Commercial refrigeration contractors and their supermarket customers are on separate but parallel journeys. Along the way, they’re facing changing regulations, high efficiency demands, a seemingly endless quest for quality employees, and very competitive business environments. But, they’re realizing, more than ever before, the value of working together. New leadership at contracting firms and supermarket chains are building upon a greater understanding of business management principles, and they share a more mature approach to problem solving: diplomacy works, independence doesn’t.

At the second annual Contracting Business.com/Supermarket News Refrigeration Roundtable held during 2011 HVACR Week in Indianapolis, IN, Sept. 21-23, our contractor and supermarket panelists were unanimous in their appreciation for a level-headed, team approach to project management. It’s one of many subjects we’ll cover in a series of four articles.

Refrigeration Systems Take TIME
Sometimes, "three's a crowd” when it comes to new construction projects. While general contractors hold sway over an entire supermarket construction schedule, the refrigeration contractor and supermarket team speak a language all their own, and they need time to iron out project details related to systems installations.

"In a supermarket project, of course, it's the general contractor that handles the building start-up and construction. And, in many cases, the store owner directly manages the refrigeration portion of the store. In our markets, we deal directly with the store owner rather than the general contractor that’s putting up the building," said Richard Adkins, director of marketing, Advantage Refrigeration, New Berlin, WI. "It seems like everyone wants things done faster and cheaper, due in part to the economy and the cost of money. Therefore, working together in new construction must be based on an understanding of shorter project timetables, but also on the need to follow proper installation procedures. In the installation process of a refrigeration system, there are steps that can’t be missed, and which take time in order for the job to be completed properly," Adkins said. "There has to be a correlation between the time required for a proper refrigeration system installation, and the time it takes to build out the entire store. When equipment arrives, often two weeks before opening, you must have your ducks in a row."

Jerry Stutler, vice president of construction and facility engineering, Sprouts Farmers Markets, Phoenix, AZ, said he could relate to Adkins' concerns over working in and around the GC’s schedule. Stutler said he negotiates directly with the refrigeration contractor as often as possible, "because we want control over that part of the store. We feel we know more about the refrigeration than the general contractor does. We also don’t want to pay the overhead that the general contractor is going to charge us for contracting with you," he said.

Sprouts managers hold preconstruction meetings with the refrigeration contractor and general contractor. During the actual construction phase, on-site meetings convene every two weeks, with mandatory attendance by the refrigeration project manager and general contractor.

"There, we can hash out issues related to timing, schedules, equipment arrival, and where the general contractor is in the overall project," Stutler explained. "I think we do a pretty good job of coordinating everything. We try to keep the refrigeration contractor and general contractor in tune as best we can."

Bryan Beitler, vice president and chief engineer, Source Refrigeration, Anaheim, CA, has worked with Stutler on Sprouts projects. He agreed that Sprouts has a sound procedure in place.

"At Source Refrigeration, we feel it's very important to have a good understanding of objectives, between ourselves and our customers," Beitler said. "Store owners have specific objectives, and if we can't understand that to start with — what's important, and how we communicate that to our technicians —it just makes our job that much more difficult. Working on a 'platform of partnership' has helped with the communication. Going forward, I think it would be helpful to establish 'key performance indicators,' as a way to exchange feedback along the way."

According to Beitler, Source has been so successful in establishing communication with supermarkets that the supermarket managers will often ask Source to critique them as customers. “Two-way communication helps with the partnership, and hopefully allows us to provide the best service we can,” he shared.

Gary Cooper, director of refrigeration service, Lowe's Markets, Lubbock, TX, has more than 22 years of industry experience, including seven years as a refrigeration installation technician and 15 as a Lowe's systems technician and service manager. He said Lowe’s growth has been through acquisitions. This has resulted in many remodelling projects, which are difficult to plan and schedule.

"The lack of 'as built' documentation will be an issue, but you can mitigate the impact with a thorough plan review, which must include the supermarket team," he said. "The goal being to get the store team the facility they need, and to reduce the disruption on store operations. There’s no place for short cuts in this process, because there are no easy fixes for an installation done incorrectly."

Steve Hagen, procurement and engineering director, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, El Segundo, CA sees a need for more orderly project management within the entire supermarket/contracting arena.

