There are two ways to approach change.
You can embrace it, and evolve, or you can resist it and try desperately to keep things going the way they were. Embracing it is not simply accepting it, and adapting as conditions around you change, that is still resistance, and you are only changing from your comfort zone when it’s absolutely necessary. Embracing change is going all in, fully understanding that the world around you has changed, and taking steps to not only go with the changes but to direct it, and create the new opportunities that change has opened the door for.
There was a point in time when the wagon wheel was the future. Wood wheels had been used for thousands of years. Now, mass produced and inexpensive to replace or repair, center hub and spoke design of the modernized wagon wheel opened the door to migration for the individual to go where they wanted, why they wanted, not simply to go where their feet or trains took them. The perfection of the wagon wheel spurred the expansion into the Western United States.
As the pneumatic tire and wire spokes arrived, this dramatically improved the comfort, load capacity and longevity of the wheel, which in turn, increased even more the ability for people to go about their lives as they desired. The object itself was not the reason for the expansion and growth, but it was an enabler. The old method created an amazing society, but as technology changed, that method had to change as well. It’s obvious what the result would have been had efforts to protect an entire industry succeeded. Cars, buses, trucks cannot operate effectively on wooden wheels.
Every industry evolves. Every company grows, and often time fade away. There is no way to protect an industry from failing, it must fail eventually. Imagine the world today if we had demanded the wagon wheel industry survive and thrive. The goals, ideals, and reason for being can and should remain, but the methods used to achieve those designs have to evolve if they are to grow. The wagon wheel industry changed, it shrank, most went out of business, some of the best craftspeople lost their jobs, and the industry evolved. Companies closed, they were bought out, shut down, merged, and the industry collapsed as those who remained fought over an ever shrinking market. The design that changed the face of the planet has been reduced to a niche market.
Then, there were those who simply changed their market and began building wire spoke wheels and rubber tires. Were they sell outs? They turned their back on the system that built them. They rejected the old and modernized. They may have even been blamed for destroying the industry for pure greed. They changed by adapting to the reality of the world, they let their business and craft evolve, as it should have. This is the important part, the world moved on whether those leaders in the industry adapted or not. Technology changed, and if those who were part of the old ways didn’t change with it, others came in to fill the need.
Before 1870 introduced the new technology of the pneumatic tire, saying you were the best wagon wheel manufacture meant something far more than saying you are the best wagon wheel manufacturer today. It’s all a matter of context. Saying you are the Oldest and Largest Wagon Wheel Manufacturer today means little in today’s world. It’s a badge, yes. It’s a worthy accomplishment, yes, but the reality is, does it have any relevance in today’s economy?
We made the best wagon wheel.
California has a network of builders exchanges scattered up and down the state. They have been here since the 1890’s. Builders Exchanges, also known as Plan Rooms and Contractors Associations, have been created in the key regions in California to be a local source of projects and training for years. Local builders would meet, share plans, assemble bids, locate suppliers and generally use the local market to build the local projects.
At a builder’s exchange, you could go to networking events, meet new sub-contractors, meet the general contractors you wanted to work with, figure out which supplier had the best product and pricing for your project, and meet the architects and engineers. These were like the contractors version of a chamber of commerce, but with more than just networking, it’s where the work was found.
Over the years, the builders exchanges realized that membership had more benefits than simply projects and networking. Group programs began to be developed. If an exchange had a few hundred contractors, maybe they could get better pricing from a supplier, maybe they could get better health benefits, or insurance. So over the years benefits grew, all serving the local member. This was a very good thing for the industry. The property owners got the benefit of builders who had better supplier pricing, better benefits, better insurance pricing and tended to be better trained in construction as there was a great deal of sharing best practices among the members. And we grew.
Architects, Property Owners, General Contractors, and Public Works Agencies all knew what the Builders Exchange network was. Each company was independently owned, yet we all shared best practices among our exchanges as well as among our members. The Exchanges grew out of local, small back offices into large facilities that housed hundreds of printed plans, row after row of plan tables, and classrooms that provided advanced classes in all phases of business management. We expanded and grew into a leading provider of safety training. You could come to the plan room and get certified on fork lifts, CPR, First Aid, ladder safety, open trench, and more. You could get your lead paint certification, your Injury and Illness Prevention Plan, your weekly tailgate meetings, or learn how to use an excel spreadsheet or QuickBooks.
