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Gordian President Bill Pollak Joins “Decisions That Matter” Podcast

Gordian President Bill Pollak recently joined Procurated’s “Decisions That Matter” podcast. He spoke with the company’s Founder and CEO, David Yarkin, about Gordian’s history, the importance of data in the facilities and construction world, and how Gordian is helping communities respond to COVID-19. Listen to the entire interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

David Yarkin: Hello, I’m here today with Bill Pollak, President of Gordian. I am excited to talk to you today, Bill, and learn more about Gordian and the work that you do for your customers in government and education. So first, before we get started, maybe tell us a little bit about you and how long you’ve been with Gordian and how you joined the company.

Bill Pollak: So, I’ve been with Gordian since 2012. Recruited by the founder and investors who were backing him to bring professional leadership to a company that had at that point been around for 20+ years, and to grow the business. And, that’s frankly what I’ve been dedicated to doing for the last eight years is growing the business. Bringing the good word about what we do out to new clients and new geography, and building up the business.

Before that I worked for 14 years at the New York Times running several commercial departments for the Times. So, across all of that, I learned a great deal about information and about data and about software. And then the last eight years, I’ve been working hard to learn about how you apply those things to the particular questions that come up in the facilities management and construction world.

“Every time he [Gordian Founder Harry Mellon] went to do one of those smaller jobs, he had to put it out to bid and had to go through the whole bid process. And he thought that was nuts.”

Yarkin: So, you joined a company with 20 years under its belt before you arrived. You’re coming up onto, you had your 30th anniversary as a company. Tell me if you don’t mind a little bit about, you know, what was Gordian 30 years ago, and how has it changed in 2020 compared to how it started?

Pollak: Well, 30 years ago, Gordian was an idea. It was an idea in the head of our founder, Harry Mellon. 40 years ago, Harry was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers. He was responsible for the facilities at all of NATO’s bases in Europe. And he had a problem, which was he had a lot of small, repetitive repair maintenance and alteration work to do on all of those bases. And every time he went to do one of those smaller jobs, he had to put it out to bid and had to go through the whole bid process. And he thought that was nuts.

There were already IDIQ – Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity contracts – out there for other things. And he looked for a way to apply that idea to this kind of smaller, repetitive repair maintenance and alteration construction. And he came up with what later became known as Job Order Contracting (JOC).

He ran it successfully on those NATO bases, came back to the U.S, testified at Congress that this was a great way to save taxpayer money, save a lot of time. It got adopted throughout the military and at some point, he came up on retirement and said, “I’m going to bring this idea to the rest of the world, particularly to the civilian world.”

And so he started up Gordian. Built up a unit price dataset that he could use. Built up some rudimentary software that could be used to manage the process. And went out, calling on facilities directors and procurement directors to try to sell them on his idea.

Eventually he made his first couple of sales to big school systems, Miami-Dade [County] Public Schools and the New York City Public Schools. And the rest, I hate to say it, was history. He began to grow and the company has grown dramatically in those 30 years.


Yarkin: If you had to think about maybe the one or two areas that are radically different in 2020 than they were back in the early days, from what you’ve heard about those early days, what would you say they are?

Pollak: Well, certainly the dataset at the time, the unit price catalog that they were using, was very elementary, very basic. Now, today we’re dealing with a unit price catalog of 350,000-375,000 tasks. [It’s] Much more complicated, much more detailed, because that’s what’s necessary in order for us to serve the needs of our wide variety of clients.

So that’s one big difference. Second is the software. Again, the software at the time was pretty rudimentary. Just think about software in the early nineties — running on big computers and nobody knew what the cloud was, and nobody knew what mobile access was or any of the rest. And today we are working through a much more sophisticated workflow software tool to deliver a quality product to a wide variety of clients.

“[Gordian’s data update process] Gives the client a great deal more cost certainty, a great deal more transparency, a great deal more accountability, and we think that’s hugely beneficial.”

Yarkin: So, if I run a facility, why does the fact that your data is much better today than it was 30 years ago, improve the way that you can serve me?

Pollak: Because it allows us to be much more exact about what the cost of that project is going to be for you to execute it. You’re not dealing with generalized data, and let’s face it, that’s one of the big problems in the world of contracting out to get your work done. We are removing the fudge factor. The dataset is that much more precise.

And so, you go into a project knowing what it’s going to cost and knowing that if there is a change order, and let’s be honest, there are going to be change orders; there’s no eliminating change orders. But you now have a dataset that will control what the price of those changes will be. You don’t have to negotiate it while the construction is going on or heaven forbid while it comes to a stop while you figure out what to do about that change. It’s all pre-negotiated. It’s all in there in the dataset.

