PHC productivity sites spring up on the 'Net

Seemingly overnight, a proliferation of industry-specific sites has sprung up that could boost productivity in many plumbing and hvac contractors offices. Below are profiles of three new or newly revamped sites aimed at helping contractors procure materials and, now or in the future, bid and run projects. The first site, www.WholesalerDirect.com, is focused on procurement. It offers excess, hard-to-find

Seemingly overnight, a proliferation of industry-specific sites has sprung up that could boost productivity in many plumbing and hvac contractors’ offices. Below are profiles of three new or newly revamped sites aimed at helping contractors procure materials and, now or in the future, bid and run projects.

The first site, www.WholesalerDirect.com, is focused on procurement. It offers excess, hard-to-find and current plumbing, heating, cooling, piping, and waterworks products. Though initially limited to facilitating deals among wholesalers, other buyers in the construction industry and the designers in the trade are now welcome to browse and buy. According to Adam Berger, company founder and CEO, the Web site features more than 500,000 products from 600 wholesalers, representing about 75% of the industry, with numbers, he noted, increasing daily.

The online catalog of inventory information is anonymous — the data for each listing reveals the state from which the wholesaler ships, the quantity in stock, the price, the model number and the description. After the sale is initiated, the buyer finds out who the seller is and where the seller is located. Buyer and seller are then left to work out the details, with the seller (but not the buyer) paying a commission to WholesalerDirect.

The second site, www.SmartContractor.com, is an e-business service site specifically designed for smaller construction and subcontracting firms that intends to go beyond procurement. SmartContractor Inc. is a new provider of Internet-based solutions for the industry’s business management needs.

SmartContractor, which broke the ice in April with a Beta version of an e-marketplace for electrical contractors, plans to have vertically focused portals up and running for HVAC, mechanical and plumbing contractors by August. Contractors will be able to use various hosted applications to manage their businesses and coordinate operations with other industry participants, as well as locate and order materials.

Hosted application services will include job estimating, invoicing, permit management and bid preparation. Contractors will pay monthly subscription fees for the hosted services ($100 to $250, depending upon number of employees) with vendors bearing the cost of commission payments. SmartContractor, however, is running a promotion that eliminates subscription fees for the next several months.

“We see a tremendous opportunity to bring greater efficiency to the construction trades through our e-business service,” noted Carl Albrecht, CEO of SmartContractor.

For example, he pointed out, industry research shows that only about one-third of the typical contractor’s day is used productively, whereas in most other professions 70%-80% is the norm.

The disparity, he pointed out, is partially due to the fact that 95% of all contractors are small companies employing fewer than 50 people.

“These small companies have the same needs as larger companies but not the same capital,” Albrecht said. “As a result, they have not previously had access to the same sophisticated software tools and productivity applications as the bigger companies.”

SmartContractor, he noted, intends to provide a one-stop solution that could help increase job productivity and lower procurement and administrative costs.

“The site,” he emphasized, “intends to get contractors out of the business of standing in line waiting for materials, and out of the business of being an accountant, and back in the business of being on the jobsite and with the customer.”

Looking at the near future, Albrecht also believes connection to the Internet through wireless communications, under-utilized in many industries, will be a major access method for visitors to its Web sites.

“Most contractors carry a cell phone and many project managers or proprietors carry a laptop or handheld mobile computer,” Albrecht said. “Our e-business service is available from anywhere the contractor happens to be at the moment.”

The third site is www.buildfolio.com. Designed to streamline specifying, procuring and bidding of building materials, Buildfolio.com provides a powerful search engine to navigate the content of building product supplier catalogs and allows collaboration between team members on product selection and procurement. Buyers, who register online and who must be members of the aec construction community, have access to real-time status on product orders.

Specifiers can conduct searches according to product attributes or browse according to product type. Products under consideration can be organized in table format for direct comparison of features and price.

“Our Web site allows comparison of products from different manufacturers and eliminates the need for extensive catalog libraries,” noted Francis Ng, Buildfolio’s product development manager. “Buildfolio.com also allows the specifier to save products in product folders for clearer organization and allows assignment of different levels of permissions to various members of a project team.” And the entire project history will be available for easy access, “long after you would normally have sent paper documents to storage.”

Buyers can select any number of distributors from the qualified list for a product. Buildfolio.com then routes the request for brochures or quotes. The buyer sends a purchase order online once the buyer and seller have completed negotiations online for terms such as price, payment and delivery. (Lead fees are charged to the seller.) This model, notes the company, easily supports new buyer-seller relationships, as well as existing accounts.