Self-Taught MBA: Builder-Office Automation - Fine Homebuilding
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Building Business

Building Business


Self-Taught MBA: Builder-Office Automation

comments (0) February 18th, 2014 in Blogs
FPR Fernando Pages Ruiz, contributor

BuilderTREND gives you the ability to easily manage, share, and distribute important documents and photos to employees, trades, associates, and customers. 
With Mark Systems Home Buyer Portal, home buyers can have their own unique home page, showing available options, construction status, sales and customer service links. 
BuilderTREND gives you the ability to easily manage, share, and distribute important documents and photos to employees, trades, associates, and customers. Click To Enlarge

BuilderTREND gives you the ability to easily manage, share, and distribute important documents and photos to employees, trades, associates, and customers. 


Back in the days of DOS, I plunged into office automation for my growing construction company with a custom-built general ledger. The program was basic (literally), clunky and very limited, but it served us well. It was stable and easy to use. We upgraded to our first, third-party construction office suite in the late 1980s with a program then known as the California Contractor. Again, a solid, simple and reliable program. But, in time, it grew in features, complexity, and size; evolving into the American Contractor as our software partner sought a national profile. They succeeded, sold the brand, and the American Contractor became part of the Maxwell Systems family of real estate and construction products under the name ProContractorMX; the brand under which the latest evolution of the program is still sold.

Programs like ProContractorMX, Sage 300 (formally Timberline), and many others have achieved growth through the acquisition and assimilation of multiple software companies, becoming a patchwork of modules, and something akin to the puppy hybrid in the recent Super Bowl Audi commercial. The programs have every feature you can imagine. They are powerful and difficult to master, but full of odd quirks and born from the mix-and-match software integration.

With the Maxwell product I used for years, it was maddening to enter the same information multiple times in different modules, each with a different layout and feel. But having grown with the program over a decade, I became very proficient. It was like being fluent in an exotic language that nobody else understood. It was almost impossible to get new employees up to speed quickly. Yet as my business evolved from remodeling and homebuilding to government projects that required bonding, certified payrolls, and even multistate payrolls, the transition was made easier precisely because the program had all of these modules built in. Your choice of software will affect your operations more than you know, opening doors and also closing them. But if I was to start over, I would not fall in love with all the features. I would find the simplest solution that fit my business needs today and in the very near future.

Simple Solutions

At home I use Quicken, a delightfully simple and elegant program. I often wish I had the same simplicity at the office. I recently emailed all my contractor contacts to see what systems they were using today. I was surprised that about 70% replied they use some version of QuickBooks. The parent company that publishes Quicken and QuickBooks, Intuit, offers a suite of accounting programs for various businesses, including homebuilders and subcontractors through their QuickBooks® Premier Contractor's Edition. One presenter at the National Homebuilder's Show, Rick Powell, offered a seminar on using the QuickBooks Contractor's Edition, and provided a step-by-step guide on how to set it up. Click here to download it: QuickBooks for Homebuilders.

While QuickBooks will not provide you with customer-relations tools, certified payroll reports, lien tracking, bonding reports, or scope sheets for insurance work, and it offers only limited project management tools, there are a number of third-party homebuilder suites that integrate with QuickBooks allowing you to add sophisticated industry-specific overlay. This works best for builders already using QuickBooks because there's no need to transfer your financial information to a new database and learn a whole new accounting program.

BuilderTrend is an excellent example. Designed for the residential construction industry, the program includes a robust project-management suite with scheduling and planning, job tracking, customer relations, and service-call management. It allows you to upload files and photos to a project folder for document control, and even offers links to social media, so your customers can share progress on their project. Because BuilderTrend is a cloud-based program, this means you access the program online, you don't actually have to buy any software or upgrade your hardware. You will depend on a good internet connection. But on the other hand, you can access the program from anyplace and at anytime belaying the need for a network. The company will setup its program portal through your website to create a seamless, branded experience. As far as your employees, customers, and subs know, it will appear they are working on your website, keeping your brand identify front and center with a very sophisticated veneer. This is the solution I would choose today, a cloud-based homebuilder-management suite that is integrated with the QuickBooks suite for contractors.

Were I still as ambitious as I once was, and looking to grow into large firm, I would choose Mark Systems, a well-integrated, mid- to high-level software package for large custom and production builders. It was designed from the ground up and has only one database, so no multiple entries, while the program still offers a fully-integrated, soup-to-nuts package with accounting, estimating, job tracking, project management, document control, customer-relations management, real-estate-closing management, and numerous ticklers for time-sensitive items, such as job-scheduling updates and subcontractor's insurance-certificate expiration dates. The program offers one very unique feature, their Out-of-the-box Green Management designed to evaluate and keep track of green-building upgrades and third-party certification requirements, including LEED-qualified improvements. If you build green under certification programs, this module in itself could motivate your selecting this office suite over another.

Mistakes to Avoid

The biggest mistake you can make when evaluating a software platform is a hasty decision. New software takes months to learn and fully integrate, yet software companies will generally only provide you with 30 days risk free to decide if the software is a good fit. You can find yourself paying for an expensive software contract, and then not using the product. I've had this experience myself--and it leaves you feeling ripped off. So spend time researching various offerings, attend online demonstrations, and discuss with the salesperson how you run your business and the type of work you do, so they can tailor the sales pitch to your needs. One company I found, Software Advice, sells an array of popular construction-office packages, acting more as a software broker than a brand-specific sales agent. This allows you to talk to a sales person and obtain comparative advice, rather than a brand-specific sales pitch.

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