Changing the Construction Industry: The A.C.E. Story
Founder Brandon Wilson Tells Why He Felt Compelled to Create Actual Cost Engineering Construction Software
A.C.E. founder and president, Brandon Wilson, is a numbers pro with a passion for the construction industry. Having grown up with two subcontractor parents, he was practically born with a hard hat on. Not only does he know the industry well from working with the family business, but his passion for creating efficient systems and background in business finance have provided him with the skills necessary to create a software that tackles the new home construction industry’s biggest challenges. Here’s his story on the creation of A.C.E.
After graduating from San Diego State University in 2012 with a degree in business finance, I had the opportunity to join the family business as a superintendent of the newly formed San Diego branch. The company, based in Orange County, California, was getting more jobs in the area and needed someone to run things down south. While training with the company’s veteran superintendents, I began noticing how many different data points are involved with each individual house and the difficulty with keeping track of these data points for the guys in the field.
I was asking questions about the time involved with certain tasks and how much material should be used, and though these superintendents were able to answer my questions for the most part since they had previously worked as tradesmen, there were no standards or guidelines for communicating those numbers to employees. Somewhat baffled and curiosity piqued, I began collecting these numbers so I could enforce them on the projects I would start running once my training ended.
I began working in the field and attending job costing meetings at the office every other week to evaluate how our crews were performing in the field. It was during these meetings that I discovered the huge disconnect between the field and the office. For example, while reviewing our job costing, we’d see that one phase made money while the next lost money. Some phases, the labor was extremely high, and others the material was extremely high. We could see whether we lost or earned money on a project when all was said and done, but we didn’t really know why and couldn’t learn from those broad and largely inaccurate job cost reports.
Since I had spent the previous four years studying business finance and learning about cash flow, this really bothered me and I was determined to fix it. I started with the bidding process, with a goal of finding out exactly how much labor and materials I was expected to use on each scheduled date. Up to this point, bids were created using square foot averages or historical data from previous jobs. The builders consistently ask us to perform the same operations in construction, building from the ground up, with minor variations to factors like size and specs. I knew I needed to break material and labor costs down per scheduled operation, this would allow me to track my progress throughout the project instead of waiting until the end to see whether we made money or not. I started creating spreadsheets to calculate our bid costs based on the rates that I learned from the superintendents during training and apply them to the takeoffs I was performing on the plans.
“I cracked the system,” I thought. “Woo hoo! I win!” But I soon realized I had just begun. My really detailed spreadsheet did help me create more accurate bids and we were awarded jobs based on these bids. But I quickly realized that, while the system worked great for creating bids, if I wanted to truly improve operations and make the company more profitable, I needed to figure out a way to connect the plan data to the actual lot data or else our job costing reports would still be out of sync with our bids. To make this happen, I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos to learn how to write detailed excel formulas. Let’s just say Index Match became my best friend.
I also needed to overcome the hurdle of collecting data on what we actually used in the field to compare against these bids, and up to this point, there was relatively little communication between the guys in the field and our office staff. With a little bit of push back, I was able to get my guys to start recording more specific data on what they worked on, including lot and task, instead of only the job site, phase and hours worked. All this data was tracked on handwritten time cards that I spent hours driving around San Diego on Friday afternoons to collect. Then, I was stuck with the burden of deciphering the poorly written details and inputting the data into my spreadsheet. Once again, I had to enlist the help of YouTube videos to teach myself how to create pivot tables. Once the data was summed up in a pivot table I had to connect those data points to the dozens of individual jobs cost spreadsheets i had created. My friendship with Index Match endured.
I got to thinking, as good a friend as Index Match had been to me, did I really want to spend my weekends this way? I had yet to even tackle inputting material data, which would be the next step in my mission to make sense of job costing. I knew I needed to automate this system somehow. At this point, I decided to develop a software that would not only be able to collect data from the field, but automatically update job costing in real time.
I started asking around to see if anyone knew a software developer, and my brother connected me with his buddy from the Navy, Brian Lyssy. Together, with my industry knowledge and vision and his technical expertise, we started creating A.C.E. construction software. Four years, a marriage, a baby, countless phone calls later, plus the creation of an amazing software, I’ve yet to meet the man in person. Gotta love technology in the 21st century!
From the beginning, I knew the software needed to be capable of taking a project from cradle to grave, from bidding to project completion. It would need to cover all of the daily operations of subcontractors from labor, material and equipment to the project management of options and extras, and scheduling. Everyone, including laborers in the field, office staff and owners, needed to be on the same platform. It needed to be very detailed, so a subcontracting company could learn from what was happening in the field and make better decisions that would help them be more profitable. Lastly, I wanted it to work, not just for my trade, but all trades, since the issues we were experiencing were (and continue to be) happening industry-wide.
So we set off on this adventure. I told Brian my ideas, he wrote the code. We tested it, we implemented it into my subcontracting company, we found out what worked and what didn’t, changed things and made improvements where improvements needed to be made. While we both continued our full time jobs, we had the benefit of taking our time. Some might see this as a negative, but it allowed us to truly think out how the software should be structured and create something extremely detailed yet user-friendly and realistic to implement for all major trades without having to go back and rewrite a bunch of code.
Though we’re constantly working to improve the software, key capabilities include:
As I was working for the family business, I was able to implement and beta test the software with real data and achieve real results. We found that the foremen were able to input data through mobile devices without issues. We were able to order and track material used much more efficiently and caught tens of thousands of dollars in incorrect pricing from suppliers. Our superintendents no longer spent time driving around to collect time cards and our office staff spent significantly less time collecting and submitting data for payroll; what previously took three days now takes about an hour.
Plus, our superintendents started really focusing on the budgeted vs. actual numbers per task, which they are able to review in real time as projects progress, and hone in on crews that are underperforming before it’s too late. Not only did estimating become dramatically more detailed, but we learned that communication with the field was vastly improved and that certain tasks were being underbid. Most importantly, my family business made roughly 10% more net profits within just one year of using A.C.E.!
We reached the point where A.C.E. was able to handle all the operations I was performing within the company, so I’m now able to focus solely on sharing the “trade secret” with more subs. I would love to give you a demo to show you all the different ways A.C.E. can help improve the efficiency and profitability of your company.