“I’m excited, yet concerned,” IT administrator John Schaefer says of his work at H.J. Opdyke Lumber, in Flemington, N.J. “The time to talk about technology is now.”
Schaefer’s eagerness is shared by all of the tech leaders that ProSales recently visited. They work at lumberyards and distribution companies of all sizes and in all parts of the country. Some grew up in tech, while others started work at a time when personal computing consisted of a pencil and an adding machine. They may joke, as one did, that their bosses are so behind the times that “they are tapping rocks to make fire,” but most believe their companies are helping to eliminate LBM’s reputation for being technology-averse. And they agree with the view that building material supply is, at its core, a people business. Tech should help the connection, not replace it, they say.
Like Tracy Kidder’s heroes in his 1981 book The Soul of a New Machine, they are the brains and heart of a technological transformation in how LBM dealers and distributors work. Come meet them.
Senior director of information services
US LBM, Green Bay, Wis.
When you’re at a holding company with a dozen operations that run with “a great deal of independence,” any operating system must be flexible, Greg Bossert says. That’s the challenge faced by the 38-year-old, who became part of US LBM when it acquired Universal Supply in 2010, and was promoted to his current position last January.
Bossert explains that US LBM chose Epicor Catalyst as its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system partly because software packages—such as Descartes, a tracking and logistics program—can be bolted onto it relatively simply. The system also has the capacity to scale up as US LBM expands. The corporation, which had three companies and 350 employees in 2009, is on track to reach 3,000 employees this year.
System integration can be one of the biggest challenges and potential stumbling blocks for any consolidator, especially when leanness defines a company’s operations as it does US LBM. Bossert says that one of US LBM’s selling features, when it’s trying to convince an acquired company to switch to its ERP system, is that it does all of its optimization within its system.
Bossert’s background also comes in handy when he’s explaining the advantages of an integrated system. Previously an IT consultant, Bossert did a lot of data and e-commerce work, mostly for the golf industry. So when he’s pitching a solution to a US LBM operating division, he says “it’s not all that different from the sales methods I was involved with previously.”
While his education was in finance, Bossert started working with computers at a young age. He attended a progressive elementary school where his second-grade teacher instructed her class in writing code. Bossert also may have been destined for the LBM industry, having learned woodworking skills from his father.
US LBM and its divisions are moving forward on several tech fronts. One branch, Illinois-based Hines Supply, rolled out a mobile app so business customers can track orders, deliveries, and invoices, and receive information about special offers and sales events.
The general perception is that the LBM industry is antiquated when it comes to technology. But Bossert thinks the industry gets a bad rap. Customers are demanding more sophistication, and younger staff are moving the industry in more progressive directions.
H.J. Opdyke Lumber, Flemington, N.J.
“Everything’s getting out of control,” says John Schaefer, who has been IT administrator at H.J. Opdyke Lumber for the past 14 years. “Technology is moving too fast. There are 2 million apps for the iPhone alone, and everybody wants more bells and whistles from their software. We have 20 different pieces of software that need to be upgraded twice a year. And our POS software company has 38 support departments. The old ‘fix it yourself’ days are over.”
Still, Schaefer points out that within the past year his company has invested in wireless technology that enables it to do inventory, price checks, sales, and print labors from a handheld RF gun/portable printer. And the company set up one of its outside salesman with a notebook computer, hotspot, wireless printer, and access to his office PC, which enables him to print quotes and invoices at jobsites.
At its locations, 50-inch closed-circuit TVs on sales counters provide in-store messaging such as advertising, weather, and new products. And Opdyke recently started emailing blueprints and pictures of deliveries using a one-touch feature on the Android phones that its drivers carry. That’s the start.
Schaefer is fascinated by the potential of virtual reality devices such as the EyeTap, which acts as a camera to record the world around it, and can then augment the image the user sees with an overlay of computer-generated data. This theoretically could allow a user to reference blueprints in 3-D as if the user were on the actual construction site.
