The Walbec Group, a Waukesha, Wis.-based horizontal construction contractor is not exactly a recent start-up — the company has roots going back to 1922 when founder Walter Bechtold partnered with Barney Dolan and Max Payne as Payne and Dolan to construct paved surfaces south of the state line in Illinois.
By the 1930s, they were performing as a general contractor and bought two paving machines, completing government projects on airport runways and military bases. In the 1950s, the company split in two, with separate Payne and Dolan entities operating in Wisconsin and Illinois, with Bechtold retaining ownership of the Wisconsin operations. The company purchased its first aggregate deposit, Waukesha Lime & Stone, in 1967 and expanded to nine locations throughout the Badger state and into northern Illinois. The 1983 acquisition of Highway Pavers of Wisconsin became what is now the Zenith Tech heavy construction division of The Walbec Group and the company formed Construction Resources Management group as a captive services entity.
Come the turn of the new century, Walbec division Northeast Ashpalt acquired Parent Construction, rebadging it to Premier Concrete. By 2004, Payne and Dolan stood up its engineering and general contracting services division, extending the offering into planning, design and construction management services across the middle of the country. It was at this point the Walbec Group name was created as an overarching brand for the growing family of companies.
In 2022, Walbec acquired Parisi Group, an infrastructure company involved in subdivision development, commercial site work and municipal construction.
Using Construction ERP to Make Many One
One classical use case for enterprise technology is to unite acquired divisions with business processes and an overarching data strategy, and this is precisely what Walbec Group is doing. Different divisions have existing relationships with HCSS, the Sugarland-Texas-based construction enterprise resource planning (ERP) software company focused exclusively on heavy construction. On the materials side, portions of the company are on older versions of Command-Alkon’s construction materials ticketing and production technologies. The company is moving onto Connex, the most current offering from Command-Alkon.
As the operational side of the business leans on established technology partners, the back office is transitioning from a legacy instance of Oracle’s JD Edwards ERP product onto CMiC’s CONSTRUCT, having selected it over Viewpoint, now part of Trimble Construction One. This is deliberate — ensuring that project performance and project owner experience are stable as the Walbec Group reinvents how value and cost flow with and between each of its divisions. The combined companies are moving away from homegrown software and applications that share data through batch updates and file transfers and towards modern applications that share data in real time through application programming interfaces (APIs).
“JD Edwards has been a partner for us for 20 years,” Walbec Group Vice President of Strategic Improvement Linda Pawlak said. “But we found that all of the enhancements we were making to make it fit our business were largely authored and invented in our organization.”
The other longstanding software partner for Walbec has been HCSS, and while CMiC’s goal with its new platform is to rely on APIs to communicate with other applications used in the business, HCSS is a pure-play suite of construction software applications designed to work together. The company started implementing estimating functional about 15 years ago, and the relationship has grown organically from there.
“What is amazing for us is that as we navigate toward a new ERP system, which is really like doing a heart replacement while the plane is in the air, being able to leverage the HCSS field product, allowing us to do that without affecting the field,” Pawlak said. “Our strategy was to change as little as possible for the field personnel while we do this heart transplant about where all the accounting transactions happen. We use HCSS for field reporting, the equipment maintenance shop, and then the HCSS telematics information helps the shop predict what maintenance needs to be done and shows them where equipment is.”
The Walbec Group relies on a broad spectrum of functionality from HCSS, including the HeavyBid bidding and estimating software and HevyJob, which encompasses job costing, time and materials billing, timecards, quantity tracking, field productivity, requests for information, submittals, change orders, budgeting and a payroll export tool.
“We started with HCSS as part of our quest to replace what was then a homegrown bidding system developed with in-house programmers,” Pawlak said. “We had to determine if it made sense for us to be software developers, which is not our core business. Do we need to have to have our own inhouse system or might we be better served by a standard product? There are several options, and we had a lengthy vetting process. HCSS did not only provide the functional and technological fit for us, they were a good cultural fit for us. We started out replacing all the bidding software across our companies over a year. They held our hands through it all.”
Change Management in the Field
The Walbec group next opted to move from addressing estimating, which takes place in the office to HCSS Heavy Job, and this kicked off an ongoing focus on driving adoption of technology among the production professionals who may have varying levels of comfort with digital technology.