And frankly, even if it isn’t [in the dataset], there’s a set process for getting it into the dataset. So, if there’s some piece of equipment that somehow is brand new and didn’t get captured when the dataset was given to you, then we have a set way to update it. All of that gives the client a great deal more cost certainty, a great deal more transparency, a great deal more accountability, and we think that’s hugely beneficial.

Yarkin: My guess is it just keeps getting better. The more jobs you do, the more data you have, the more precise it gets.

Pollak: Exactly. Right. Exactly. The more we do the better it gets. The more clients we serve, the better it gets. Because they’re all asking us for different things, and so that’s how we keep the dataset up to date.

Yarkin: So, I’m fairly sure that Gordian serves a wide array of clients from states, local governments, healthcare, higher education, K-12. Do you feel like, is there one segment that the solution is better geared towards? Is it pretty applicable for all? How would you say where the value lies?

Pollak: Honestly, I think it’s applicable to any client that’s doing a large number of RMA-type jobs. I will say that over the last couple of years, we have seen the solution applied to a much greater variety of jobs than would have been true eight years ago. New construction, not just RMA. More complicated jobs than I think we saw in the past. We’re finding our clients are pushing us to be more creative, and we love that. And so, I’d say if anything, the tool is becoming more broadly applicable than it probably was 30 years ago when Harry started with it.

Yarkin: And for a layperson, what is RMA?

Pollak: Repair and maintenance and alterations. So as distinct from new construction.

Yarkin: Got it.

Pollak: But we do a fair amount of new construction. And as I say, it’s growing, and tends to be less-complex jobs. But there are quite a few less-complex jobs that are new.

Yarkin: Less complex because you know what’s behind the wall.

Pollak: Yeah, exactly.

Yarkin: I’d love to hear about the work that you’ve done in creating citizen-facing spaces. Obviously doing work on a state office building is really important because the work that’s done in there is all very important. But tell me more about the work that Gordian does that directly impacts the citizens served by government.

Pollak: Within the state and local government arena, we serve all manner of departments and divisions. We serve a lot of large-, medium- and small-sized housing authorities. And if you think about the work of a housing authority, a lot of it is apartment renovation. A lot of it is the grounds, the laundry room, the playground, the entrance hall, the elevator hall, things like that. We do a lot of work there, including asbestos abatement, air handling equipment and other things. That directly affects the community.

For departments of transportation, we do a considerable amount of vertical work for them. So those are the administrative buildings. But we’re also doing a fair amount of horizontal work. So that’s bridges and culverts, where people are applying Job Order Contracting to get their work done quickly and efficiently.

So those are a couple of examples. Rec centers. We’ve done a lot of work in public recreation centers, which are a big part of the quality of life for people living in the communities that we serve. [We] Do a lot of work with public works departments.

And then we do a good deal of our work in schools. I mean, schools are a big component of who we serve. And it’s everything from classroom refurbishment to putting on new roofs, to installing new lockers or seats in the auditorium or sod on the playing field. All of that kind of work gets done under Job Order Contracting.

But importantly, we’ve seen, I feel sad about this, but we’ve seen a lot of school security work. So, hardening the entrance ways of schools so that people with ill intent can’t get in. We’ve seen quite a bit of that work. More than I wish actually existed. And that’s important for the safety and wellbeing of our clients and the people they serve.


Yarkin: I’m sure that you feel like I do as a CEO that maybe your biggest responsibility is attracting and retaining incredibly talented people who themselves are the ones who make these things happen much more than you and I do. Speaking for myself, I make very few things happen.

But you know, to me, I found one of the best ways to recruit people is by telling them how important our mission is. Because we’re not selling widgets. We’re involved in helping change people’s lives through helping folks in government procurement.

I’m interested in your take on this because the things you talked about hardening schools, protecting kids, creating livable spaces for people on public housing. These are really things that matter. Even building a bridge. A new bridge helps maybe a single mom get home earlier to see her kids.

Pollak: Yep.

“All three of my major employments…have actually been characterized by people who have a very strong sense of mission, who really believed that what they do is not just a paycheck, but it’s actually important in the life of the country. People who work for Gordian feel enormous pride in the work we do.”

Yarkin: These things all really matter. I’m interested in your take on how this impacts the morale of a workforce, at Gordian. Maybe compare it to the work you’re doing at the Times or the other publication, which are important places, but maybe that their mission wasn’t tied as directly to people’s lives.

