New Mexico Home Builder uses iPads to reduce costs, improve customer experience
After 32 years in the business, Tom French has a pretty clear vision of the future. “The traditional builders just cannot compete with those that are harnessing technology to create efficiencies,” says the president of French Brothers Homes, a new home builder in Alamagorda, NM. “The more efficient we become, the lower our costs are. As costs go down, we can lower sales prices, gaining market share while maintaining our margins. That’s an unbeatable combination” says French.
Tom speaks from experience. Along with his brothers Jim and Bill French, Tom has built French Brothers into one of the most successful new builders in New Mexico. Catering to a significantly military population (Holloman Air Force Base and the White Sands Missile Range are both in the area), French Brothers consistently garners rave reviews, with customer satisfaction levels of 96%, five times the national average.
A History of Innovation
“We are constantly looking for innovative ways to improve, streamline and become more efficient in our processes – ultimately passing the savings onto our customers,” said Corrine Bachman, Vice President at French Brothers Homes. “One way in particular is by being the first and only homebuilder in our area to become energy star rated on all our homes – thus saving our customers money every month on their utility bills. We believe in a team of professionals working together for a common goal. Each one of our team members has a voice to express and contribute ideas – basically, more heads are better than one. If I had to sum up our company in one word it would be “service” – a commitment of service to our customers and to our employees,” Bachman said.
But French Brothers realized that the best team in the world can’t function without the proper tools. After attending a Sales Seminar by SMA Consulting in Orlando, Tom and Corrine began working with Patrick Miller, a Partner at SMA, to review every aspect of the company’s operations. Miller said “We started with helping French Brothers value engineer their products, and that led to a kind of ‘value engineering’ for the whole process, from market research to financing, variances, operations; the whole gamut.” The improvements they made resulted in higher sales velocity, which developed into a production backlog. “At that point, we all realized that the tools they had been using could not support the sales volume or reporting metrics that they needed,” according to Thom Miller, SMA Senior Consultant.
Software Supports Efficient Processes
Tom French began researching software that could support the efficiencies he was looking for. “When we were looking for an enterprise system there were a number of things that I felt were important.
- I wanted a single database system. I was very leery of systems that were a compilation of systems that had links and batches. My experience was that these systems frequently left you scratching your head.
- The system had to be an all-inclusive system, from CRM through warranty.
- It had to be right-sized. That is it had to be a system that would fit us now and that we could grow with. Some other good systems out there were simply meant for much larger operations than ours.
- The HMI (Human-Machine Interface) had to be simple and easy to use. The ITK (the Internet ToolKit portion of MARK SYSTEMS’ Integrated Homebuilder Management System) is a great use of technology in the homebuilding industry.
Mark Systems fit all of these very well.”
In March, 2010, French Brothers made the commitment to use the Integrated Homebuilder Management System (IHMS) from MARK SYSTEMS. According to Tom, “The single-database architecture offered us the greatest potential for efficiencies of all the products we reviewed. The ability to instantly and transparently communicate critical information between every person and every process through IHMS was exactly the environment we were looking for. We were particularly excited about MARK SYSTEMS’ ability to improve our field operations.”
To get the most out of this new tool, turned to Ron Olson of Robyx Management LLC, a Lean Building Management consultant with extensive experience in MARK SYSTEMS Integrated Homebuilder Management System implementations. “French Brothers had a very clear vision of where they wanted to grow to. They have a very strong profit orientation and a great corporate culture. I was able to help them define the processes and structure their information so that it supported their growth plans, and complemented the culture and team members already in place,” Olson said.
iPads Are The Ideal Tool For Field Personnel
As part of the implementation, Tom began experimenting with hardware products for the field personnel. “We originally anticipated using smart phones for our superintendents, but the form factor meant that we would be missing out on some crucial functions, like accessing plans and drawings. We figured we’d have to go with laptops instead.”
But on a visit to an electronic retailer, Tom was intrigued by the iPads on display. “The iPads were a little more expensive than the netbooks we were looking at, but they were so much easier to use it was amazing,” Tom said. “MARK SYSTEMS was able to set up a test environment for us connecting to their servers in New Jersey, so we went back to the store and used their display models to test the application as we’d be using it. Once we could see it in operation, the decision was easy.”
iPad Performance Exceeds Expectations
Fast forward to September, and the experience has been even better than they’d hoped. French Brothers had always expected a quick acceptance of the iPad and MARK SYSTEMS’ Internet ToolKit technology by the younger, more technically savvy superintendents. What surprised them was how quickly the more experienced builders took to the technology. “It’s made a huge difference in my work day,” said Joel Armendariz, superintendent for French Brothers . “When Tom and Bob (Cain, Product Director for MARK SYSTEMS) first explained the ITK (Internet ToolKit) to us, I was pretty sure there was no way I was going to be able to do it. But these iPads are amazing. I can see every job start, and right from that screen see every drawing and plan, right on the iPad. I can see the work orders when they’re released, update my schedule, check my email, all while I’m in the field where I belong. It’s really made my life easier” Armendariz said.
iPads Impact Sales
One unexpected side benefit has been the impact on home buyer’s perceptions. “When a home buyer or home owner sees our field guys working with their iPads, they immediately get the impression that we’re a forward thinking, technologically astute builder. It helps reinforce their decision to buy from us, and helps generate some great word-of-mouth,” Tom French said.
Production Efficiencies Reduce Costs
According to Joel, the efficiencies in MARK SYSTEMS software were felt from the very beginning. “Now we don’t just have schedules, we have quality checklists for each item, and it still takes me less time to update my schedules than it used to in Excel. Plus, the quality improvement has been noticeable. I walk the house with each sub, checking off the quality items as we go. When we’re done, I approve the work order and he gets paid. Before, he’d give me his invoice that I had to approve and send to the office. Sometimes it’d get lost, or not entered right away, and we had a problem. Not anymore!”
IHMS instantly delivers purchase documents via email and web to trade partners as they’re needed, a significant costs savings. The job budgets, PO’s and Work Orders are built automatically based on each individual sales agreement and option addendum, ensuring they exactly match both the buyer’s expectations and the trade partner’s contract. That means budgets are accurate, and variances are tracked in detail, reducing construction costs across the board,
Personnel costs are reduced as well. In one instance, the accounting department was relieved of the burden of manually tracking lien waivers and insurance expirations; the system does it automatically, communicating with each trade partner before problems arise. “Since all our information resides in one data base, we can leverage something from one area to affect performance in another,” according to Bob Cain of Mark Systems. “For example, we can let our trade partners know that if they don’t complete their warranty service orders on time, it could hold up their check. It’s easy for us because the system does it automatically, communicating with the subcontractors the whole time.”
The bottom line is, of course, the bottom line, and Tom French is confident that his investment in efficiency will continue to pay dividends to the company for a long time to come.