Above and Beyond
Above and Beyond
“Getting into the truss business as a framer is about as challenging as you can get,” said John Mandere, owner of both Northwest Building Components and Mandere Construction. Component manufacturing is complicated, Mandere explained. In some ways, it’s an entirely separate world from framing. The truss business “involves engineering,” said Mandere, “and people who are far and away out of the element of a framer.”
Even so, stepping out of his element seemed the only reasonable option for Mandere in the early 2000s when the supply of trusses in and around Rathdrum, Idaho became scant. His framing company, barely a decade old, was adding employees and expanding from single-family residential into multi-family and commercial projects. Coordinating truss production and delivery with framing schedules and having the ability to manage lumber prices and supply was critical.
“Our market is a framing labor market,” Mandere explained. “The typical program in our area is: the general contractor buys the materials, the labor contractor supplies the labor and equipment, and the component company provides the engineered lumber or trusses.” Without direct access to material, Mandere Construction had no say over when its framing crews could work.
A Self-Serve Solution
As Mandere put it: “we weren’t able to get what we wanted when we wanted it because we weren’t in control of it.” Starting a truss business that could supply other framers but primarily solve Mandere Construction’s logistics issues was a tidy solution to the problem.
However, it left many of Mandere’s potential customers skeptical. “There was a lot of pushback initially,” Mandere recalled. The general contractors he worked with wondered whether more framer control of material supply would cut into their margins. The other framers in the area, who Mandere hoped would buy his trusses, kept asking: Do we really want to buy trusses from a framing competitor?
A few close relationships were key in getting the new business off the ground. It took four or five years of working in a limited capacity with a small number of customers to change the market. “What ended up happening,” Mandere explained, was a shift in practices throughout the region. The contractors he worked with saw the benefit of having component delivery and framing schedules coordinated for them, and Mandere’s competitors had to follow suit. “Other framers had to start supplying wood to their customers because they were asking them to do what we were doing!” Mandere said.
Taking on the kind of challenges that he’d previously left to general contractors “was definitely difficult,” said Mandere, but there has been a great overall benefit to how the partner companies do business. Not only is coordination easier with everything in house, but material supply and use is more efficient. “We’re able to use blocking and fall-down and waste from the truss company to put into our wall framing and systems,” Mandere said, “so we’re able to control waste a little bit better.”
“I think other companies across the nation are doing the same thing,” observed Phil Adams, general manager of Northwest Building Components. But in the market Northwest serves, he says, its business model is rare. “At least in the eastern Washington, northern Idaho area, it hadn’t been done.”
A Win-win Partnership
While the Northwest-Mandere partnership might not be the exception anymore in terms of a framing company supplying its own material, the companies have built on each other’s strengths to stay ahead of the curve.
On the Northwest side, said Adams, the partnership has resulted in a more customized truss package. “We can throw in extra components where helpful and make it easier on the framing crew,” he explained.
On the Mandere Construction side, easy access to component production schedules and bundling plans has changed framing practices. “We build a lot of roofs on the ground,” explained Mandere. With the two companies working together, Man-dere Construction is routinely able to assemble large sections of roof and lift them into place, sometimes even after sheathing has been installed.
The change, said Mandere, helps ensure jobsite safety and speeds up complex projects like multi-family housing, heavy commercial construction and school buildings. It also makes those big jobs more fun, he added. “It’s a different way of doing things,” he explained. “Rather than putting the trusses up or craning them up one at a time, and then bracing them and sheeting them,” he said, the whole process can start early, “sometimes while they’re still doing concrete or putting walls up. As soon as it’s ready, you crane the whole thing up in a few pieces, and it’s done.”
Ahead of the Market
Faster progress on the jobsite isn’t just good for the framing crew. It’s also become a business necessity. “Everybody’s timeframes have been cut,” Mandere noted. Projects that used to take nine months or more now go from ground breaking to full operation in six months. Trimming the construction timeline has been a huge part of retaining customers, and unsurprisingly, decreasing build time is tied to increasing automation in the plant. For the past four years, Adams said, he’s been adding new technology whenever he can. “With the workforce becoming more difficult,” he explained, “we believe in automating. More production—fewer people.”
Both Adams and Mandere are quick to point out that there’s a balance to be struck between technology and human expertise. “With our old saw system,” Mandere explained, “you had to be really good to get a lot of pieces and get the pieces cut right.” When truss layout depended on manually adjusting the table stops, you needed “the smart person on each jig to do the setup.”
Today, Mandere said, “with automated saws and automated tables, a lot of the work is done and it’s mistake free.” Setup is “taken out of the equation—it just becomes about putting trusses together.” Still, he knows it’s critical to retain talent and experience. “To a certain extent,” Mandere admitted, there’s an inherent challenge in learning how to use new machines correctly. “You can get more out of them once you understand what they’re capable of doing.”
As Matthew Johnson, the Northwest design manager, puts it: “John was smart enough to hire really good truss guys when he started the plant.” Johnson and Mandere agree that the combination of technology and a strong team are critical. “I think it’s wildly successful,” Mandere said of the push for a more automated plant. “We’ve seen large labor savings, and we’re producing a lot more trusses with fewer people and less overtime.” That success came from a good beginning: Northwest started with a team that had the expertise to guide Mandere into an industry that was new to him. “We still have that team together,” Johnson said, “and we’ve added to it. There’s no replacement for experienced, quality truss people.”
Even so, Mandere has a clear idea of what’s ahead for the company: “Fur-ther automation. And then further automation. Full-blown automation in the wall panel department.” With increased production, Mandere is hoping to expand the area Northwest can serve. The ultimate goal, he said, is turnkey framing with “completely in-house design of the components—walls, trusses, floors—the whole system.”
An Expansive Outlook
Mandere’s vision is to make the Northwest-Mandere partnership “a one-stop shop for framing” that gives customers a single, guaranteed price and that coordinates the entire project. Mandere admitted that achieving that goal will mean expansion on the design side of the business as well as on the production and installation side. Since the wall panel shop became fully operational, he said, he’s realized how critical integrated design capabilities can be. Many of the plans his company currently sees aren’t up to the standard he’d like to set.
For a stand-alone truss company, Mandere argued, it’s an advantage to simply put on a roof and leave the rest of the framing decisions to someone else. For an operation like his, competitive advantage comes from the ability to take a project “from the roof to the foundation and find all the challenges within it.” Mandere—and his customers—
are excited about the possibility of identifying potential problems before they become jobsite issues. It’s much easier to fix something, Mandere said, “when it’s on the computer rather than when it’s standing on a slab.”
There’s a lot of value to offer, Mandere said, when component manufacturers have a broad reach. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to be in the full-blown design business,” said Mandere, “but being able to coordinate a building—the complete framing of it—is becoming a bigger deal.” As fast as jobs are moving, he said, “being able to coordinate electrical and mechanical, all of the rough-in requirements, and being able to do it up at the front and troubleshoot it,” is a critical role for someone in the construction process to play.
For Mandere, that role wouldn’t have been possible without the close ties between his framing and his component manufacturing businesses. “It’s a great deal from the framing company standpoint,” he said. That’s what got him into truss production in the first place. And it’s a great deal from the component company standpoint as well. “We’ve expanded. We have a great customer base. We’ve got great people in the truss company, and we’ve become a regional leader in trusses.” Having started with the simple idea that Northwest would supply Mandere Construction and maybe a few additional customers, he’s thrilled with the growth he’s seen so far, and he’s looking forward to even better business ahead.