Geek in a Hard Hat

Garrett Sullivan used technology to reinvent the way Kaikor Construction does business and built one of the most wired construction firms in Hawaii

September, 2004

When Kaikor Construction decided to place a bid for a $1.4-million state bridge project in Nanakuli in late 2003, company president Garrett Sullivan didn’t need to call a draftsman. Instead, Sullivan searched his computers for similar bridge projects that the 19-year-old infrastructure construction firm had built in recent years. Using those templates, Sullivan was able to pull together mechanical specifications in less than an hour.

“Before we used this type of technology, a job like that might have taken several days for us to put together mechanical specifications. Now we are able to spend much more time analyzing the economics of the project,” says Sullivan. The benefit? Sullivan is less likely to underestimate the project cost and lose money because he was rushing to complete a bid.

Creating a digital institutional memory is only one of the myriad tech tricks Sullivan has brought to Kaikor over the past decade. From widespread use of laptops in the field to tracking tools with bar-code labels, Sullivan runs one of the most wired outfits in the state. In October 2003, national construction technology magazine Constructech gave Kaikor top national honors in its Vision Awards. Kaikor won in the category of heavy construction for firms with annual revenues between $6 million and $25 million, beating out dozens of other nominees from across the country.

Though the award tasted sweet, Sullivan had long since drunk the tech Kool Aid. His tech drive started more than a decade earlier, after a conversation with his younger brother, a veteran executive in the technology sector. “He told me every time we write an estimate by hand we are reinventing the wheel,” recalls Sullivan. The comment stuck in his mind and Sullivan responded by steadily reinventing the way he ran his business.

One of Sullivan’s key goals in this process has been to reduce paper. Kaikor’s Construction Imaging System software converts paper invoices to bits and bytes and feeds them directly into the firm’s accounting software. That saves employees hours of typing time and has reduced turnaround time on invoices by more than 50 percent. His accounting software also arranges direct deposits to employee bank accounts, saving on manual check processing.

Sullivan has also extended his tech efforts into the field. To help his men find tools more quickly, Sullivan installed a computerized tracking system and affixed bar codes to all his equipment. Employees use a laser reader to record bar codes when they check tools in or out. Now when a project crew needs a diamond cutter, for example, they check the computer for the exact location rather than waste time calling around to various project crews. Sullivan says the system has cut tool loss significantly.

Currently Kaikor foremen email or fax in daily time sheets so that labor data can be input on a daily basis for weekly job-cost updates. “Our goal in this area is to soon utilize the Internet to update and access job costs on a daily basis,” says Sullivan, who hopes to deploy more handhelds with wireless Internet capability into the field in the next few years to allow his crews to provide real-time updates.

Of course, technology for the construction industry is hardly trouble-free. Most of the software packages don’t talk to each other, so Sullivan had to hire someone to come in and integrate his various packages into a cohesive system. Regardless, Sullivan considers the tens of thousands of dollars he has dropped on tech as money well spent. “We are in the top ranks in terms of profitability among CFMA (Construction Financial Management Association) members,” he says. In a highly competitive industry like construction, geeks in hard hats apparently win the pot of gold.

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