The living room in my home features a floor-to-ceiling set of shelf cubes in which my wife and I have put books, travel mementoes, and two particularly important pieces of machinery. One is my grandfather’s last typewriter, a descendant of what he used to write his “Bricklayer’s Corner” vignettes for a labor newspaper in Atlanta in the 1920s. The other is an original Macintosh computer, purchased shortly after its debut in 1984. We paid the equivalent of $5,750 in today’s dollars to get a unit that weighed 17 pounds, lacked any internal memory, had a 9-inch screen, and ran on a processor that’s 500 times slower than today’s top-of-the-line Apple products.
It changed our lives.
Bill Gates once said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.” I think that’s where we stand with LBM technology. For just about any given two-year period you can argue that technology isn’t changing the game, that it’s still all about relationships, that this remains a business in which you do deals face to face, blah blah blah. And then you start thinking back a decade and see how bar-code scanners and GPS trackers and cloud computing and online services have turbocharged our business.
What’s next? I believe doing takeoffs by hand will become for dealers what using a sextant is for sailors: a skill that helps you understand the basics, but rarely used because technology does the job so much better. I believe virtual reality devices will become standard for all dealers that sell designs, be they for kitchens and baths or for trusses and framing. Responding to data-driven insights will become second nature. And in a business where so much takes place out of the office, from sourcing to sales to deliveries, I believe our workers will be more interconnected than ever.
I also believe that the more we know, the more we’ll need to use technology to gain precious profit dollars and spot situations in which they’re being siphoned away. New metrics, like the ones estimating the true cost of serving a customer, are helping dealers claw their way to operating profit margins of 5% and above. And greater reliance on older measures is helping dealers notice growing problems, such as the increase in customers’ use of credit cards when they pay on their accounts.
Don’t count on technology to obliterate such issues in the next two years. But in 10? Maybe. Meanwhile, remember the rest of Gates’ admonition: Just because tech changes take a while, don’t let yourself be lulled by inaction today.