By BUILDER Magazine Staff. About three years ago, when it became clear that B2B venture BuildNet was doomed, William Robinson, a partner at Palmetto Traditional Homes in Columbia, S.C., started looking around for another software vendor.

At the time, Palmetto was running SalesCloser as its sales front-end and BuildSoft's software for its back end, which was an important component of the BuildNet system. Robinson says the problem he had with the setup was that his people couldn't electronically move data seamlessly from the sales module into the accounting package.

"Every time we wrote a contract, we had to manually enter the account code, and the house budget had to be manually built," says Robinson. "We also became frustrated with BuildSoft's inability to drive the data to a Web-based platform."

After searching around the industry for an alternative, Robinson settled on the Integrated Homebuilder Management System (IHMS) from Mark Systems. Robinson says IHMS more than met his three main criteria. He wanted a company that had been in business 10 years, had at least 100 customers, and could deliver data over a Web interface. But Robinson says what really put Mark Systems over the top was the software vendor's willingness to work with Palmetto to customize its Web applications.

"What constantly amazes me is that builders don't bat an eye when it comes to customizing houses," Robinson says. "As complicated a process as it is to customize a house, too many builders don't take the same logic and customize their data so they can run the business more proactively."

Robinson estimates that standardizing on IHMS and customizing the company's Web applications will save Palmetto $514,300 this year. Reducing change orders alone will save $500 per house, or roughly $350,000, he notes. He adds that the company now operates with one payables person to generate work orders, instead of three or four people; one closing coordinator, instead of two or three; and can build 100 houses a year with one project superintendent instead of two or three. Robinson says the company can also hire younger, Web-savvy people at more reasonable salaries.

The customized applications were developed over several months in tandem with support people from Mark Systems and local student programmers hired by Robinson. Some of the applications they built include a "pending sales report," which lets salespeople post pending offers on houses over the Web so a sales manager can approve or deny a contract online. Once the sales manager approves a contract, it enters the accounting system and a budget is built. This saves the time it takes to fax or snail-mail documents, and saves the time sales managers waste deciphering illegible faxes.

Another custom application is the "backlog monitor," which lists houses that have sold, models that are selling, and houses that are at risk of falling behind and why. Robinson says one of the real benefits of the new system is that it tells the company if there's a problem in time to take corrective action. For example, the backlog information can tell Robinson that a house is finished but the mortgage hasn't been approved. "Because we've got mortgage data pumping into the system we can tell in real time if a mortgage has been approved or if something has fallen between the cracks, so we can deal with the mortgage issues before we miss the closing date," says Robinson.