Demystifying procurement decisions at commercial swimming pools
Many suppliers become frustrated when their commercial swimming pool bids are unsuccessful because they lack an understanding of the nuances and complexity to the decision-making process. The process is intentionally antiseptic and impersonal (nepotism and favoritism are crimes in the public sector), but transparent and fair if you learn the factors at play.
Let’s say $82,000 is proposed to retrofit lighting at the 40-year-old indoor municipal swimming pool in a small Alberta town.
Even before reviewing the specific project, a supplier needs to understand the basic framework in which it exists. The town procurement policy may require three written quotes for services over $5,000 and five qualified bids for projects over $50,000, but provincial procurement policies require a request for proposals (RFP) process for any project over $75,000. The municipality must adhere to both policies for the project.
For a $3,500 filter repair, the aquatic supervisor may contact regular suppliers for pricing and award the project by email with no fanfare. Meanwhile, the $82,000 lighting project will have very little involvement by the aquatic supervisor. Instead, the aquatic supervisor provides feedback to the recreation manager or community services director who works under finance, corporate properties and/or legislative services directing the RFP process.
A project like this rarely comes out of nowhere. Annual operating budget projects are typically forecast three years in advance, and capital projects forecast as much as five to 20 years ahead — so mayor and city council will also be involved.
Pool companies should download and closely review the project scope, requirements and completion timeline. It is also important for every service provider to consider if they are a fit for the project. This depends on scheduling, product availability, client needs and other factors specific to each company. Many bids are unsuccessful because the service provider hasn’t considered all aspects of the project.
“A bid is successful when the client and the service providers’ goals and objectives are in alignment,” says Dominique MacDonald, director and senior consultant for Recreation Excellence, a company that manages seven commercial aquatic facilities in Western Canada. “A bid is often unsuccessful when the service provider wasn’t able to accurately capture the needs of the client.”
To be considered, suppliers must meet all requirements listed in the RFP. Failure to include your business licence, construction bond, attend the mandatory site meeting or sign the final page of a bid will get you disqualified. If you can’t be bothered to submit a complete bid, how can a municipality be confident you will correctly undertake its project?
Once submitted, all bids go through a screening process to remove unqualified bidders and incomplete applications. Some organizations will anonymize bids (remove company name and logo) for the internal review process. Bids will be circulated to everyone connected to the project. The list is long, including staff from several departments as well as external stakeholders such as donors, tenants and corporate ownership.
A points system may be implemented with a minimum score required to get a bid to the finalist list. Points may be awarded for criteria such as preference given to local and minority-owned companies, expediency or service level.
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Then municipalities and those involved in the decision process will assess key questions.
What product is being proposed? For example: Are the lights suitable to a humid, hot pool area? Product testing standards by organizations like ISO, ASTM, ASME, ANSI, etc., may be consulted.
What is the cost of this product? Is the upfront cost cheap and long-term annual operating costs expensive? Or is it expensive upfront and cheap long-term? Some organizations are also starting to live their values: They’re willing to pay more if the supply chain creates local jobs versus a cheaper, foreign-made alternative.
What is the value of this product? Value is subjective, but can include an extended warranty or semi-annual service visit that creates more complete value for the taxpayers’ expenditure beyond just acquiring the product.
What is the timeline for completion? If the lighting project must be completed April 1 to 30, 2022, and work hours are 5 p.m. to midnight nightly, does the supplier clearly articulate how they are going to meet this scheduling need?
Is this a preferred vendor? Some organizations have approved vendor lists; others do not use them at all. If the municipal water treatment plant had a good experience replacing several pumps on short notice, that supplier may be preferred for swimming pool work. Regional, corporate or trade-specific purchasing agreements may also exist.
These are the minimum value propositions your bid needs to address. However, not all projects are bound by these parameters. There are a few important outliers:
Unforeseen urgency or catastrophic failure. If the filter room is flooding at 5 p.m. on a Friday because the backflow preventer broke, the aquatic supervisor may have emergency authorization beyond $5,000 to work with any supplier who can do the work immediately.
Exclusivity. Sole sourcing may be permitted if it’s possible to demonstrate a product is exclusive to one supplier and has features, services, technological advances, value, etc., superior to comparable products available elsewhere. When bidding for municipal pool jobs, treat every bid as a standalone project and submit a complete and detailed package. Do not expect to coast on previous work or an existing client relationship. Read the fine print and clearly demonstrate each requirement. Be polite, use proper punctuation and perform background research before submitting a bid that’s customized to the stated project scope.