The AC478 accreditation differentiates metal building assemblers from their quality competition
Mike Reynolds is president of MBCEA and owns Systems Contractors Inc., Denver. He says, “We want to make our industry more professional and make it a true craftsman industry. Right now there are too many places that are mom-and-pop shops, and people who don’t really care about the industry. We’re raising the bar up. We’re not trying to drive anybody out, but just trying to make everybody more professional.”
In a price-dominated industry such as construction that also has significant pockets of fly-by-night companies, establishing the value of a service can have major consequences for both the companies participating and the industry as a whole. Widespread adoption of the AC478 could lead to safer job sites, improved efficiencies and better value for the building owner, the assembler itself and its employees.
The MBCEA hopes the AC478 will accomplish four things:
- Establish a level playing field and improve the end product.
- Provide proof that accredited companies have the experience, procedures and commitment to assemble metal building systems.
- Benchmarks for accountability and measurement.
- Complement the AC472, which is the accreditation program for metal building manufacturers.
How does it work? The AC478 program is administered by the International Accreditation Service (IAS), which is the organization that will provide the accreditation certificate. Companies work with MBCEA to get documentation of management procedures, including training and safety in order for IAS. An IAS inspector visits the company to verify documents and procedures. Another independent inspection company visits job sites to establish quality and safety procedures are being met on the final product.
Accreditation isn’t a one-time thing. You don’t achieve it and have it for life. You need to renew the accreditation annually to show the industry you are continuing to operate at a standardized level.
Get It Out of Your Head
For contractors who are used to operating their businesses by relying on their personal knowledge, this may sound like an unnecessary cost and paperwork hassle. That may be especially true for smaller companies where communication is tightly held and everyone knows what to do. D.J. Van Rooyen co-owns Steel Worx Solutions, Groveland, Fla., with his wife. “We’re a relatively large erector, and we’re competing on a lot of larger and aerospace projects.” Steel Worx does projects nationwide, and Van Rooyen saw the AC478 program as a way to differentiate his company from quality competition.
He started the accreditation process about six months ago, and spent about two to three months working on it. “I worked actively on it every day,” he says. But most of the work was done by his administration staff. “For every hour I worked on it, they put in probably seven to eight hours.”
Most of the work he had to do was documentation of procedures the company already had and, he says, “transfer them to the matrix when they go through and do their audit.”
Van Rooyen expected the accreditation would help him compete for the larger jobs he does but he was surprised by the internal benefits of going through accreditation. “It started as the driving factor to use as a selling tool against other erectors who are not accredited. But as we evolved into it, it brings a lot of more value as an in-house audit system. We were already doing all these tasks, but now we have the recordkeeping in place for training all the daily tasks that are required. It turned into a better operational system.”
Jackie Meiluta works on behalf of MBCEA with contractors looking to go through the accreditation program. “I have personally worked with almost 40 companies,” she says. “We’d hoped to be further along, but I don’t see why by summer all of them shouldn’t be accredited.”
Meiluta initially works with companies to make sure they understand the process and review their internal procedures. “I have not met one company that did not have their act together in regards to safety and training. It’s very impressive. Every time I talk with someone, I’m surprised by the robustness of their training, their commitment to developing their crews. What they don’t have, though, is good internal documentation of procedures. Typically, they have about 75 percent of work in place.”
The problem is that much of that training, she says, “is based on what’s in their head.” It’s not written down, so only the owner can be responsible for the procedure. “They know how to train and how to do their safety. It’s just in their heads. If we could convey just one thing it would be that the discipline of being able to lift yourself out of your business is a powerful thing that will come out of AC478.”
This is true for larger companies such as Steel Worx, and for smaller firms, such as the one run by Steve Moore. Moore is president of MMS Northeast Inc., Hampton Falls, N.H. “We’re pretty lean,” Moore says. He has a part-time bookkeeper and eight field workers who have been with him for years. They already operate efficiently from long years of practice and knowing what each of them is responsible for doing.
Moore earned the AC478 accreditation a few months ago. It took him about eight months, and he did all the work. “Because I already had the safety stuff and reasonably good documentation, I probably spent about 80 hours total,” he says.
Meiluta helped considerably with making sure his systems fit the model of AC478. “It was mostly fine-tuning what we already had in place,” he says. One of the biggest surprises he encountered during the process was in documentation. “I learned I could do a better job of maintaining records,” he says. “At the end of a job, I would just throw out old documents.” Now he retains them and uses them as benchmarks for continuous improvement.
Compete Against Quality Competition
While continuous improvement processes and better internal management procedures are essential to the development of a professionally run company, the attraction of AC478 accreditation comes mainly from the sales side. As Van Rooyen says, “It started as a selling tool.”
AC478 is a great differentiator in the marketplace. It is proof that your company is a quality metal building assembler, and that can help make getting your price an easier sell. “I can go to a future client,” he says, “and show him I’ve been through this system and here’s my matrix.”
The difference is more obvious on large projects, but even on smaller ones that don’t require a company to be bonded at such a high level and where competition from fly-by-night operators is fiercer, AC478 can help differentiate. Steel Worx does compete for those jobs, especially locally, and Van Rooyen says this program can help him “justify why your price is 20 to 30 percent higher.”
Moore has not yet leveraged this differentiation in the market. MMS Northeast is the only accredited erector in New England at this point, so awareness among building owners and others is still low.
But the big benefits will come not from demand by building owners, but from architects and manufacturers. Once AC478 is being written into specifications, once architects and manufacturers start saying that the building must be erected by an AC478-accredited metal building assembler, the demand will soar.
Meiluta says, “We are starting to see jobs specified with AC478 accredited assembler. When you’re the only one in that region that can bid, you are in a great position.”
Attract the Best
While competing for jobs is an obvious benefit of accreditation, competing for labor is an unexpected benefit. The metal building market, as well as construction in general, is facing an acute shortage of skilled labor. Assemblers are turning down work because they can’t find the workers to get it done, which means more buildings are being assembled by less qualified contractors.
But AC478-accredited contractors have a unique differentiation in the labor market that shows potential employees they are quality contractors and not fly-by-night operators. Moore outlines the current problem. “We go to trade fairs and do presentations at trade schools,” he says. “We bring kids into the business but it never really works out. We’ve hired kids with welding certificates and they last six months.”
Identifying quality labor is as difficult as identifying a quality contractor. Everybody thinks they’re great. But if quality attracts quality, then AC478 accreditation should serve as a beacon for workers.
Van Rooyen says it already has for his firm. “We just hired a new engineer,” he says. “He could have worked for a way bigger company, but one of the selling points was AC478. This separated us and shows there’s more opportunity with us because we’re going to be on the front end of this. That helped makes his decision where he wanted to go.”
For every assembler the value of AC478 may be different. It might be in sales or internal management or in the labor market. For Moore, it’s personal. He says, “The greatest day of my business life was the day I stopped roofing and started erecting pre-engineered metal buildings. I’m a big proponent of AC478 and I see real value. Where I really see the value is the validation of what we currently do relative to safety and training. That’s the most passionate part of my business. I spend a lot of money training and a lot of money documenting trainings. Validation of that is important to me.”