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Innovation in Estimating – Leading From the Front

Dean Denning is a Monteith Estimator who has been with the company for over four years. Our estimators are key to our success in building relationships and transforming the construction industry. Dean gives an inside look at the leaps and bounds Monteith estimating has come in just a few short years. We’re constantly pushing the envelope and trying to find new ways to not only better ourselves, but better our surroundings. The floor is yours, Dean.


Right away, some of you are saying, “Where else would you lead from?,” or maybe you’re saying,“Yep, that’s Dean, always thinking he’s winning!” The truth is, although estimating does start things off in the building cycle, we haven’t always been leaders, especially not in the areas of innovation or tech. Part of the reason for this is the nature of the profession. Find a method of doing things, preferably having learned from someone with good habits, then repeat it over and over, job after job, year after year. Sure, there have been advancements (notably the computer being utilized for spreadsheets), but the means and methods have remained constant for years, and good estimators hate change of any sort.  All that is changing, and here is how it started.

First, a little history lesson is in order. Monteith acquired D.S. Simmons (the company I was working for at the time) several years ago, hiring most of their employees in the process. What you may not know is that John and Brian were initially not interested in getting a new estimator out of the deal. I had other options and was ready to explore those when John asked me to talk to him at our office one day. I put together a resume along with a package of our digital take off materials and brought them to our interview. John was very impressed with the colored plan print-outs and color-coded corresponding take offs. After a couple of mutually enjoyable meetings, he asked me if I wanted to take it to the next step, to go to Charlotte and meet with Brian Stamp (Monteith’s VP and Chief Estimator). I really wanted to be in the Wilmington office, but I liked John and what I knew about the company already, so off I went. The day before I left, John gave me one piece of instruction: “Do not, under any circumstance, show or talk to Brian about this digital take off stuff. He likes his digitizer and isn’t interested in changing.” For those of you who don’t know what a digitizer is, it’s a plan table that you tape the drawings to, and use a stylus pen to take quantities off. It was state of the art. In 1989.

In spite of this, Brian and I thought we could work together (we can), and John and I thought we could agree on terms (we did). So, I moved to Charlotte with John’s word that we’d consider moving the department to Wilmington one day. That day came sooner than any of us thought, and about a year later we were in Wilmington. In the meantime, I only used the digitizer-dinosaur for the most irregular areas, preferring to revert to hand take offs instead.

Not long after getting set up on Front Street in Historic Downtown Wilmington, Monteith’s Canadian counterpart came to my rescue. The Monteith Canadian arm had gone digital, complete with a 50” monitor. This set-up eased Brian’s concerns about seeing the whole plan sheet in full view and off we went. Once those big screens hit our desks, a feeding frenzy ensued and Best Buy’s revenues went through the roof!

After that, you would have to pry the remote from Stamp’s cold dead hands before taking his digital take off capability away. That’s progress, folks.

Fast forward a couple of years. The push for a paperless environment was in full effect at Monteith and beyond. Estimating, of course, was not onboard and being comparable to the 1990s Atlanta Braves pitching staff, we got a wide berth to indulge our habits. “We need a full set, we have to read every note, we have to highlight important stuff on the drawings, we’ve always done it this way.” All of the old greatest hits!

John, sensing another opportunity to make an end run around Brian, enlisted me to put together a plan to take estimating paperless. I wrote up a summary of where we could make some improvements and ultimately move more in the direction of paperless, complete with equivocating language designed to delay the inevitable. John asked me to hold off on kickstarting the plan until he talked to Stamp.

When the 1st of this year rolled around and it was time to get an OKR (Objectives and Key Results – read more here) in place, I pulled the trigger on going paperless in estimating. I quickly found out that Brian was already completely on board, having seen the writing on the 50” monitor clearly. Cut to the end of the quarter, when the totals are tallied, I expect we will have bid over 100 million dollars of work and printed out less than 10 full plan sheets. More progress.

There are plenty of lessons, for many of us, in this tale. I think the most appropriate one would be that I guess you can teach old dogs new tricks, or maybe, “So this is what the 21st Century looks like!” In closing, I’ll leave you with a quote from Frank Zappa – “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”