The plan room grew into the leading source for projects, training, education and community service. Our exchanges were active in revitalizing older neighborhoods, rebuilding parks, restoring historical theaters. Our educational outreach went beyond our doors and into the community colleges and high schools were we helped create and expand a wide range of construction trade programs. We helped fund child care, day cares, teen intervention programs, built battered woman’s shelters, supported work release programs throughout the state. Our political activities were not the typical fund a candidate but we took the issues to the local building departments directly. We fought for streamlined building permit processes that removed redundant and burdensome busy work, tied permit costs to actual operating expenses, and created programs that brought quality to the forefront of the industry while aggressively working to stop fraudulent contracting by unscrupulous and unlicensed contractors.
We were the best at what we did, both individually, and cooperatively.
Then the world around us changed.
Through the economic cycles that inevitably come and go, the great depression, the fuel shortages in the 70s, the explosive growth of the 80s, dips in the 90s and beyond, the builders exchanges were part of the process. When times were good we had the packed mixers and BBQs, classes were full, and there were plenty of plans for the local builders to come and see. When times were hard, we helped the contractors, we dug even harder for work, fought for projects, helped where we could help, but the model never changed, we filled our plan rooms with printed plans and kept our doors open when the best we could do was share a pot of coffee waiting on bid results to see if any of our members were working that week. For generations we did this. Then the electronic age arrived. Welcome to the internet.
While we had contractors who resisted even using a fax machine as they felt it was impersonal, the economic conditions demanded a more efficient way to move data. Larger contractors were spending $20,000.00 or more on printed plans and shipping those plans while dozens of revisions were made on large developments and reprints had to be sent to all of the bidders. The long delays on getting, and receiving information forced a move to a more digital world.
Invitations to bidders were sent out by faxes. Many builders who refused faxes for reasons of losing touch with the personal side of the business lost touch with the builders who now only sent documents out with faxes. Builders who would send plans to the plan rooms were spending far too much money, so they started leaving the plans in their offices. This doubled, and redoubled itself as the gradual introduction of not only faxes, but emails, FTP sites, shipping CDs and flash drives all began the inevitable move away from expensive paper plans.
Forced to continue to be relevant, the builders exchanges began receiving the plans from FTP sites, CDs, downloads and any other method they could get, then print the plans that they used to have delivered. This transferred an overwhelming cost to the builders exchange. This caught us all off guard, as we didn’t want to risk the loss of a valuable member. We were the best at it still, we went out of our way to find the projects, and put them in our plan room, catering to the contractor who still drove to the plan room for local work. And then the economy tanked again, only this time, it didn’t come back the same. The industry evolved.
While we still had the best plan room out there, a significant amount of the builders and tradespeople out there no longer needed or wanted to visit a plan room. The economy forced a greatly reduced cost to operate, fuel was too high, driving from plan room to plan room, builder to builder was no longer a viable way to get work. We could go online and find it, as plan rooms, but then, so could the contractor. The evolution of the digital data sites was on us, and we were left printing plans. So we adapted. We didn’t embrace it, we built the best wagon wheel around, we weren’t happy about it changing, but we adapted, and we created an online plan room network so that our members could get projects online without having to drive to us, and we could save tens of thousands of dollars a year printing plans that we used to have delivered to us.
Many of our existing members were not happy. The industry was changing, and many didn’t like it. We were catering to a style of contractor that was not embracing the technology. We didn’t have all of the state of the art systems in place to attract the larger companies. We were still focusing on local work that our local members wanted, and charging those who worked regionally more and more to cross over into the other exchanges. We were trying to do both, satisfy the new style of contractor and keep our older long term members happy.
While other online data providers were selling project information on a state wide level, they were not providing a real service to the industry. We were still training contractors, providing benefits at an ever increasing rate, saving money on group health, insurance, retirement plans, and any number of other programs we could bring to make our members competitive. But we could not compete at the large national level, we grew up as the local providers, our network was the local builders. Individually, we were just no longer competitive with the way the industry and economy had evolved. We almost missed it, we very nearly went the way of the best wagon wheel manufactures out there. We were scrambling for a larger share of a rapidly shrinking market. We were putting projects in where ever we could get them. We even began to market members from neighboring exchanges in the desperate hope of gaining someone, anyone, to join us. Some were far more aggressive at this than others, and rifts began to form. We had to put a stop to it quickly before our network that had evolved over generations imploded in on itself.
