BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESS WEEK E.BIZ -- WEB SMART COMPANIES

ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A with Webcor's Andy Ball
Construction-industry dot-coms "have not focused enough on creating a good, functional product"

Webcor Builders Inc. has reinvented itself in recent years with its embrace of technology -- using everything from wireless devices to customized software to help the dozens of partners on a construction project communicate with one another. The key driver behind that initiative has been Webcor President Andy Ball. Business Week's Margaret Young spoke with Ball about efforts to use tech to remodel his company. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: How would you describe the construction industry's attitude toward new technology?
A:
Construction is very resistant to change. The business is not that different than the way it was done 20 years ago.

Q: So how does the construction industry, historically, adopt new technology?
A:
If you go back to the Egyptians, you'll see that the first wood columns were carved to look like reeds. Then you had stone carved to look like wood. In each case, you use new technology to make things look like what people are used to.

Q: How would you rate the current state of Internet technology for the construction industry?
A:
It has clearly improved over the last year, but it's going to take another year until you have the ease-of-use and function to the point where people say, "I love it and I can't live without it."

Q: What kind of Internet access would you ultimately like to see at a construction site?
A:
My vision is the superintendent on the job site will be able to extract and personalize information on a wireless device, flip up the antenna, and go.

Q: As an early adopter, you meet a certain amount of resistance to using cutting-edge technology. What happens when you can't persuade developers to use the technology you think is best-suited for a project?
A:
The customer's always right. You have an opportunity to discuss with the owner, you have the possibility to sell it to the owner. If you can't sell it, then you should do it the other way.

Q: In recent months, several construction-related e-commerce companies have gone under, while others are in the process of merging. What do you see happening to construction-industry dot-coms in the future?
A:
There's going to be a tremendous amount of consolidation. They haven't figured out how to make money yet. They have not focused enough on creating a good, functional product that's easy to use. Nobody's there yet. You're not going to get profitability until you do that.

Q: Are the dot-coms heading in the right direction?
A:
They think the money's in bidding [for materials and jobs]. They started concentrating on that before they finished the base product, which is communications. It's like any new industry. They don't know what they're going to be when they grow up. They're in their adolescence.



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