Saturday, February 10, 2018

Builders Exchanges

Many young people entering the design and construction industries may have little or no idea about what a builders exchange does and what its primary function is. Others who are somewhat familiar with the role of a builders exchange may first think of it as an anachronism in a digital age when access to seemingly unlimited amounts of information is readily available online. They may not be aware of the broader benefits such an organization can offer. The fact is a modern builders exchange serves as a cornerstone in the delivery process for many construction projects. If you don’t fully understand what a builders exchange is, you should.

So, what exactly is a builders exchange? In short, it is a member-driven central clearinghouse for information pertaining to construction projects during the bidding stage. Historically, the primary role of an exchange was literally to be a “plan room” where subcontractors and suppliers gained access to sets of documents for projects in the bidding stage. This access was limited to members of the exchange, who paid dues for this privilege. Owners, architects, and general contractors furnished the bidding documents free of charge, the quid pro quo being the promise of greater competition and thus lower bid prices. In the old days, it was not uncommon to see dozens of estimators scrambling to assemble their bids in cigarette-smoke-filled plan rooms, quietly poring over large sets of blueprints that reeked of ammonia.

The exchange would notify members of bidding opportunities, when bids were due, and which general contractors were looking for numbers. It would also keep its membership informed by distributing addenda and announcing who the apparent low bidders were for each project. The builders exchange was a critical component of the competitive bidding process, and indispensable before the advent of the Internet.

Today, builders exchanges do compete with a multitude of subscription-based, online construction plan services. Unsurprisingly, some mistakenly believe the old plan room era has passed and exchanges have gone the way of the dinosaur. By necessity, exchanges have adopted the latest, cutting-edge technologies in addition to maintaining physical plan rooms. Bidders can login to sophisticated software and download what they need when they need it. They’re notified of project changes automatically by email, and search filters make the process of finding projects quick and easy. Notwithstanding these technological improvements, the greatest asset of builders exchanges is one they have always leaned upon and one a virtual competitor cannot replicate: their people.

As with any organization comprised of many individuals, a builders exchange is dependent upon the relationships it nurtures. At its core, a builders exchange is a service provider. People are the main commodity of every exchange, as they’re who provide the services the members value. The staff of each exchange are dialed into the local design and construction community. They talk with local building owners and design professionals, often establishing strong personal relationships with real people. The priceless benefit of these relationships is greater assurance the flow of project information is steady, accurate, and reliable. Each of the nation’s approximately 200 exchanges is unique, focusing exclusively upon the needs of the members it serves.

The Eugene Builders Exchange is no exception. Founded nearly 70 years ago, the EBE is open for membership to local subcontractors, suppliers, manufacturer’s representatives, bonding and insurance companies, general contractors, construction consultants, and other service-oriented firms. It provides access to plans for public and private commercial projects it receives from architects, engineers, general contractors, and a broad spectrum of public agencies ranging from school districts to municipalities, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers, the Government Services Administration, and others. These projects are typically proposed for construction throughout Oregon, with an emphasis upon opportunities of interest to the EBE members.

EBE operates as a non-profit corporation, with an elected board of directors. Jeremy Moritz is the exchange’s present manager, having held the position since 2013. Under Jeremy’s leadership, the EBE has constantly updated its facilities and expanded the suite of benefits members have access to. These include website access (from which members can download project documents), a full-service reprographics service, education programs, and a weekly newsletter (listing the projects it has, planholder lists, bid results, descriptions of new projects, and recently issued local building permits). Additionally, the Exchange offers affordable health insurance plans as part of a large group purchasing collective (providing access to multiple carriers, compliance documentation, and complete electronic benefits administration for CCB licensed contractors), as well as EBE vacation travel discounts through its partnership with TravelPerks.

The cost of EBE membership is surprisingly reasonable, ranging from $200 annually for Associate membership (weekly newsletter, but no access to projects online or at EBE) up to $650 per year for Premium membership (which includes full access to the plan center and website, advertising in the newsletter, eligibility for the Exchange’s health insurance program, TravelPerks, and more).

The current membership of the Exchange numbers around 350, down from its highwater mark of 530 members before the 2008-2011 economic recession. Jeremy hopes to grow the membership and EBE’s market area, while also establishing strategic partnerships with related industry organizations, such as the Homebuilders Association of Lane County and the Construction Specifications Institute – Willamette Valley Chapter. With respect to the latter, CSI-WVC has enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement with EBE by renting its fully equipped classroom facility for the chapter’s CSI Certification Classes.

Far from being holdovers of a bygone age, successful, vital builders exchanges have capitalized upon their value proposition, which is to aggregate specific, local bidding opportunities for use by their members, and deliver focused education, benefits, and fellowship their impersonal online competitors cannot. In a world that is ever more indiscriminate about how it manages information, the true worth of builders exchanges is increasingly evident.

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