About 10 years ago, Symes Associates in Beverly, Mass., was building 25 houses a year. At that size, the builder could manage its work flow and stay profitable by using only a paper-based system supported by mobile phones.
In 2002, Symes had $40 million in sales and 73 closings; today, it builds close to 100 homes a year. At this larger size, the company feels that the only way it can manage its growth and slash cycle time is by using technology more effectively.
Although this is a familiar tech story for builders, what's different is Symes uses Web-based software from Pier Interactive that has a content management function letting all parties in the home building process post content--from lot and home pricing to options selections and purchase orders for suppliers and subcontractors.
Pier Interactive's Sitecommand software lets employees, suppliers, subcontractors, and customers post content through the software's Web Admin tool. Every user on the system receives a password and access rights to post and view certain content on the Symes Web site. "The Web Admin tool ... gives everyone a hook into the system," says Jeff Rhuda, a partner at Symes. "It lets us post information without having to go back to the Web designer."
Rhuda says the process starts the way it has in the past, with Symes buying a piece of property. The land is permitted, and once it's ready, Symes prices the lots, sets which houses will go on the various lots, assigns values to the houses, and posts the information to the Web site. The brokers can view prices, available models, and features and options, and use the system to take customers up to the point of signing a contract.
From there, customers work directly with Symes, where they walk through a model showroom and sit with a salesperson to select options. Once options are selected and the customer signs off, the suppliers and subcontractors are notified either via e-mail or fax, and work begins.
"What we've done is eliminate the middle manager," explains Rhuda. "In the past, we stored all the information in an Access database, but we'd have to print it out, fax it out to people, and the data got updated only once a week. The information could have been seven days old; now the information is instantaneous."
Fellow partner Landers Symes says the builder gave Pier Interactive fairly open access to four or five Symes employees to help with the development work.
"We put a ton of time into developing this thing," he says, estimating that the payoff will be a 20- to 30-day reduction in cycle time.
The cycle-time reductions come from improved communications throughout the course of multiple projects. Rhuda says if a customer buys a house with a special French door, it's now instantly communicated to the lumber supplier in enough time to order the special door. In the past, the call for the door would have been placed on a long list of phone calls, and the likelihood is that when the super called, the supplier wouldn't have known to order the special door. Suppliers all the way through the building supply chain can now plan ahead and make sure they have product in stock to meet the production schedule.
Rhuda notes cutting cycle time should also improve cash flow, since each day saved means Symes is paying less interest on construction loans. What's next for Symes? Later this year, the company plans to automate supplier payments with its Timberline accounting system.