“These people did not use computers in their everyday life — maybe for fantasy football,” Pawlak said. “We were still in flip phone days. So we had to make sure we could make that technology work for us with laptop computers and phone hotspots. As time went on, HCSS made technological improvements which is exactly why we wanted to partner with a tech company — they were working on advancing the software and not waiting for us to tell us what to do. They do software, and we do construction. But they checked in to make sure what they were working on was helpful for us.”
The group of companies has adopted HCSS mobile apps to manage tasks and record interactions in the field, and then went on to adopt Equipment 360 for construction equipment maintenance and inspections.
“What Equipment 360 does for us is integrate the maintenance and repair shop with our field employees in a way that was right sized and a custom fit for those repair facilities,” Pawlak said.
The Walbec Group is paying attention to its construction materials businesses too, rolling out HCSS sister company Command-Alkon’s multitenant software-as-a-service (SaaS) Connex platform for materials ticketing and dispatching. Walbec Group has two existing footprints with legacy Command-Alkon products — they purchased an aggregate plant that had been running Command-Alkon software and then selected competing software from Libra Systems, which was then acquired by Command-Alkon.
The cloud platform and open architecture enable an aggregate, concrete or asphalt producer to open their system up to haulers, contractors and the project owners on the same version of the truth in real time.
An aggregate, concrete, cement, asphalt or aggregate supplier loads material onto a truck and the software generates an e-ticket so buyers can view and approve tickets in the field, and inspectors can even capture test results and attach them to the ticket. This helps transactions move through the back office a lot more quickly and speeds accounts payable as customers try to match an invoice to a ticket.
“We transitioned from using a very small vendor that was a custom fit for ticketing for asphalt, ready mix, aggregate — they were doing all of our ticketing,” Pawlak said. “We had internally custom built the interface to our accounting software.”
Together, HCSS and Command-Alkon help The Walbec Group not only in their internal operations, but in terms of customer and supplier relations.
“Command Alkon allows us to give customers access to their ticketed data,” Pawlak said. “There is no more calling the office — they can log on and pull all their ticket data when and how and if they want. We hire truckers, and the daily field reporting in HCSS gives us an advantage in that we can turn payments to them faster than other contractors. Instead of asking a trucker for a bill, we cut payroll every single week. We send a voucher to the trucker saying these are the recorded hours through data easily extracted from HCSS Heavy Job. These owner-operators are not in that business to do trucking paperwork — so we are now the preferred vendor for truckers and our project management staff gets real time costing data from their job instead of waiting for trucking bills. We round trip the data back to the project for visibility.”
The company’s goal now is to integrate Command Alkon Connex and HCSS with CMiC through APIs.
Onboarding and Change Management
As applications like HCSS and Command-Alkon Connex are rolled out in the field, Pawlak has focused on ensuring they are comfortable and facile with these digital tools.
“The tight labor market is challenging, so when we are bringing on new employees, we think doing a good job for onboarding and getting information they need to be successful quickly is very important,” Pawlak said. “Most of the people we hire, particularly those we hire to build the work that we do aren’t interested in spending a lot of time doing paperwork. Technology gives us a way to have them quickly share information about what they are doing in easy, intuitive and, for some, even a fun way. For those that aren’t used to technology, the idea is to make it so easy to use it is not a barrier to them. If they do not use a computer at home, we don’t want that to be a problem for them.”
One critical takeaway from The Walbec Group’s experience is that not every employee requires the same level or type of attention when learning software like HCSS or Command-Alkon.
“We make sure we offer training and support in different ways,” Pawlak said. “Some people don’t want hand holding. Others need us to help them through it in the way they need to be helped. Those are my favorite to work with because you can watch as they have that ‘aha moment.’ And then later, if I take their device to do an upgrade, they get upset about doing without it for two days. And I take that moment to remind them how much they didn’t like it when I showed up with that device in the first place.”
Working Towards Construction ERP ROI
Reduced friction as transactions, projects and asset data move through the family of companies is just one source of return on investment (ROI) on enterprise construction technology for The Walbec group.Having multiple applications using each other as the authoritative source of data also eliminates non-value-added work and confusion, and in some cases the company is still working to establish the optimal workflow between software products.
“In the field, our street foreman records what materials they use in HCSS,” Pawlak said. “Command Alkon also has that data. So we are working to reconcile that information instead of using a manual process. Right now, we are taking information reported from the field using HCSS and the data from the aggregate site plant foreman and comparing two different reports and try to reconcile that. Sometimes when there is a discrepancy between the two, it is obvious they fat fingered something, or we have people run it down and figure out who is right. HCSS and Command Alkon are working right now to have a digital handoff with Connex.”