An Industry Veteran’s Transition to Automated Estimating

July 1, 2007

Thorne’s Excavating Co. of Lebanon, TN, a business specializing in grading and utilities for commercial and industrial development, has been in operation for nearly half a century. Gary Thorne, along with his brother Mark, took over the company from their father, founder Robert Thorne, several years ago.

Today a highly successful company that utilizes a software-based technology to complete takeoffs, Thorne’s Excavating was, like many other construction contractors, reluctant to let go of its low-tech, manual estimating methods at first. But about 10 years ago, as technological changes in the industry were continuing to emerge at a rapid pace, the two brothers began to see the proverbial writing on the wall.

“In order to remain competitive and to keep with the company’s business plan, I realized I’d need to look into new estimating technologies for the company,” says Gary Thorne. “Shunning technology was no longer an option for us.” As the company’s sole estimator, he had always used graph paper and a scale to do takeoffs. Now the solution he was looking for would require him to use a computer equipped with highly specialized earth-measuring software, a digitizer board, and a stylus pen.

Gary Thorne

Thorne’s Excavating eventually settled on an automated estimating system from Maxwell Systems (formerly Quest Solutions Inc.) of Sarasota, FL. Thorne’s job has never been the same since he started with this system, which was based around the Earthwork (sitework) and Estimator (estimating) software applications. He now completes jobs with significantly greater speed and accuracy and is taking on more work than he’d anticipated.

“We had talked to a handful of estimating software companies,” explains Thorne, “but we weren’t very encouraged by what we found at first. There were several small firms that could not provide adequate support for their products, and one large company whose product was well out of our price range.

“But after we found Quest,” Thorne continues, “we quickly realized it was the best estimating product for us.”

This is not to say there weren’t a few bumps along the road for Thorne. It took some time before he was comfortable with and able to get the maximum benefit out of his new estimating system.

Even after his company had invested the money in the software-based system, Thorne continued to perform takeoffs with pencil and paper for some time. “I was basically computer illiterate at the time,” he explains. “After doing a manual takeoff, I would then check my work by taking off the same structure using the  software.

“Basically, I didn’t trust it because I didn’t understand it,” Thorne continues. “I was trying to learn how to use this equipment that was making my living. It took a lot of double-checking my work by hand before I trusted myself. The company’s technicians really went the extra mile by helping to build up my comfort level. Not only were they helping me with their product, but they would help me solve any related computer problems I was having because of my inexperience.”

Eventually, Thorne became proficient with the software, and today does takeoffs almost exclusively with the automated system. He’s now so confident with the software’s verification features that he no longer feels the need to use his old manual methods to check his work.

Thorne says he uses a 3D viewer, which provides realistic aerial images of the site. “I can zoom in, on, and around the image,” he reports.

“I use a 3D-view feature, which shows me a realistic aerial view of the site,” he says. “I can zoom in, on, and around the image and examine it to my heart’s content. There’s also a section feature which lets me view proposed and existing elevations at the same time, so I can see right away how much cut and fill will be needed for the site.”

Thorne has also found the software’s “balance” feature invaluable, as it enables him to create multiple bids to show a potential client where money can be saved. With manual estimating, he would have had to essentially redo his work from scratch to make any adjustments to a bid.

“Being able to balance a site in just a few seconds is a tremendous benefit,” he explains. “That feature alone has absolutely helped us win the bid on several jobs.”

According to Thorne, a major financial advantage that has resulted from the use of this estimating technology is that it has drastically widened the field for potential jobs for Thorne’s Excavating. Previously, complicated jobs had presented some difficulties for the company. “Advanced estimating software gave us the ability to bid far more complicated takeoff plans,” he says. “Because of the program’s accuracy, we’re not so limited anymore.”

Thorne further explains: “It seems that most of the projects I look at are complex because of existing conditions. I’m either working in a swamp or an old landfill or on the side of a hill. There was never a lot of level land in middle Tennessee to begin with, and it seems like most of what we had has been used up.”

Thorne has also discovered that automated estimating technology has enabled him to complete jobs, in his own words, “a whole lot quicker.” He’s found digital takeoff to be up to 10-times faster than the manual method he previously used. As a direct result, Thorne says his efficiency and profitability have also increased significantly.

“The key to making most of our grading projects profitable and keeping them on schedule is being able to balance cut and fill,” he explains. “This automated system makes that easy to do during the bidding stage. A lot of jobs are limited in the area they will let you make these adjustments. With the software, you can adjust the grades for any area you want to on the site to help balance the site.”

Overall, Thorne feels that adopting automated estimating technology has turned out to be a remarkable boon for Thorne’s Excavating.

“We’re doing quite a bit more work now than we were 10 years ago,” he says. “Without a doubt, automated software has really sped up our operation.”