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.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

August 15, 2013

8 Min Read

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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.

[ Trying to choose a mini tablet? Read Google Nexus 7 Vs. iPad Mini: 6 Key Factors. ]

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,'" 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. Next came Apple's iPad. Dunn purchased one to test its utility in the company's harsh field environment. The upside was evident: Superintendents that previously lugged 50 pounds or more of paper with them on job sites could put everything on the tablet.

Today, Dunn employees carry both an iPad and iPhone. All of the devices are company owned. Among the go-to apps running on those devices: PlanGrid for viewing blueprints, Adode for marking up photos, GoodNotes for taking field notes, AutoCAD for viewing construction design plans and ScannerPro for document scanning. The company also uses for CRM and other purposes. Everything integrates directly with Box for sharing and storage purposes.

The dual iPad/iPhone use, while certainly a capital expenditure given that the devices are purchased and managed by Dunn, actually serves a cost-cutting purpose, too. Dunn went to its telecom providers and told them the firm was considering a company-wide rollout of the mobile devices, then essentially said: Let's make a deal. Dunn consolidated with a single provider for voice and data; the iPhones function as Wi-Fi hotspots for the iPads in the field. James estimated that the company has saved another $25,000 or so in data costs as a result.

James said the speed at which information now travels internally at Dunn, especially between the field and corporate offices, is a boon. Problems get solved more quickly, and without the need for everyone to drive out to a job site just to find out what the problem was in the first place. Dunn can stick to increasingly aggressive construction schedules. The flow of data between Dunn, customers, suppliers and subcontractors is more efficient. Processes that once took days are now a matter of minutes.

"It's kind of a culture change," James said. "[Employees] are starting to depend on these devices to make their lives easier and allow them to work smarter and more efficiently."

That change was neither fast nor easy. Although cost savings and process improvements haven't been hard to find in Dunn's technology transformation, employee buy-in presented a significant challenge. Older employees who have been with Dunn for decades presented a particular internal sales challenge.

"They'd still use a fax machine if they could," James said. "You come in and say: 'Hey, we're going to start using computers, hand-held mobile devices to run jobs, to use out in the field. We're going to get rid of a lot of this paper we've been using.' It created a lot of resistance. There was no buy-in to begin with."

There was no magic formula for changing people's minds, either. It took time, effort and education. The first six months after the tablet-and-smartphone rollout were rough. When James visited job sites, he'd see iPads sitting unused in trailers and trucks. Eventually, though, the light bulbs began turning on. "When they started using them, they started figuring out for themselves that, hey, it really is going to help them out and make life easier, organize their jobs and get information out [faster]," James said. Usage has skyrocketed during the last three to five months, he added.

James had his own recent experience with the downside of small, lightweight and popular mobile devices: His iPad was stolen out of his locked truck, even though it was hidden from view. "They still found it," James said. Somewhat remarkably, though, given Dunn's harsh work environment, that freak occurrence has been the only damage or loss incurred since the firm's mobile makeover. Employees adhere to company policy on safeguarding and protecting their devices, according to James. And the hardware has held up so far in spite of rugged use.

"These guys have done a great job of taking care of the investment. It's been kind of amazing," James said. "These guys, they're hard on everything. They're hard on their employees, they're hard on their tools, they're hard on themselves."

The initial resistance to the technology was one reason a BYOD policy never received much consideration. A bigger driver was Dunn's longstanding philosophy of ensuring that employees have the best tools to do the best possible job, both as a matter of customer satisfaction as well as employee hiring and retention.

Now, James sees Dunn gaining an expanding edge over IT-laggard competitors. "I absolutely think this gives us an advantage," James said, noting that some companies are sticking with the if-it-ain't-broke strategy. "That's fine, great and wonderful, but the competitive environment is changing and you've got to figure out how to get an advantage anywhere you can."

The payoff might come sooner than expected: Dunn's on course for its best year in business in 2013. James called that "unheard of" given wafer-thin margins and continued economic concerns. He credits Dunn's technology strategy and buy-in from a staff that was initially reluctant to part with the old ways of doing things.

"New is not always bad," James said.

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About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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