The Computer and the Contractor
Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the last five years, you’ve heard all this hype about the Internet. You’re probably convinced that it will “change the world,” but how can a computer network help you build walls? Behind all of the hype and madness of the computer revolution are some very simple principles that will change the way contractors do business.
Here are a few examples of what the Internet can offer the contractor:
•Aggregated volume-based pricing for supplies needed to
•Streamlined processes to create, distribute, evaluate and
respond to requests for proposals and service contractor
•Collaboration and document management tools to create
effective interaction between buyers and suppliers.
•Software tools for project management, scheduling, esti-
mating, accounting and other related business manage-
This is a short list of some more detailed tips to integrate the Internet into the contracting business.
Easing communication pain
Communication can be a big chore, but it’s a necessary evil. Today, we live in a world full of paper, phones, faxes and overnights. Information flows from supplier to sub-contractor, from sub-contractor to general contractor and from general contractor to property owner. If you’re lucky, the paperwork arrives on time to each party, the information is complete and accurate, and nothing gets lost or hung up in somebody’s in-box for six weeks.
The Internet not only speeds the transmission of information between parties, it also removes the hassles of business. For example, a job comes along to upfit 25,000 square feet of office space. An e-mail arrives, notifying you of the RFP opportunity. Instead of toiling away for hours building a proposal to be hand delivered, you log on to your computer. There, you can survey the community of local suppliers and get the latest pricing on drywall. With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, you can complete an online application to submit your bid. Point and click, and the bid can be automatically sent to the appropriate parties. No sweat!
Online exchange communities for the construction industry are available today and growing in popularity because, face it: No one really likes paperwork. These trading marketplaces bring together suppliers, contractors, and building owners and managers.
A way to buy and sell
Imagine a single Web site where you can see all local market jobs up for bid. The convenience of having the market on your desktop frees you to bid on more jobs or to be more selective about the jobs you take. Likewise, your allies, wallboard suppliers, can also see the total volume of business that awaits them. Now that puts the both of you in a position to do a little friendly negotiation!
There is one thing the Internet doesn’t change: It doesn’t take away the power of a personal relationship or the added value of a job that’s not just done, but done meticulously well. Therefore, you’ll always be in the business of selling service, quality and your reputation. To steal a line from a television commercial, “Think of it as you, only better.”
With sub-contractors managing business online, the Internet moves the supplier from the storefront to the desktop. As subcontractors begin to make more of their business decisions via their computers, purchasing products online will be as commonplace as sending communications to general contractors.
“I find this concept of an online exchange very intriguing,” says Lee Brennan, vice president of B & B Contracting Co. Inc., of Charlotte, N.C. “We are astute enough to realize that e-commerce is the way of the future and we don’t want to be left behind. Early adopters have influence over the movement and we want B & B to be a pioneer of the movement, or a charter member.”
Brennan sees e-procurement as an open-door opportunity for B & B Supply Co., a full-fledge distributor of gypsum products and accessories.
“B & B Supply Co. can access a greater realm of products online and then resell such products like tool accessories, pasting knives, screws and sanders to our residential customers,” said Brennan. “We see this as a great value proposition on the buying side.”
Volume sales opportunities provide suppliers and service providers greater visibility to market demand and incentive for cost cutting. For example, through an online exchange, ongoing market-wide events could be created for suppliers to auction off excess inventory. Property managers could participate in auctioning-like activity as well, creating specialized competitive bidding opportunities for large-scale jobs.
An Internet marketplace for buying and selling arms service providers, suppliers and property operators alike with the knowledge of what’s out there at any given time, and what is the going rate for those products and services. Then those in the know can quickly take the best course of action.
Each segment of the real estate operations industry has an opportunity to forge new business relationships. Property managers expand their purchasing power. Service providers can access bidding opportunities with ease and can leverage greater supplier resources. Suppliers sell to a host of new customers through a single, efficient pump channel.
The marketplace itself draws the attention of big players, and it will be interesting to see who takes advantage of this new sales channel on a local-market-by-local-market basis. We might see some “leveling of the playing field.” New relationships are an exciting possibility for growing companies, and the e-marketplace does make it easier to get a foot in the door. In addition, because the bid process is less painful, even if that door gets shut on that foot a time or two, it doesn’t hurt as much as if it had taken weeks getting the proposal together. So that brings me to the third principal, which relieves another common pain.
Run your business better
While some people think the hard work is the back-bending work of installing a ceiling, I’ve had other contractors tell me their greatest pain is on the business side—administering the books. The Internet can definitely make your life easier when it comes to crunching and keeping up with your business’ financials, because your purchasing can be directly tied into your back office systems. Eliminate the hassles and costs associated with tracking the flow of materials, income and payables by tapping into an e-procurement solution that integrates with your accounting software.
The change that the Internet presents for your business may sound a bit intimidating. However, it’s not quite time to run out and buy Palm Pilots so that your foreman can order supplies from the job site—at least, not yet. It won’t happen overnight, but the Internet is showing signs of approaching the construction industry, and e-marketplaces targeting real estate operations are a sign of times to come.
Hey, you already know the Internet’s not a fad! The good news is that it’ll actually make the business side of wall hanging and ceiling installation easier and potentially more lucrative by reducing your cost and time spent on other things.
Sites worth citing
Unimast Inc., at www.unimast.com, provides customers with a Submittal Generator, designed to allow professionals to create a complete project submittal in three steps.
