Tom Olson saw a need. He had started to specialize in highway heavy construction early in his law career — a move that stems from one of the first large cases he worked after graduating from law school in 1985. It was a construction case, and analyzing the plans and specifications and digging into the underlying construction fascinated him. He was hooked. He sought more construction cases. He moved to another law firm that specialized in construction. And then another, this time establishing a construction practice there.
During this immersion in construction law, something stood out — utility construction was totally unpredictable. Projects as built were regularly different than projects as bid. Owners and engineers were regularly making utility contractors bear the costs of the related project changes. His gears started turning.
“I started my own practice only because I realized that litigation was not cost-effective for the contractor,” Olson says. “At the same time, it was also not cost-effective for contractors to simply eat the costs of project changes. That got me thinking that if I could help contractors get engineers to form the right view initially rather than trying to change the wrong view later, contractors could get paid for project changes without litigation.”
Olson Construction Law was established 20 years ago and has been dedicated to aiding utility contractors ever since. As a way of saying thanks, both for having that vision early on and following through in his actions, NUCA presented Olson with its Associate of the Year Award for 2015.
“The award provides validation that my commitment to educate and assist contractors cooperatively to obtain change orders is being heard and appreciated,” Olson says. “But, to be clear, the award was a total shock. It never occurred to me that I might receive an award for doing what I love to do.”
Driven to Educate
Having the vision is one thing, but following through is another. Olson both established his practice to focus exclusively on assisting contractors while successfully committing himself to learning everything he could about how contractors bid and build projects, why project changes occurred, and the corresponding rights and obligation for getting change orders.
What he learned was that the industry needed education, too. Or rather, a re-education.
“It required me to educate contractors that they could and should get paid for project changes, and that I could cost-effectively help them do that working behind the scenes if they called me when the project issue first arose,” Olson says.
That last part is key. If Olson was contacted immediately, he could help contractors resolve issues cooperatively rather than confrontationally in litigation. Olson had to essentially create a new way of doing business, for both himself and contractors.
“This focus, in turn, had me realizing that I needed to help re-shape contractor’s practices on managing project changes differently,” Olson says.
Olson’s new way of doing business was simple: Contractors pay the firm a limited amount of money to work behind the scenes to help them both cost-effectively and cooperatively obtain change orders and proactively avoid problems before they occur.
To kick start this workflow, Olson set about to educate contractors on:
- what should and should not be included in subcontracts;
- which project changes were compensable and why;
- how to have change issues timely communicated from the field to home office;
- what process must be followed and how to follow it to satisfy contractual procedural requirements;
- how to track the impact in time and dollars for project changes; and
- how to communicate with engineers and others.
The results speak for themselves, as Olson Construction Law is a thriving firm with three lawyers and a fourth starting in the fall.
With a need to educate and assist, Olson first had to spread the word and found an eager partner in NUCA. Olson first served as a board member of Minnesota’s former NUCA chapter from 2002-2005. During that time he educated Minnesota’s utility contractors on managing project changes through classes, annual seminars and written articles. That was just the beginning. Soon, Olson would expand that educational focus on a national basis within NUCA. He built on this national involvement by joining and actively participating in both the Contracts and Trenchless Committees. He is currently a member of NUCA’s Board of Directors.
Because an educator’s job is never done, he is currently writing a chapter on legal rights and obligations for a national manual that the Trenchless Committee will be publishing soon. His parting thoughts on his career at this point, following his Associate of the Year achievement, are still largely the same as they were 20 years ago.
“Utility contractors have a growing need for help in managing project changes,” Olson says. “It is a ‘perfect storm.’ At the same time that contractors have less ability to bear the financial cost of project changes, there are more changes because projects are increasingly under-designed. To make matters worse, owners are already less reluctant to pay for these changes because of reduced funding.
“One of the many reasons NUCA is so important because it provides contractors education on how to more effectively manage the increasing number of project changes. And, of course, NUCA is comprised of really super people.”
Chris Crowell is a contributing editor of Utility Contractor.