Too Old For Tablets? Not 135-Year-Old Construction Firm
Mobile devices and cloud apps helped Dunn Building modernize and recover from 2008 economic downturn. And 2013 may be its best year ever.
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Some companies can't keep iPads out of their offices even when they try to. Dunn Building, a family-operated industrial construction business, had the opposite problem. Many of the firm's 130 employees wanted nothing to do with new iPads, iPhones or the apps running on the devices. And the company was paying for everything.
"You've been to the South, I'm sure," said Talmadge James, Dunn's industrial division manager, in an interview. Dunn is based in Birmingham, Ala. "We're creatures of habit. 'If it's not broke, don't fix it. Do things the way we always have. It's always worked and it's done fine.' But what you don't realize is, as the world's moving forward, so are other companies -- and they're figuring out ways to work smarter and harder."
In 2007, Dunn celebrated what remains its best performance in 135 years of business. In 2008, Dunn marked a different milestone: the worst year in company history, thanks to the financial crisis and an industry-wide implosion in the construction business. Still licking their wounds, Dunn's executives had no choice but to find ways to retool and recover from what was, financially speaking, a disaster.
"We had to figure out ways to still provide [our] quality product but try to cut some of that cost and overhead and stay competitive so that we might could make a little money along the way," James said.
The company identified the primary culprit in increased costs and inefficiencies: Paper. Dunn's preconstruction operations alone -- developing project plans, getting those plans in the hands of subcontractors and clients, working with suppliers on pricing, and so forth -- was a time-consuming, expensive set of processes that relied on paper and disks. Add the hefty spending on both printing and postage, and Dunn had an obvious cost-cutting target. Some of the firm’s competitors had begun deploying FTP sites to manage their own paperwork loads; some of Dunn's leadership team wanted to follow suit.
As the company was getting set to sign a contract with a vendor to build and deploy its own FTP site, an intern walked into James' office and asked to show him something. "He said: 'One of our [subcontractors] sent me some information over this website called Box.net,'" James recalled. "'It's really simple. I think we should try it out.'"
So they did, tinkering with a free account as a proof of concept before signing on for commercial licenses. Box was still a new, venture-backed startup at the time, and James felt that Dunn got a great deal on pricing as a result. Contract signed, Dunn immediately put Box to work in its preconstruction process. Right off the bat, James and company saw improved efficiencies in the often stressful bid-and-proposal process. For instance, when project requests and plans from customers came in, Dunn could get them out to subcontractors and suppliers within 90 minutes or so. That subsequently gave those subs and suppliers more time in the typical seven-to-10 day window to provide the best possible pricing, a crucial win given tightening profit margins for builders like Dunn.
"The distribution of information was so much easier and so much less complex than what we were doing," James said. The concrete proof -- of the variety just about any boss can understand -- came the following year, its first full year using the cloud service.
"We cut about $25,000 out of the budget just by using Box, just eliminating paper and printing and all of the extra costs that we used to have when we were all fat, dumb and happy," James said.
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