By Greg Norris
The Software Advantage
A contractor armed with management software streamlines operations
Insight On Site is the motto at Brubacher, Inc., and a software strategy focused on connecting workflows, streamlining processes and making data available in real time plays an important role in delivering that insight.
The contractor headquartered in Bowmansville, Pennsylvania relies on a unified approach to technology to address challenges and gain competitive advantages. “We want to be on the leading edge, but not the bleeding edge when it comes to software technology,” says Keith Brubacher, president of the family owned company founded in 1971.
Brubacher operates more than 200 pieces of equipment and completes excavating and earthwork, utility construction, paving and a variety of related services like land clearing, drilling and blasting work throughout eastern Pennsylvania, northern Delaware and northeast Maryland. The company also has a division providing specialized site services for the natural gas industry in northern Pennsylvania.
Keith Brubacher jokes that most of what the company does is never seen. “You might see a large warehouse, seven inches of curbing, three inches of grass and a fire hydrant every now and then, but the foundations of many projects in our region are the result of the good work of our teams.”
Software with a clear purpose
Brubacher and his team see construction software as a means to an end, ultimately making it possible to get information to employees so they can make good decisions at the operational level. “We have a lot of great people, and they can do their jobs best if they have information that is easily digestible and timely,” he explains. “The data lets them act faster, ask questions they otherwise might not ask or ask those questions sooner.”
Software helps with another challenge that keeps Brubacher up at night: finding ways to make it easier for managers and supervisors to excel in an increasingly demanding environment. “We’ve got to preserve a positive culture and work environment and make the lives of our supervisors as rewarding as possible, and every incremental improvement is significant,” he adds. Benefits like saving 15 minutes by not having to enter data into a spreadsheet or having timely reports at their fingertips to eliminate a series of phone calls back and forth to the office add up and are motivating factors.
Focused on two platforms
Fifteen years ago, the Brubacher leadership team worked with a consultant to review a growing array of technology in place at the company and to map out a strategy for increased cohesion and integration. At that time, the company relied on 17 different software programs to run the business.
“Today, we’re really centered around two major software platforms: one for accounting, and one for bidding, operations and related operational aspects of our business,” Keith Brubacher explains.
Brubacher now relies on Spectrum from Viewpoint for accounting. The ONE Platform from B2W Software provides unified elements to manage estimating, resource scheduling, field performance tracking and equipment maintenance. The company has also begun to incorporate an electronic forms and reporting application from B2W to replace paper forms.
“The unified estimating and operations platform has really helped with efficiency, collaboration and immediacy,” says IT director Tracy Schmeck. “We maintain data on employees, equipment and jobs in one place, enter activities or information one time, and it is immediately available and visible across the applications used in the office, the shop and the field.”
The estimating and operations platform also connects to the accounting platform, which serves as the system of record at Brubacher. This creates transparency across bidding, budgeting, accounting and operations and allows the company to transfer daily performance data, employee hours, parts costs and other information without delays or redundant data entry.
Bidding faster and more accurately
Allan Day, director of estimating and preconstruction, heads a group of five full-time time estimators and four takeoff technicians at Brubacher. The team generates dozens of bids a month and a few hundred million dollars in bid volume annually. Two project managers also spend some of their time estimating.
The specialized software used by the estimators is preloaded with labor and equipment rates, a relatively standard material database and commonly used templates, allowing them to work quickly and accurately and to bypass manual data entry.
“What we really like about it is, it allows us to standardize our estimates, both the structure of the estimates and the bid logic, but it also gives us the flexibility to customize it for a unique situation,” Day explains.
“When we are up against a bid deadline and need all hands on deck, we can have multiple users working in the same estimate, which has been really nice over the last couple of years here as we worked on some of the larger projects,” he adds.
When bids are won, the unified aspect of the estimating and field tracking software plays an important role. Bid data is transferred to build field logs without the redundant data entry that introduces opportunities for errors and ambiguity. “We can also monitor projects while they are under construction, taking a look at unit costs and progress and working with the field teams to make sure the way jobs are being built aligns with how they were bid,” says Day. “We’re on the same page with the same data.”
Daily performance tracking
Field tracking and analysis software at Brubacher allows foremen in the field to record performance data within electronic field logs. That information can include productivity, material and equipment utilization, trucking and employee hours – all coded to specific job or phase codes. Subcontractor activities, weather and any number of additional quantities and activities can also be captured in the log.
Foremen enter the field data at the end of the day or incrementally, when activities are completed or when it is most convenient. They report that the electronic logs make it harder to make mistakes and that the process is two to three times faster than completing traditional paper field logs.
Importantly, the logs are submitted daily, and the software generates field-focused reports and dashboards. When leaders in the field submit performance data, they can see instantly where they stand versus the estimate or plan at that point in time and use that insight to adjust operations. “It’s very motivating and rewarding, on a daily basis, for our crews in the field to actually see how their project is performing,” says Shawn, a project manager at Brubacher.