Schaefer says that his biggest challenge is “mentally, financially, and physically” finding the time to research, present, and discuss the potential implantation of newer technology. “I receive dozens of phone calls and emails weekly, advertising everything from new software and cloud storage backup solutions to solar energy, technical support services, new credit card processors, etc. I just don’t have the time to investigate all or even most of them.”
His solution to overcoming the frustrations of trying to quickly fix every tech issue: Rely on specialized support experts in the field. “This is less rewarding, but is often a faster solution, and I usually walk away having learned something,” he says. Not everything he learns is comforting. “My biggest fear,” he says, “is that with cloud technology and the elimination of cash, what would people do if the grid suddenly went down? You wouldn’t be able to buy anything.”
Vice president for technology
Erie Materials, Syracuse, N.Y.
When Erie hired Rose Townsend as its office manager 25 years ago, there wasn’t a single personal computer being used by anyone at the company—every task was done manually.
Within a year on the job, Townsend, who has a master’s degree in computer science, saw an opportunity for Erie to use technology as an operational tool. In the ensuing years, Erie Materials has made steady technological advances, all with an eye toward offering the best possible customer experience.
Along the way, technology has helped the company’s departments and 10 locations to work together. To that end, Erie this summer installed a new companywide ERP system. The goal, Townsend says, “is to get everyone onboard early for smooth adoption as well as best practices and improvements.”
Like many of her counterparts in the LBM industry, Townsend harbors a healthy skepticism about technology’s capabilities, saying that it can overly complicate a business. She admits that Erie “let its guard down” in the past when it took on systems whose reporting tools gave the company “metrics that were really meaningless,” and were burdensome for the IT department to produce.
Consequently, she says that Erie isn’t obsessed about being a first adopter. That being said, she’s quick to claim that Erie is ahead of the curve on ensuring that its systems are available and fully operational. It uses a co-location facility for its production system and has a mirror-image set of backup systems at its facility that she says provides “up-to-the-minute replication” of data.
Recently, Erie started workflow monitoring to manage its operations. The company expects to be doing a lot more with mobile technology, too. “Our customers are doing business a little differently with the use of mobile devices and next-generation [products],” which can involve their architects and large-project general contractors, she says. “That’s changing the way we do business.”
Townsend sees mobile technology as the eventual path toward improving everything at Erie, from outside sales to managing its warehouse and fleet. She points out that choosing new systems and software is increasingly difficult because there are so many options. And too many dealers, she says, get caught up in the smoke and mirrors and don’t look at the core software until it’s too late “and you realize [what you’ve bought] is way too complicated.”
Vice president for MIS at ECMD
North Wilkesboro, N.C.
On his LinkedIn page, 53-year-old Steve Brown asserts that his company’s technology portfolio is “by far the most advanced in the industry.” Brown says that ECMD can handle more SKUs than its competitors generally offer, and it can handle a diverse customer base as well.
Over his 18 years with ECMD, he says that system has been “completely overhauled”—some parts as many as two or three times. The company has a major ERP system and deploys custom solutions for supply-chain management, distribution and warehousing, price management, customer relationship management, salesforce automation, and customer self-service. ECMD also has switched from 60 distinct physical servers to 95 virtual machines on just nine physical servers. Recently the company deployed a second synchronized data center for disaster recovery and risk mitigation.
ECMD prefers to write its own software in-house. “This is a reflection of our tendency toward thinking with a long-term view and of owning, rather than leasing, assets,” Brown says. The software for warehousing and distribution, for example, directs, records, and audits all activities and enables ECMD to maintain consistently high levels of accuracy and fill rates, and to lower labor costs. “We now pick up an order with a single person rather than a two- to four-man crew,” he notes.
“We see ourselves as being supply-chain experts,” Brown adds. “We may utilize offshore suppliers, domestic manufacturers, or our own manufacturing capacity to supply a given array of products. As a result, we need sophisticated software to enable those critical decisions and to ensure the execution of that planning.”
Over the past few years, Brown says, mobility and customer service have been ECMD’s big initiatives—users can access real-time pricing, place orders, and view order status. Mobility saves customers time and improves the productivity of salespeople.