Pollak: It’s interesting because all three of my major employments, New York Times, legal publishing, and now Gordian have actually been characterized by people who have a very strong sense of mission, who really believed that what they do is not just a paycheck, but it’s actually important in the life of the country. People who work for Gordian feel enormous pride in the work we do.

Some of it is emergency work. Department of Transportation in Arizona had a road wash out in a major storm. And it was the only road that led to a series of towns where Native Americans live. Essentially without that road emergency vehicles couldn’t get up to those towns. And within a matter of days, equipment was mustered, people were on site, the road was opened, and then the work got done to remediate the flash flood and the storm damage. It was enormous pride on the part of my team being able to participate in that.

We did a lot of Hurricane Sandy remediation in New York City. Very important. We pride ourselves actually on that kind of work. But then when you think about COVID, we were involved in helping to build field hospitals back in the spring. And you may remember that nobody really knew in March, early April, exactly what was going to happen in New York, Chicago.

At that point it was a handful of places, and it appeared there wouldn’t be enough hospital beds for everybody. And so the City of Chicago decided to turn 1.2 million square feet at the McCormick Convention Center into a field hospital and we used JOC contractors to get that work done and to get it done very fast. We all took a great deal of pride that, hey, we had done something that might save lives, [that] might be important. And we saw that play out in a few other places.

We give every year, a Harry Mellon award to the leading JOC project that we see come across. I tell you every year when I attend those ceremonies, and this year I did it virtually, our people at Gordian just love the fact that they’re making a difference for our clients.

This year in your backyard we gave the award to George Washington University. My people felt really great that we were able to renovate this building and work with our contractors and get that work done and improve the lives of the students and faculty who worked in that building. So, yeah, it matters a lot. Mission matters a lot, and we work very hard at that.


Yarkin: Yeah. 2020 has obviously been a year none of us will forget. But probably excited to have it in the rear view mirror.

Pollak: For sure.

Yarkin: You talked about working at field hospitals. Are you doing work in schools to make, you know, to, create social distancing and that kind of thing?

Pollak: We’ve done some of that work, putting in the plexiglass, you now see in more and more places. One interesting area, particularly in higher ed, is we’re getting a lot of work around indoor air quality. So you may remember a few years ago, a lot of work was going on in green buildings and we created a whole dataset around green buildings.

We’re now seeing the beginnings of what I think will be a healthy buildings approach and beginning to build a healthy buildings dataset, which includes indoor air quality, air handlers, things which make it healthier to attend the lecture in a lecture hall at a college or work in an office building. I think you’re going to see more of that.

The other thing that’s happened is with a lot of places we can’t go on site right now. So, we’ve had to learn how to do more of our work remotely and still meet the needs of our clients.

One of the things we’ve been able to develop is a new strategic capital planning solution, [so] that we can work with clients from a distance in helping them to plan out what they need to do with their facilities. We can do it in about half the time that a traditional facilities condition assessment would get done and we can give them a very good picture of what they’ve got in the way of facilities, what work they need to do, [and] we can help them prioritize it.

And then, of course, we have the data we need to estimate the cost so they can create their budgets. And then we’ve got the Job Order Contracting capabilities to actually get much of that work done. All of that can now be done remotely. So, it keeps everybody safe. Our clients safe, their clients safe, or their students safe and then of course my people safe.

“We’re now seeing the beginnings of what I think will be a healthy buildings approach and beginning to build a healthy buildings dataset, which includes indoor air quality, air handlers, things which make it healthier to attend the lecture in a lecture hall at a college or work in an office building.”

Yarkin: What do you think as we get into 2021 and we get a vaccine that’s widely distributed and taken, we get over the hump of this. Do you think that some of these things you’ve put in place this year, especially the remote kind of work, is that something you think endures or do you think you go back to doing a lot on-site?

Pollak: I increasingly think it endures. I think it’s going to take a very long time for business travel to return, even once there’s a vaccine, because I think people will realize, hey, maybe I don’t have to  ̶  maybe I can do this remotely.

We’ve learned that we can have one person on-site with an iPhone videoing, in essence, what a space looks like. So, if you can imagine walking around a room and people back home can view that video and put together a Scope of Work or put together a facility plan. And I don’t think that’s going to change post-COVID.

Yarkin: How does that benefit the customer, the building owner?

Pollak: Faster and cheaper. So, if we only have to get one person on-site who can do the work and the other three don’t have to travel to that place, we can get the work done quicker and we don’t have travel expenses. Which means our client doesn’t have travel expenses. So that, we think, benefits everybody.

