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Creative Use of Teamwork Brings Subcontractors Into the Fold : Construction: Fieldstone co-founders use partnering and other management techniques not often seen in the construction industry.

October 09, 1994|DEBORA VRANA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — In an industry where its leaders often envision themselves as mavericks and independent risk takers--sort of the last American cowboys--the home builders at the Fieldstone Group of Cos. are an exception.

Fieldstone co-founders Peter Ochs and Keith Johnson, both with master's degrees from Stanford Business School, have always been attracted to academic sounding management concepts, encouraging new techniques and even sending executives off for courses at the London School of Economics.

The men are well-known in local building circles for pioneering and implementing a concept called "partnering," where employees and subcontractors are treated as associates.

Strongly influenced by the theories of quality control and management touted by the late W. Edward Deming, Ochs and Johnson have put partnering techniques into practice, primarily by asking their subcontractors to share ideas on how to build a better home. A guru of corporate restructuring and teamwork, Deming is revered by the Japanese for helping them become the global symbol of industrial reliability.

Fieldstone now has a reputation as one of the most ethical and cooperative builders in the industry, and will stick with its trusted, long-term contractors even if other vendors offer cheaper bids for a job, contractors say.

"Very few builders have the relations Fieldstone has with its subcontractors," said Randall W. Lewis, executive vice president with Lewis Homes in Upland. "Those relations are unequaled in the industry."

In its partnering program, Fieldstone pulls subcontractors into its operations, allowing plumbers and roofers to help make decisions. This means both parties invest time in extensive meetings about a project, freely sharing ideas. Although they are not true joint venture partners and subcontractors don't recoup part of the profits, the aim of the program is to give associates the feeling they are equally responsible for what happens and build a better home.

Contractors, such as Oak Leaf Landscaping in Anaheim, said this makes it easier for them to schedule their supply and hiring needs. Oak Leaf owner Dennis Buccola, a longtime Fieldstone subcontractor, suggested to Fieldstone that it could cut costs on several model homes in a Cypress project.

"I asked them if we could pull together the architects, the wood contractor and cement contractor and have a meeting and see how we could redesign the job without jeopardizing the integrity, but save some money," he said. "That was all done with teamwork and trust."

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Buccola said the team saved nearly 15%--almost $20,000--by removing some of the expensive bells and whistles on model homes that are not needed, like a built-in barbecue.

Sometimes the contractors' suggestions can cost Fieldstone money, he said, adding that those ideas often produce savings for Fieldstone in the long term.

Although other builders have not been quick to accept the partnering process, partly because of the time and control commitments involved, Fieldstone has refused to abandon the concept.

"Other builders are afraid of it, because the whole things boils down to one word, 'trust,' " said Howard Haig, owner of a framing contractor called Hondo Construction in Beaumont, a Fieldstone subcontractor since 1986.

"The builder has to trust that you won't rape them. It's all trust between builders and subs and each other. I know the plumber is going to do a good job, so I don't need to add $50 to the price of each home for repairs."

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