That daily reporting is also important to project managers like Shawn, who typically manages six to eight crews across multiple jobsites.
“I can check in and visually see where projects stand without potentially having to have long conversations with the supervisor or foreman,” he explains. “From that information, I can work with them to modify the schedule and plan.”
Scheduling and dispatching to optimize resources
Greg, who heads scheduling and dispatching at Brubacher says communications is a key to his efforts and that a scheduling software solution improves communication.
That application has largely replaced whiteboards and spreadsheets, providing an online alternative where views can be customized according to the requirements of specific users, resource assignments can be made or modified with drag-and-drop simplicity, and the information is updated and visible across the company in real time.
“We can see where everything is at – employees, crews and equipment – and where they are going to be needed,” explains Greg. “We can look at employee-centric and equipment-centric views as well as views of specific jobs and an equipment move planner to help us assign and move resources as
as efficiently as possible.”
Greg says the live, online capabilities and visibility are a big help in dealing with last-minute changes which are a constant in a dynamic heavy construction environment. Integration with the field tracking software allows leaders in the field to make and track resource requests directly through the software. The scheduling software also communicates with the maintenance software, giving schedulers accurate, timely insight into when equipment is down for maintenance and unavailable for assignment.
Driving preventive maintenance
A maintenance management application helps 15 mechanics at Brubacher maintain a fleet that includes 150 pieces of “yellow iron” and more than 50 heavy trucks. Relying on the specialized software instead of paper or spreadsheets streamlines work order processes and helps to drive proactive, preventive maintenance, according to Kris Hay, director of fleet.
“I don’t know how you would be able to run a fleet of our size on a spreadsheet,” says Hay. “I’m sure there are companies doing it, but I think the software is imperative.”
Mechanics at Brubacher have been equipped with laptop computers for more than a decade, enabling them to create and complete work orders as well as order parts on site.
Managing preventive maintenance and making sure services get completed at the proper intervals is a key advantage with software. The application tracks those intervals for each asset based on utilization data that comes from field logs and directly from telematics devices installed on some equipment. Maintenance managers are prompted by the software when services are coming due and provided with relevant data like parts lists and warranty information. This allows them to plan the work efficiently and to minimize interruptions on the jobsite due to unplanned downtime.
“It is a well-documented fact that preventive maintenance is more effective and less costly than the other option of run until failure,” confirms Hay.
Support and relationships
Trust and relationships with clients and employees have been cornerstones of the long-term success at Brubacher. That approach extends to third-party suppliers that support the business as well. In the case of software systems, narrowing the number of vendors and strengthening relationships as opposed to simply buying products have paid off and given the company a more powerful voice in shaping the ongoing development of the technology.
“Choosing software platform partners aligned with and committed to our industry and open to our feedback was very important,” Keith Brubacher explains. “We’re able to build a relationship, have a dialogue and provide insight into how we’d like to see the products serve the needs of our industry in the future, rather than having that influence disbursed over so many vendors, and actually having no influence.”
Brubacher and his team acknowledge that no software solution will do everything that every contractor wants it to do from day one. They feel that it’s important for software not to stand still. “Having a roadmap for continuous development and sticking to it are very important,” says Schmeck. She notes that many specific enhancements and features suggested by Brubacher have found their way into the software used for estimating and operations. Updates to those systems have also introduced new capabilities that the company never realized it could benefit from.
“When we need support, knowing that we can get someone on the phone right away and get it resolved quickly are a critical part of why we chose and have stuck with the estimating and operations platform we have,” says Schmeck. “The long-term relationship aspect and knowing who you are dealing with on a first-name basis helps too,” she adds.
Advanced software and, particularly, a platform with applications that allow communication and collaboration across workflows, is already a differentiating advantage at Brubacher. The company believes this will be even more beneficial moving forward.
“Construction has become a real-time business,” says Schmeck. “When you have spreadsheets and disconnected application and you’re trying to match them, import and export data or get reports from multiple sources, you’re going to drop behind.”
“If you really want to attract people that are interested in growing and leveraging their skills in the business, and if the company is going to be positioned to grow in size or complexity, you really need to have a system that works well behind the scenes,” adds Keith Brubacher. “Some people may like hard work and spreadsheets and staying up late at night scratching figures better than I do, but I think the software and the integrated approach is the way to go.”
“We operate in an environment with high costs and high financial risks, with labor, equipment and materials all converging,” Brubacher concludes. “The efficiency and the data-driven decision making that our software platform helps us achieve are critical to our success and, really, without that financial success we’re less equipped to achieve our goal of being uncommonly refreshing in our approach to people, projects and solutions.”