February 2012

As we homebuilders look past the winter doldrums and prepare for a new season of activity, I am reminded of a story about the importance of using of the right tools.

The story goes like this: an old man living in the country had chopped wood for his stove by hand all his life. When his son from the city came by for a visit and saw his father hard at work with an ax, he said, “Dad, you ought to buy a chainsaw. You’ll cut more wood in an hour than you can in a day with an ax or a regular saw.” The father, knowing how smart his son was, went to a nearby town and purchased a chainsaw. But he found it took much longer to cut the logs he needed, and after two days he took the chainsaw back to the store.

“This doesn’t work,” he told the clerk. “It’s heavy, it’s hard to move, and it doesn’t cut wood at all.” The clerk said, “Well, let’s take a look at it.” He took the chainsaw outside and yanked the cord to start it up. The old man clapped his hands over his ears and shouted, “What’s that awful noise?”

I find it fascinating that in order to maintain viable businesses, homebuilders are always looking to assist homeowners to build more efficient and cost-effective homes. Our understanding and use of technology can enable us to design and build functional homes that are not only pleasing to the eye but contain the innovative features buyers demand, as well as the efficiency factors that are easy on the buyer’s pocketbook.

Some of us have mastered the newer visualization, Web, and social-media technologies used to market our products and services, but are there not many of us that are still like the old man in the story above? When we find ourselves surrounded by that strange “awful noise” of all of this confusing new construction technology, isn’t it easier to just revert to the way we used to do things? The problem is, quite frankly, you can’t stay in or return to the past you remember.

Long before the current downturn reared its ugly head, savvy builders recognized the more efficient you become, the lower your costs. As your construction and marketing costs go down, you are able to lower sales prices, gaining marketshare while maintaining your margins. We live in an era where protecting margins has never been more important. Lose your operating profit margin, and it affects the mission (and viability) of your firm. Here’s a simple way to remember this important point: “no margin, no mission.”

The way our stakeholders “see us” using technology in our day-to-day interactions says a lot about the kind of company we are. Are our investors, bankers, customers, subs, and suppliers seeing the use of Web applications, tablets, eplans, electronic-document exchanges, and modern estimating, bidding, and project-management tools? If not, what does that say about the rest of the way we run our business?

Now the pain of getting there comes into play. Can our leadership, management, and staff make the transition to embracing these new ways of doing business? Perhaps that’s why so many technology programs go “into the ditch.” What it takes is a clear and consistent message from the leadership team that the commitment and the will of the business WILL make it happen, despite the inevitable setbacks.

We need to be very clear, today we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of not only the consumer, but also all of the other stakeholders in our success. And our technology stake is just as important as a past reputation for quality. In fact, technology is becoming the “poured foundation” of our future reputation. And we all understand what happens to a weak foundation, don’t we?

Jim Kissane is a retired construction industry veteran, having served the design/construction industry for more than three decades. He can be reached at jim@fruitionusa.com

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