Wall and ceiling contractor finds considerable success blending its industry experience with leading-edge technology.

In the highly competitive world of contracting, success is often determined upon what type of advantages your company holds over others in the market. Older companies rely on experience in order to get a cut above the rest. Younger companies consider technology to be their advantage.

Of course, when it comes to profits and costs, the two generations aren’t very far apart. Both want to increase the former and decrease the latter. Mixing a bit of market experience with some leading technology tools can be the winning combination for achieving this goal with great consistency.

For most of his life, Tim Wies was involved in a family-owned wall and ceiling business. In 1994, he decided it was time to start his own company, T. J. Wies Contracting, www.tjwies.com , in Lake St. Louis, roughly 40 miles outside of St. Louis, Mo. At the onset, Wies ran the startup company out of his basement, acting as the sole staff, management, and operations person, while managing only three field employees.

T.J. Wies Contracting has grown considerably over the years, currently employing five estimators, five project managers, four field superintendents, five staff employees, and 250 field employees. The company office has grown as well, and is now located in a 16,000-sq.ft., state-of-the art office/warehouse located on two acres of land. The office offers visitors a glimpse of creative applications in drywall, ceiling, and construction techniques.

Needless to say, Wies leaves no opportunity unturned to showcase his company’s work and capabilities. This passion for work led to the company being named “Best Specialty Contractor” by the Midwest Council of the American Subcontractor Assn., www.asaonline.com , Alexandria, Va. After being nominated for this award five consecutive years and not winning, T.J. Wies Contracting finally brought home this prestigious award in back-to-back years: 2004 and 2005.

But more than plaques on the (dry) wall, Wies has earned a reputation as a contractor that never shies away from using up-to-date technology to improve the quality and profits on its jobs. It is a quality that pays off each and every day.

On the Frontend
The estimate is the virtual lifeblood of your typical subcontracting company. Equally important to getting the costs right is getting the details correct, and subsequently following up as the job progresses in order to be on top of changes and expenses.

According to Tim Wies, “When we started the company 13 years ago, I had a background in manual estimating but was always interested in upgrading to computer estimating. We got online with Quick Bid from On Center Software, [www.oncenter.com, The Woodlands, Texas] right off the bat and I hired experienced estimators to handle the computerized estimating.”

The Quick Bid product enables his estimators to be more thorough and productive by automating many of the functions that are usually performed manually. For example, bids can be adjusted in the system easily and quickly, allowing recalculation of last-minute changes. It also allows the ability to quickly generate new estimates, saving precious upfront time establishing a bid.

With speed, quality, and ease of use being the name of the specialty contracting game, Wies quickly realized an upgrade across more all of its bidding and estimating tasks could take the company even farther. The next plausible step was to begin using On Screen Takeoff (OST), On Center’s tool for digital takeoff of plans.

This product allows estimators at the company to view color-coded drawings on computer monitors to identify conditions and their quantities. Takeoffs of the typical area are done one time and by design it extends the quantities to all the appropriate individual areas with the typical features. When comparing two versions of a drawing, deleted items are in red and added items are in blue. Wies can then print out these documents for use in bidding.

“We just recently added a color plotter and with OST we have the capability of plotting out drawings, taking them in and showing the general contractor,” Wies comments. “We can ‘color them up’ showing what we’ve taken off and, in the pre-award timeframe, that seems to help quite a bit to show that we have expertise and technical knowledge of the individual project.”

Helping to eliminate manual summaries of the takeoffs, this product allows open details, sections, and elevation to be viewed and enables estimators to see a floor plan simultaneously. They then can use the layers feature when completing a takeoff of multiple divisions of work to visibly turn conditions on or off within the plan image while concentrating on certain scopes of work. This increases communication efficiency by allowing them to copy and paste plans with takeoff, notes, and annotations, ready to submit as an RFI (request for information).

T.J. Wies employs a team of five estimators. Each estimator agrees replacing standard takeoff methods with digital takeoff technology has elevated this process to the next level.

“With the availability of the digital plans, we probably do 90-95% of our bids digitally, on screen, and all five of us have been able to pick up on it easily,” claims one of the company’s estimators, Adam Stevener.

And since time and money are closely related in construction, extending the time available to do an accurate estimate can lessen some of the pressure on the estimator. According to estimator, Joe Berhorst, “One aspect about OST is that it cuts down quite a bit on travel time. We don’t have to search out a hard set of drawings, so it allows us to get more bids done in a timely manner.”

A Step Toward Integration
Technology has certainly helped streamline the preconstruction process at T.J. Wies Contracting. However, the company has not been as successful linking that efficiency to backend accounting and job costing.

Basing its accounting and job costing activities on Sage Master Builder from Sage Software, www.sagemasterbuilder.com , Beaverton, Ore., Wies currently integrates these applications with its On Center software manually. As any construction professional will tell you, this can be the source of great frustration—particularly for a small specialty contractor where time and accuracy are two of its greatest assets to success.

Within the current setup, data entry must be done twice; a time consuming and labor intensive operation. An assistant can devote hours to transferring the information from a field report into the appropriate program and then additional time and effort moving the same data into the other systems where it is needed.

“The thing that would appeal to us most would be a way to sync in with Master Builder or any other accounting software where it doesn’t require import and export, where it could be done more seamlessly,” adds Wies.

One area in which Wies seems to have a good handle on integration is back in the preconstruction phase. Seemingly always the first to embrace new technology, Wies says the company “jumped in with both feet” when the vendor brought Digital Production Control to market, roughly two years ago. Tim instantly recognized the product would help with tracking and management of its projects—correlating directly with the primary objectives at the company.

Integrating the takeoff and estimating process, Digital Production Control digitally tracks labor production and payroll directly from the field to the project manager’s office. This gives Wies the ability to recognize labor production problems instantly rather then at the end of a job where overruns can be more costly.

“(Digital Production Control) allows us to get a better handle on the job’s profitability and/or possible shrinkage on margins earlier in the process,” says Wies. “We’re able to track the job from the start and know if we’re on budget with the production a lot earlier than trying to do it manually or just watch the job and make a guess.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Tim Wies would rather have his field supervisors focus on doing their work out at the jobsite rather than on data entry.

“It’s a waste of their time and talent to have them punching in information on a keyboard in the field,” he acknowledges. “Taking timecards in on paper, for example, isn’t a serious constraint but ideally we’ll eventually have the systems integrated enough that the office staff won’t have to continuously re-enter that information into various programs.

“Let them enter it once and populate all the programs at the same time. Then we can look at other ways to get the information from the field, such as bar code entry of telephone calls with voice recognition or transcription by the office assistant,” Wies adds. “That’s the future we are looking at.”

Tom Inglesby is a contributing writer for Constructech.