Who wouldn't want to spend his late 30s working part time, savoring time with his wife and three children in the Southern California sunshine, building a new home, and enjoying the income of a profitable, growing business? Jason Larson, CR, certainly did. So at a time in his life when many remodelers are still putting in backbreaking hours building their businesses, Larson, owner of Lars Construction in San Diego, has pulled back to 15 to 20 hours a week.
Part of the reason Larson can do that is he's already put in years of effort, having opened the business in 1991 at age 22. Another p iece of the puzzle is his staff: three project designers/salespeople, three project managers, four field workers, an office manager and a controller. Where Lars Construction sets itself apart, however, is in its use of technology to increase customer satisfaction and productivity while allowing staff to stay closer to home.
Digital cameras and CAD are old hat here, with the project designers all taking digital pictures at the first site visit and using Chief Architect for their conceptual designs. These positions require a wide range of skills and traits. The success of these individuals — including Jason's father, Gary, younger brother, Seth, and brother-in-law Brandon Spann — is what allows Larson to get rid of the sales hat that so many business owners find impossible to doff.
"I'm looking for someone with great people skills and passion for the business. Computer skills are a must," says Larson. "If they don't know that, they're not going to succeed."
Though each project designer has a laptop on which to present designs, Lars Construction also offers clients the option of viewing 3-D models on a large plasma television in the office. Located on a main street near the freeway in La Mesa, Calif., the building just holds the current staff, with a large open room that includes a conference table and a small working kitchen vignette. Clients can make changes with designers on the spot and immediately visualize them.
To keep the project designers focused on sales, Lars Construction outsources working drawings to a draftsperson. Using Adobe Acrobat to create PDF versions of the CAD files, the project designers can e-mail documents back and forth to the drafter. Taking this strategy one step further, Larson recently began "sending out" some of the design, too. The new designer lives a one-and-a-half hour drive from the building, making in-person meetings a challenge.
San Diego traffic is one of the reasons Larson implemented Verizon Wireless BroadbandAccess in his company this March. With the wireless technology, the new designer will be able to participate in client meetings from her home. It will also allow project designers to access the company server from their laptops, eliminating time wasted waiting for the office to return a phone call about a schedule, contact number or e-mail.
Just one of the project managers has a laptop at present, making him what Larson terms "the IT guinea pig" for the production department. In the more hands-on realm of the field, few workers — especially trade contractors — have the desire or see the need to computerize all operations.
"I know it's going to be a slow transition," says Larson. "I can visualize the outcome, but mapping out the process is the challenge."
For example, Larson knows that many of his trade partners do not have e-mail, or if they do, they don't check it every hour. So Lars Construction has installed eFax software that will allow project managers to send change orders or approved bids straight to a trade partner's fax, rather than letting a piece of paper get lost in a stack back in the office.
"It will increase productivity," says Larson. "We have one guy who lives in North county who has to drive in 30 minutes every day just to check his e-mail."
Getting a strong scheduling tool in place also will help. Lars Construction has been using a simple Gantt chart method, but is trying out Master Builder's scheduling module. Use of the accounting module has already become standard practice.
For pictures of the Lars Construction office and more Innovations, visit www.HousingZone.com/PRinnovations