We were faced with the very real fact that online, data collection sources were pulling projects together from where ever they could get them, including our system. They had projects that were approved at planning commissions, pipeline projects under consideration, and other project data that didn’t directly result in a project going to bid today, and built tomorrow. We knew we could do better. Collectively, we had the largest network available, if we would simply work together. This was the key, we had to give up our own egos. We lost a few plan rooms along the way who wanted to go it alone, or wanted to be running the show, but we had to grow past that. We were all individually owned companies who had to answer to the local community, but that community included an overwhelming amount of contractors who didn’t want what we had to offer the way we offered it.
We had the training classes. We had the benefits. We had the connections. We had access to projects from remodels and single family homes up to large scale highway construction, hospitals, schools and beyond. We had access to virtually every corner of the California construction industry. All we had to do was tap into it. We have plan rooms each individually staffed and tasked with locating and uploading projects that serve our members. There is a great deal of overlap. There are projects that members across neighboring plan rooms all want to see. Each of us is chasing those projects, entering the data, uploading the plans, sending out bid date changes, addenda, and other project documents. The project owners are sending that data out to multiple sources as well. We knew better than anyone how best to find work for our members, and teach them how to be more efficient contractors. It was high time we did the same. We knew that the only way to thrive and grow was to increase our local projects and get our people working, at the same time expand our reach so that the larger companies would find our audience attractive enough to use us. The only way to accomplish this was to remove the duplication and wasted effort.
We created the Golden State Online Plan Room Network.
16 plan rooms covering the entire state of California. Collectively the single largest network available focused exclusively on projects going out to bid. Each plan room is focused exclusively on populating the counties they represent. The key to making this work is that now, each of the plan room members have access to the entire state. There is no duplication of work, so a project entered one plan room can be seen by members of another plan room. While we needed to expand our reach, we are now able to do so in a far more efficient manner. This frees up staff time to find more local work while greatly expanding the amount of projects their membership provides.
The changes to the industry rendered the old builders exchange irrelevant. As good as we were, as much as we did, that model no longer works for today’s modern contractor. But there is still a place for the small contractor. Just as replacing the wooden wheel with high performance wheels and tires didn’t make the wheel any less round, expanding our network into a state wide data distribution system doesn’t make our plan rooms any less valuable to the local builder. It has, in fact, reinforced the very idea of the plan room concept itself. We are relevant, and not simply viable, but vital to the industry. We now have over 10,000 eyes on projects across the state. The builders and suppliers need those numbers. We have over 1,000 individual projects in our state wide database while a competing and decidedly smaller network nearly 5,000 viewers, similar project numbers, but as much as 95% duplication between their participating plan rooms. Our network is supported by dedicated servers in California. Our plan rooms are staffed 100% by local people who live in and know their communities. We don’t outsource anything out of state or out of country.
Larger builders entering our network is providing real jobs to the smaller, local builder, who can now survive long enough to get back the custom home and small commercial jobs they want when the economy finally turns. Our successes in permit streamlining, fee reductions, and common sense solutions to local building departments at the local level can now bring its collective voice to the state level.
Your local participating plan room is the single best option for contractors. Join locally, build regionally. Use the local plan room for your safety training programs, networking opportunities, insurance and other benefits that you need. Take advantage of the strength of the plan room system that has endured for over a hundred years and has enough of a grip on reality to not only accept, but embrace the tools that are at our disposal to bring the construction industry into the future. Project owners no longer have to send plans across 16 different plan rooms. Just send to one of us, it goes to all of us. Builders have access to more sub-contractors than ever. Subs are now looking at more contractors than before. Suppliers and manufacturers now have access to a state wide network for marketing. We’ve taken the concept of the state wide data collection system which provides little more than a list, and rendered it obsolete.
View online or visit your local participating plan room. We have the work. We have the training. We have the benefits.