When Debbie Franxman of Wiseway Supply in Florence, Ky., has a question about an order from Drees Homes, one of her largest accounts, she logs on to Drees' password-protected Web site to get the answer. Whether she needs to know when to deliver lighting components to a 50-unit Cincinnati subdivision or why an order is still sitting on a Wiseway dock, the reason is there.
“It probably saves me 30 phone calls a day,” says Franxman, an outside sales rep at the six-unit supplier of electrical, plumbing, and lighting components.
Franxman is tapping into “DreesTeam,” a Web portal integrated into Drees'back-office systems that helps manage its 3,100 houses annually. The secure Web site is designed with a user-friendly interface that serves up everything from construction schedules to detailed blueprints. More than 550 of Drees' suppliers use the system, generating 24,000 hits a month.
“We've been communicating electronically with our suppliers for about three years now,” says Mike Rulli, director of information systems at Fort Mitchell, Ky.–based Drees. “We can basically go into the Midwest region and do a paperless start, with everything a vendor needs to work for us, served up right there. It's been a tremendous cost savings.”
Other big builders are taking similar steps: A recent survey conducted by BUILDER magazine, a sister publication of PROSALES, found that 34 percent of big builders are using or have plans to use portals. As they roll them out, they're expecting suppliers to get on board not just by using the systems, but also by providing feedback to make them better.
“Their ultimate goal is to reduce their cycle time, so if you're a major supplier, they'll listen to your suggestions,” says Dave Sharp, executive account manager in the Erlanger, Ky., office of Builders FirstSource, a heavy user of DreesTeam. “But if your concerns are really just complaints about using new technology, they'll likely find a new supplier who embraces it to replace you.”
Dealers should have little reason to drag their feet, though; as Wiseway is proving, pros can leverage portals to boost volume and streamline their own operations. For example, when Franxman gets to work each morning, she logs on to DreesTeam, flipping between it and Wiseway's back-office system. Monitoring the two systems simultaneously, she sees exactly when a Drees order is due, or, if it's going to be delayed, by how long. She then manages Wiseway's inventory to get orders to Drees just in time, without needlessly taking up dock space with a staged load beforehand. “It helps us control our inventory so much better, sometimes months ahead of time, because we can see every Drees job before they even break ground,” Franxman says. “If they get busier with sold units, and back off their market homes, we can see that and back off our inventory levels on those jobs.”
One of the keys to Wiseway's success with the Drees portal comes from its own investment in technology. The dealer bought Intuit's Eclipse Distribution Management System and customized it to fit its day-to-day interactions with Drees. Now, when Drees sends Wiseway a check tagged with a purchase order number, the system automatically matches it to Wiseway's work order, eliminating accounting headaches. “It has increased the number of units we sell to Drees because we have the ability to merge that kind of information,” Franxman says.
Sound daunting? Relax. The good news is if you work with a big builder that has a portal, they've already done the heavy lifting for you. As long as you've made your own investments to keep up to date on technology, you're halfway to meeting your builder's needs faster—and with fewer headaches—than your competition. “I wish every builder had this kind of system,” Franxman says. “We absolutely love it.” —Joe Bousquin is a Newcastle, Calif.–based freelance journalist.