Part XI: A Whole House in the New Millennium
We truss designers were outfoxed by an unlikely pair of moguls who knew nothing about truss design. Gene Toombs and Tom Denig, CEOs of MiTek and TrusJoist, without our prompting, announced in 2001 that their companies would join forces to design the “whole house.” Since we designers fashioned ourselves as problem solvers, we feared that they were tackling a nonexistent problem. Their grand vision sounded a lot like sales hype, and we had no choice but to go along with it. But we wondered how this grand scheme would delay all of the basic programming projects that our CMs needed.
Our fear intensified as we sent two dozen of our best programmers 900 miles away to work on this “OptiFrame” project. Toombs and Denig figured it would take two years to bolt together our Eframe and TJ Expert programs. Knowing how many unfinished projects these programmers left behind, especially relating to wall panels, we prayed that our competitors would be held at bay.
Enter a most unlikely disrupter who barged onto the scene: an unkempt, self-taught, wall panel guy who hailed from a small plant in rural Marks, Mississippi (population 1500 and declining). From that humble background, Tommy Wood had made himself into the foremost wall panel expert in the industry. Somehow Tommy had outfoxed us by peddling a concept he called “parametric” design. This techy “handle” intimidated us who were competitors, and created a rallying cry for hundreds of loyal users. When he teamed up with TrusWal and they jointly launched a competing “IntelliBuild” platform, we had reason to be concerned.
Out in Denver, our worst fears were being realized. After just 6 months, our crack OptiFrame team found that the MiTek and TrusJoist programs couldn’t be merged. An entirely new set of code would have to be written and OptiFrame would be many years in the making. In fact, no one at MiTek would commit to a completion date. Back in St. Louis, we were holding onto our leadership in truss design under the experienced eye of David McQuinn, but we were falling behind in wall panel software, and also in panel machinery technology. Since the walls of a house literally support the trusses, we couldn’t create a viable “whole house” solution without a strong wall panel design component. This seemed to add even more years onto the OptiFrame timeline.
Several fortuitous factors gave us hope and the means to weather this protracted development time. First and most notably, Warren Buffett bought MiTek at the onset of this project. Though Warren was 71 at the time, he had no timeline and was with us for the long run. And, of course, he had nearly unlimited resources. But, as the savviest investor in the world, he wouldn’t have funded this venture without seeing a good payoff ahead. The second factor was our timing: that we developed OptiFrame during the most stable housing market in 40 years.
But the third and most important factor was the foresightedness and sales savvy of our CEOs. Both had more than a decade of accomplished leadership at their respective companies. As Gene Toombs recently reflected on the genesis of the joint venture, “Both recognized that if we wanted to jump start software, combining our strengths made some sense and we could bring to the industry a better offering while, of course, enhancing our sales.” Thus, we were entering the new millennia with the strongest possible partner, superb and patient leadership, and a high potential to successfully build the “whole house” better than the rest.
The “Whole House” Realized