"The supermarket companies have an obligation to do a better job in scheduling, and their project managers need to pay attention to those instances when the job falls behind, because the refrigeration contractor is always at the end of the line," Hagen observed. "If the electrician hasn't run the power, the refrigeration contractor has to finish it."

When a project is delayed, Hagen said he expects the on-site team to continue doing what they can to finish it out. Oftentimes, a work delay in one area can mysteriously spread to others project segments.

"I find it fairly consistent that, when the job is behind, and finally is completed, the guys on-site haven't done half the things they could have done with their extra time. So, when it's time to catch up, they have twice as much to do as they should have. Both sides — contractors and supermarket teams —need to pay closer attention to the things that can be done when the project is behind," Hagen said.

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Hagen explained Fresh & Easy's strict adherence to procedures: even if a project is behind schedule and is being rushed to completion, nobody makes a move to a start-up without first notifying a Fresh & Easy project director.

"Refrigeration technicians must call if anybody, including the construction manager, asks them to do something. We have very specific startup procedures for evacuating, pressure testing, everything. We want to be certain that the most critical part of the job is done right, no matter what the timing is," Hagen said.

Meeting Contract Specs
How, then, do contractors and their supermarket clients get on the same page with installment specifications?

"Our clients have their own unique specifications," Adkins said. "Today, most of the manufacturers are doing much of the print design and layout for the store itself. But, there are things that may come up contractually. Normally when the equipment arrives, you have the rack and condenser arrive on the same date, and you're kind of at the mercy of the general contractor to have the steel on the roof in place, because you’re hiring the crane lift. If the general contractor doesn't have his roof curbs in place, you have to go back to the customer. And nobody likes to do a change order."

Russ Dudan, CEO of Advantage Refrigeration, New Berlin, WI, said changes have become more frequent, as projects are being held to tighter construction timelines.

"End-users are going direct for equipment and equipment plans, and more project are remodels. The changes require coordination between all parties for the fastest and best cost solution," Dudan said, adding that the domino effect of "processes" can escalate.

"If a change causes a relocation of a roof structure, this triggers an engineering process, which drives an approval process, which may drive a permitting process. You have the lead time for steel delivery, and the time for the steel trades to make the physical change. Then, we can get in and do our work," he said.

"Refrigeration is often one of the last trades in, and upstream delays all add up, which puts added burden on our resources as the project manager drives to hold the original timeline," Dudan added.

When To Dial 'CON-TRA-CTOR'
An in-house team has many advantages, such as familiarity with existing processes and best practices.

"We've traditionally done two or three remodels in the course of a year, which enabled us to use our in-house personnel," said Gary Cooper of Lowe's.

"This has worked very well for us. The construction crew knows what's expected. When you add the fact that we design the whole system and build our own racks, it makes for a relatively smooth process. A good design and a reasonable schedule go a long way in getting effective and on-time refrigeration installations," Cooper said, and added that Lowe's will begin enlisting more help from refrigeration contractors in the near future.

"It's definitely a learning process. What used to be communicated verbally to a coworker now has to be put down in the specifications," he said. "Having seven years in store construction working for a contractor, I can appreciate the task that refrigeration contractors have. The importance of a weekly coordination meeting can’t be overstated."

Dudan agreed. "There's a clear value in having a contractor who knows grocery store refrigeration systems, and has worked with a manufacturer — as Advantage Refrigeration has worked with Hill PHOENIX — to come together and plan the project up-front, to review pit locations, line sizing, drain locations, and more, to minimize changes in the build process," he said. "The cost to catch issues in the design is much less than making changes in the field."

"Having a good relationship with a contractor is so important at those times when the door is open for a late change order. A good relationship with the contractor goes a long way to having the work done reasonably, rather than badly," said Sam Cantrell, mechanical engineer for Raley's, Sacramento, CA.

A Good Start
"Building working relationships" was a good way to begin the 2011 Refrigeration Roundtable. The bond that's established between contractors and supermarket team set the stage for everything that follows. If the groundwork of solid communication and understanding is missing, the resulting work can be nothing but a tedious chore.

Professionals acting like professionals on a "platform of partnership." It's the secret to success in refrigeration project planning and fulfillment. Stay cool, work together, and don't freeze up.