Doing blueprint takeoffs used to be a nice “extra” to offer to your customers. But today, having the ability to create fast, accurate estimates often is a must-have to close the deal for a contractor's next job and to keep him coming back. “Any more, estimating is just table stakes to doing business,” says Jon Zeigler, general manager for H.L. Munn Lumber Co., a single-yard operation in Ames, Iowa, whose volume of 700 takeoffs last year was higher than the average 300 to 500 estimates that most pro dealers do annually. “It's just something that a lumberyard needs to have.”
H.L. Munn was able to churn out those 700 quotes with the help of Activant Solutions' Professional Estimating Software (PES), a new software tool that integrates with Activant's widely used Falcon and Eagle ERP systems and allows pro dealers to whip out whole-house estimates in a matter of hours. Takeoffs can be broken out floor-by-floor, by load or by assembly, so contractors can give their own customers a breakdown of costs while using the estimate to streamline scheduling for both site delivery and subcontractor scheduling.
With two full-time estimators on his staff already, Zeigler says the software doubled H.L. Munn's takeoff productivity, at about a fourth of the cost of adding another estimator. “Without that program, we'd be cut in half,” Zeigler says. “It shortens the time on each job by at least 50 percent.” Since the software plugs directly into Activant's back-office systems, prices, item numbers, and even customer info can be cross-referenced.
Announced in January, PES is the latest integrated product to come out of Activant's acquisition last year of Speedware Corp. and its subsidiary, Enterprise Computer Systems. (The company released Performance Driver Suite, an electronic “dashboard” from which lumber execs can monitor day-to-day operations, last August.) PES is essentially a retooling of Enterprise's estimating solution, which H.L. Munn had already been using before the buyout.
Rob Vomund, segment marketing manager for Activant's lumber and building materials group, said dealer demand for doing takeoffs drove Activant to focus on estimating now. “Estimating is one of those things that customers were coming to us and asking about, saying they wanted to include that in their business,” Vomund says. “By offering estimates, you become part of that builder's business process when he bids a job. He doesn't just become more loyal; he becomes more reliant on you.”
The Activant customers we spoke with say the software is surprisingly easy to operate. When a customer comes in with blueprints for a job he wants to bid, an estimator lays them out on a large tabletop called a graphics digitizer. Using a pen-like electronic pointer, he then goes through the blueprints and on-screen prompts floor-by-floor.
Pulling pricing and unit information from Activant's back-office systems, PES then generates a full materials list and quote for the house, organized and broken out in spreadsheet format.
Activant also will do takeoffs for you. This service currently is being used by Ring's End Lumber, a six-yard operation in Darien, Conn., that outsourced more than 800 takeoffs last year, many to Activant. “Activant's service is [easy to use], ” says Tony Calistro, education coordinator and estimator at the $100 million dealer, who adds that the average cost for the service is $300 per estimate, or 6 cents per square foot. “They just dump everything right into our computer system. Then, it's just a matter of printing it, massaging it, and getting it back to the client.”
—Joe Bousquin is a Newcastle, Calif.–based freelance journalist.