Brown, who has been in his current job since 2001, says that ECMD’s entrepreneurialism demands IT people who are “agile thinkers” and can thrive in “a culture of continual change and improvement.” He sees his main role as a communicator and team builder, “and we believe that if all our tech people know how ECMD makes money, there’s no end to the possible ideas we can come up with.”
Valley Distributors, Turlock, Calif.
The first job that Todd Anderson had at this pro dealer 26 years ago was putting nails into bins. And even as IT is now part of his responsibilites, he still sees himself as “pretty low-tech.” In Anderson’s estimation, Valley Distributors, whose operations include a lumberyard, retail store, and door shop, rates a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10 in tech sophistication. Valley is still hand-writing purchase orders for inventory, and its fleet management has yet to be guided by GPS.
But the company owners—whom Anderson jokes “are tapping rocks to make fire”—understand the value of technology and support investment in it. In late spring, for example, Valley added tablets in its showroom to replace paper catalogs and allow customers to locate and print out product information. The store also has some interfaces through which it can generate purchase orders.
So far, Anderson says that his biggest accomplishment has been giving Valley the capability “to network everyone” through electronic billing, sales histories, and selling through tablets and smartphones—although Valley isn’t using the latter yet for credit-card transactions.
Like many IT professionals, Anderson is concerned about credit card security. To minimize risk, “we destroy every paper receipt,” he says. However, California mandates that warranty documentation be kept on file for 10 years, so Anderson is constantly looking for new ways to protect and store data.
The company recently installed a new firewall to guard its network from being hacked through the Wi-Fi that enables those tablets. (The company has a second Wi-Fi network that’s similar to what consumers can tap into at coffee shops and bookstores.)
Anderson does what he can to keep up with technology’s lightning-speed pace. “I read a lot,” he says, “and I purchase lots of things, so I’m always seeing something that’s new.”
At the moment, Valley’s market is still “in recovery mode” economically, Anderson says, so at this point, “we’re just maintaining” when it comes to IT investment. His wish list includes electronic inventory ordering, although he notes that while most suppliers can interface with a paperless system, they’re often difficult to order from electronically because their products are so departmentalized. “There’s not really full access [to products] for purchasing,” he observes. “It’s a storefront without a door.”
Director of administration
PMC Building Materials, Marietta, Ga.
Tom Matula, 48, has been with PMC since it started in May 2008, and was charged with launching the company’s network. He concluded that what PMC needed was a real-time solution. And one of his biggest accomplishments, he says, was installing a Windows 2012 server and getting it to run with PMC’s point-of-sale software. “We took a six-month implementation and completed it in six weeks,” he proudly declares.
PMC uses a cloud-based host for its POS system as well as its email servers and has its website on a separate cloud. “The cloud is getting very big for us,” Matula says. He speculates that cloud computing and storage are becoming more popular with LBM dealers and distributors because many still use antiquated operating systems, such as Windows XP. “That’s scary,” he quips.
With a single lumberyard that has a 6,500-square-foot showroom, PMC doesn’t immediately jump onto new things, either. Seventy percent of its PCs are refurbished, and Matula says that he needs to be careful about how he spends the company’s money.
PMC “has a long way to go” before it reaches its ultimate technology goal, which Matula says is to facilitate online transactions via electronic catalog. However, there are other issues to consider—not least of which is that PMC deals mostly with remodelers and general contractors who still prefer to actually come into the store.
And like many IT execs in the LBM space, Matula worries about hacking. “Look at what happened to Target,” he says, referring to the 40 million credit card numbers that were electronically stolen from that mass retailer. PMC could be on hackers’ radar more than some competitors, he posits, because of its aggressive search-engine optimization marketing.
On the other hand, Matula wants PMC to tap the full potential of e-commerce. Using analytical tools, he discovered that PMC’s website wasn’t capturing visitors who visit via their mobile devices. So he’s in the process of overlaying a mobile platform that interfaces with smartphones and iPads. He refers to this as a “fluid grid” that will pick up everything that comes over the electronic transom and minimizes the need for PMC to duplicate its SEO efforts.
Director of information technology
Fullerton Lumber, Plymouth, Minn.