Yarkin: I always find sometimes folks in procurement, and I’m guilty of this myself, would think only about how things impacted me, my users, and not as much about the supplier. But we’ve seen so many companies very sadly go out of business this past year. And a lot of companies are still on the ropes.

Tell me, if you don’t mind, about your contractors who were really the ones doing the work under your agreements, under your management. What are you seeing from them? Are they experiencing hard times through the pandemic? And if they are, what does that mean to your business or your owners?

Pollak: So, it’s interesting. We work with contractors in several different ways. I think back in March, April, particularly in the Northeast and in parts of the Midwest, everybody got locked down, including the contractors. And they couldn’t do as much work. But pretty much since May, June, state and local governments were pretty quick to let contractors get back to work. They were deemed essential workers. And so by and large, our contractors have stayed busy or as busy as our clients have wanted them to be, put it that way.

We also, as you know, we’re in the estimating business. We’re selling data to contractors which they use to create bids. That business has been remarkably strong through this. There’s a lot of project bidding going on, a lot of work going on by our contractors. So, there was definitely a dip in the spring. You saw a big spike in construction unemployment, but that has largely come back, not entirely but largely. And there is definitely work out there. The issue in state and local government is uncertainty around budgets.

Yarkin: Yeah.

Pollak: And you may see this in other aspects of your work, but it’s not that they don’t have the work to do. There’s just uncertainty about how they’re going to pay for it. And I think that’ll be one of the questions for us coming out of COVID is, “How do budgets react?” State and local government are incurring big costs for other COVID-related things, and so the question will be how that comes back. So far, so good. But I think it’s an open question.

“We know as much as anybody, I would suggest, in North America about what a good proposal looks like. And we now have the data that we can build AI systems that can build proposals.”

Yarkin: Interesting. Well, we definitely will see a lot of things play out over the next 12 months. And as we do, interested in any of your last parting thoughts on what do you think 2020 means for the public sector and, and for Gordian in particular?

Pollak: Well, I think the one thing we haven’t talked about, which I think is incredibly exciting and coming up for us in 2021, is now the introduction of artificial intelligence into the work we do. So, the advantage of having been in this business for 30 years is we have a ton of data in our systems around job proposals [and] construction cost estimates.

We know as much as anybody, I would suggest, in North America about what a good proposal looks like. And we now have the data that we can build AI systems that can build proposals, given a good scope of work, that can actually come back to a client or a contractor and say, “Okay, given that this is what you want to do, here is a proposal that contains all the materials, all the equipment, all the manpower you need to get that work done.” We’ve been road testing that system. We’re now rolling it out internally for the projects that we review on behalf of our clients.

But we will, in 2021, be rolling it out to our clients so that they can start to use the power of AI to build better proposals, to catch errors before they happen. You don’t want to have either too little of something or too much of something in your proposal. It’s about getting it right. And we think we now have the system just about ready to go, that will help our clients.

And that’s going to be both a time-saver and a cost-saver. A time-saver in the sense it will be that much faster to go from a Scope of Work to proposal because the system’s doing it and they can do it in nanoseconds. And we think a cost-saver because it’ll find the things that are built into our proposal that you don’t need. And we’ll alert you to those.

Yarkin: That’s for someone reviewing a proposal on the government side or for a contractor writing the proposal?

Pollak: Well, it could be both, but certainly for the client who’s reviewing our proposal. Here’s a tool that will help them make sure that they have all the things that need to be in there. And that if something’s missing, it’s flagged, and they can decide whether it should have been there or not.

Yarkin: Now would that be for projects done through Job Order Contracting or through any capital project?

Pollak: At first it will be applying it to Job Order Contracting and to construction cost estimating. So, a contractor would use it to build a good estimate before they put in a bid on any kind of project, not a Job Order Contracting project.

Yarkin: Wow.

Pollak: So those are the two ways we see it being used. But particularly for Job Order Contracting, I think it will make for better proposals. And, we think as a result, happier clients.

Yarkin: We used to always say that the cheapest camera is the one that you don’t ever buy. And I think this is around demand management, right? It’s making sure that you’re only scoping out what you actually need.

Pollak: And that you’re not forgetting something important that you really should have put in there that you didn’t.

Yarkin: And you probably pay for that two or three times more down the road if you leave that out.

Pollak: Correct. That’s exactly right.

Yarkin: Fascinating. Well, this is great, Bill. Thank you very much for your time and for your support for Procurated and we know the folks listening at home will really get a lot out of it. So, thanks very much.

Pollak: Thank you. Appreciate it. Bye-bye [and] take care.