking up every morning to do more!

And the job you’d most like to work on?

To manage a sailing yacht building project... If that fails, my own dream house one day!

What unforeseen surprises have you unearthed when doing up a property?

Surprises crop up every single day, without fail. Some are silly ones, but some really take their toll on you until resolved.

What do you wish to see changed in the industry?

It would be great if our work were appreciated a little more than it is.

What’s your advice to someone embarking on a project?

Never take off without being happy with the project plan i.e. of both build and cost. Otherwise it’s one hell of an experience!

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