Barnholtz characterizes Fullerton as being both behind and ahead of the times. “Our POS system is a heavy paper producer,” he says. “And because most of our locations are in rural markets, bandwidth is a valued resource.” But he adds that the company has quite a bit of mobile capacity, including a delivery tracking system that uses Microsoft Outlook. The company captures labor costs via its time clocks, into which employees scan their nametags and job functions.
Barnholtz has been with Fullerton for eight years and an active member of the LBM industry for 25. He started in sales, a beginning that he believes gives him a unique perspective on technology from the vantage point of the end user.
Those end users at Fullerton began getting mobilized about when the recession hit. Fullerton started mobilizing the workforce, with laptops and hand-held devices. However, the company is still evaluating new operating systems to replace its current servers and ERP system, both of which he estimates are 15 years old. The original plan was to bring on new equipment in 2015, but now he thinks it might be further down the road.
Barnholtz says that Fullerton is looking for a system that’s intuitive, with a wide range of functions that includes dispatching and delivery management, document management, mobile integration, and workflow monitoring. Any new system must be able to track labor at Fullerton’s manufacturing facility. He says that the major suppliers have all made presentations to the company.
Ultimately, Barnholtz would like Fullerton to become more of a resource for its customers by being able to exchange documents via iPads or QuickBooks.
Vice president and IT manager
Big Creek Lumber, Davenport, Calif.
The 63-year-old McCrary—whose grandfather, father, and uncle started Big Creek Lumber in 1946—has done just about every job at the company since he came on board right out of college. As is often the case with pro dealers, he got into IT serendipitously: the computer system Big Creek had been using was inadequate, so he was charged with finding a vendor for a new operating system. In the process, he introduced PCs to the company.
Last year, Big Creek installed Epicor’s BisTrack ERP system, after several years of postponements due to the economy. The pent-up need for this upgrade was immediately palpable. “Now that it’s installed, we can’t keep up with the demand and conflicting priorities” of Big Creek’s departments, he says. Managers running the dealer’s six locations are responsible for reconciling those priorities, so McCrary and his three-person IT team have their hands full on a regular basis.
Big Creek’s operations are complicated by the fact that it has a redwood sawmill, whose tech needs include a geographical information system for mapping purposes. Big Creek also maintains a second POS system for its wholesale division.
While proud of how automated the IT systems have become, McCrary doesn’t think that his company has made the most of its tools. In an effort to educate the entire staff, the company recently assigned one of its IT team to train other employees. He also notices that Big Creek’s customers seem more eager to embrace technology to help run their businesses. As of late June, about 70 customers had signed up to be able to access their records and invoices through an electronic portal that the dealer has been rolling out this summer.
McCrary sees no reason why his company won’t eventually place product orders with suppliers online. However, he’s less sure about offering that service to customers.
“I’d love for customers to do their own quotes, but I still think you need the human touch” where lumber is concerned, he says. Besides, “you might need some interpretation of grades and species.”
Information services manager
Buikema’s Ace Hardware, Naperville, Ill.
Hull came to Buikema’s in June from Walgreen’s corporate, where he was an IT case manager that had recently been involved in rolling out a new POS system to Walgreen’s 8,200-plus drugstores. Before Walgreen’s, Hull worked for AT&T, Motorola, and Experian. Hull says that he went to Buikema’s “because I wanted to see what it was like working for a smaller company where people know your name.”
Here’s one big difference: At Walgreen’s, there are 1,000 people writing processes and procedures. Buikema’s boasts only seven locations and has the same number of servers. The company doesn’t have the money that Walgreen’s does to throw at IT solutions.
But, Hull says, “We’re working on bringing the company up to the current century.” He is replacing all of the company’s servers (some of which are a decade old), and upgrading the POS system. His next project will be to address Buikema’s order-entry and inventory management systems, to which he has already assigned a team leader. He believes that these upgrades will be completed within a year.
When Hull came on board at Buikema’s, he was concerned about whether or not the company would support what he wanted to do financially.
“The owner has been excellent, and he’s committed to what we’re doing,” he says. Hull believes his hiring has been a real sea change for the company and its owner.