The generator first asks users to provide a name and password. Users will return to this personal page for future submittals. The second step asks for personal and business information for the purposes of creating a custom template for every submittal. Step three asks users to choose the products to be used.
The selection process is designed to be fast and easy and users simply need to follow the options. Once complete, the file can be saved and printed.
The Submittal Generator is available for any company that uses Unimast, Clinch-On and Vinyl Corp. products.
“Our intent is to provide our customers with quality support, services and information from start to finish on all projects,” says Dennis M. Dickey, corporate marketing manager.
Sites worth citing
Sto Corp., at www.stocorp.com, offers Sto Aesthetics Interactive, a Web-based service that allows building professionals and owners to visualize how a project will look before construction begins. Working online, users can choose from more than 40 colors for the wall cladding and more than 100 colors for various trim elements. Selections can then be applied to stock photographs of homes or commercial buildings in a variety of styles. This service is available at no charge.
For a fee of $99, a construction professional may submit a photo or drawing of an individual project via e-mail or regular mail, and the image will be loaded into a password-protected area of the site accessible only to the person submitting the project. Various color designs and textures can then be applied to a project and saved online.
“Our goal,” says Alec Minné, marketing manager, “is to provide a value-added service to aid professionals in achieving high-quality results and make the process of effective design easier for everyone.”
Internet: Get Primed on the Basics
By Bobby Baker
Internet: Get Primed on the Basics
By Bobby Baker
Welcome to today’s electronic market: dot com this, dot com that.
Everyone seems to be talking about or using the Internet. Many contractors are still in the beginning phases of joining the Internet frenzy. How the Internet is best used in the industry is up to all of us, and therefore everyone needs to understand the Internet. A collection of elements, corporate and government provided, make the Internet work. These elements are a computer, a modem, connection lines, an Internet service provider, a browser and a collection of Web sites.
To start using the Internet, you must pay a fee to gain access to this network of information. The element that provides you with this access is an Internet service provider. ISPs may also be referred to as “dial-up providers.” Many companies provide this access, including America Online, Earthlink, Net Zero, and Microsoft Network just to name a few. These companies have different methods of providing access to the Internet. Some charge a monthly fee and others are free. Companies like Net Zero that provide their services for free make their money by saturating viewers with advertising every time they access the Internet.
There are also two other ways to gain access to the Internet. They are more expensive than the previously mentioned ISPs but they provide faster connection rates to the Internet. The connection rate is the rate at which bytes of information are transferred through the Internet. The first type is cable access, which uses cable lines called coaxial cables to transfer data. This type of access is extremely fast, but not widely used because it is not available in all areas.
The second type is Digital Subscriber Lines, which is a term you may have heard a lot about recently. A DSL uses a modem-type piece of equipment that transfers data faster through traditional telephone lines. This is another high-speed access. DSLs work nearly three times faster than traditional dial-up access using a 56 kbps (thousand bits per second) modem. However, DSL is not quite as fast as the cable access. With all these choices, selecting the one best suited for you or your company may not be easy. My suggestion is to do your homework.
Now that you have access to the Internet, the next thing you will need is a Web browser. This is a software program that enables data from the Internet to be interpreted to what you see on your monitor. Two main browsers are in use today: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator. These programs are free for download from the Internet. The browser one chooses to use is strictly personal preference, although some Web sites are designed for viewing by a specific browser, and/or a specific version of that browser. This is because the programming language used to create Web sites, called Hyper Text Markup Language, is displayed differently in different browsers. It’s worth pointing out that America Online provides its own browser so its members can access its own network of information.
With access to the Internet and a way to view the content from the Web, you are now ready to start surfing the Net. How do you do that? Well, there are a couple of different ways to find what you are looking for. First is to know the address of the place you are looking for, and the second is to go somewhere to ask for directions. Every Web site on the Net has a unique address. This address is called a Uniform Resource Locator, sometimes also referred to as a domain name or Web address. The URL, for example www.wconline.com, is what you would type into your browser to go to the Walls & Ceilings site.
So what do you do if you don’t know the address of the site you are looking for? You go to a site called a search engine and ask for directions. Search engines such as Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), Iwon (www.iwon.com) and Lycos (www.lycos.com) catalog Web site information and content, and provide a search line for you to enter in key words that you believe would be associated with what you are looking for. For instance, if you were looking for Walls & Ceilings you would go to one of the search engines and type in any of the following words: “walls,” “ceilings,” “drywall” or “stucco.” The search engine would then reply to your request by displaying a list of Web sites, including a link to those sites that have the word you used for your search associated with them. Sometimes the response to your request can be extremely long, so refining your search may be in order.
This is a general idea of how the Net works. With this knowledge, you should be able to make informed decisions on how to best use the Internet for the construction industry. The Internet is controlled by everyone who uses it, so it is up to the users to shape how the Internet is included into daily business. The Internet’s vast number of uses makes it a powerful tool for our industry. For example, the Internet could be used by an architect searching for product information, a builder providing a Web site to receive bids from contractors for their projects, or a manufacturer providing product information to customers.
This article should be helpful to those making decisions regarding the Internet. Stay tuned for a follow-up article that will cover Web sites and how they can work for you.
Bobby Baker is president of BB Design, located in Southern California, and provides computer-aided design and graphics for a manufacturer wall coating materials.