Under 40: Symun says we need a solution

Time is money, especially when putting together estimates for a construction job.
When Mike Rinks operated his post-frame construction company, it took him several days to come up with an estimate for prospective clients. “I worked all day on a site and came home and worked up numbers late into the evening,” says Rinks (right). He asked the lumberyard he was associated with to do the estimates, but that, too, took days.
“Whoever could get the answer the quickest got the job,” Rinks says. The longer it took him to come up with estimates, the greater the chances he would lose out on that particular job. He knew there had to be a better solution.
“I looked for something to buy,” he says, “but there was nothing out there.”
After three years in the construction business, Rinks decided to teach himself computer programming. Through a lot of determination, he came up with his own software program, geared to his needs for building barns and garages. He used it in his own business with relative success.
“I had a meeting at the lumberyard when someone came in and asked about an estimate,” Rinks remembers. “I had my laptop with me so I offered to help.” He plugged the specifications into his program and had the estimate moments later. Impressed, the lumberyard bought a copy of the program.
“I thought that was the end of it,” Rinks says.
However, this particular lumberyard was part of a chain, and word got around to the other stores about the system. Rinks received a request from one store, then a second, then a third.
“I bumped up my asking price and I sold six copies,” Rinks says. “And I started thinking I might have another business here.”
Rinks thought about computer classes, but a friend showed him a spreadsheet application developed by a young man named Tim Bennett (page 45). Rinks hired Bennett as a tutor to teach him programming.
“I’m the type of person who you show me something once, and I get it and run away with it,” says the 40-year-old Rinks. As it became apparent that the two were on to something successful, Rinks asked Bennett to be his business partner, and Symun Systems, based in Flushing, Mich., was created.
It took two years to write the code for the initial program, Construction Maestro 2.0.
“We developed it to be an easy-to-use program right from the beginning,” says Bennett. “We’ve used improvement recommendations and ideas from builders and lumberyards across the country, and we’ve had five major releases of the program.”
The next major version, Maestro Trio, will be launched this spring. The system will still contain the popular garage and post-frame modules, but a third module will be added for estimating decks. After the user plugs in the specifications, the software takes over in creating an accurate, detailed estimate and field-ready plans.
“The system asks the user a series of questions in a logical order,” says Bennett. “The system contains an error checking system that prevents the user from forgetting to include key components.” Pre-programmed templates can be created to promote packages or record builder preferences. “Users can run an estimate while the customer waits, usually within a few minutes,” mentions Bennett.
What makes their software unique, both Bennett and Rinks say, is the combination of computer programming know-how and practical construction experience. Rather than assuming they know their customers’ needs, the owners of Symun Systems base their product on personal experience. Rinks’ background in the post-frame business makes it easy to understand the needs of builders and lumberyards. “I can have an intelligent conversation with the builder about their job and what they want from the software,” says Rinks.
After attending the University of Michigan for two years as an engineering major, Rinks quit school to get married. First he went into the construction business for a couple of years, and then went to work in various lumberyards over the next several years. While working at the lumberyards, he began doing some construction side work, got his builder’s license, and started his own company in the early 1990s.
“It was a successful business for a long time,” Rinks says. His company, for example, built a strip mall, a veterinary hospital, and a local Dairy Queen, as well as lots of post-frame buildings and garages. However, he adds, “after September 11, the construction business dropped off.” On the other hand, there was a demand for accurate estimating software. To better focus on Symun Systems, Rinks closed his construction business last year, although he remains active in the Michigan Frame Builders Association, having served on the board for the past four years and is now its president.
The 33-year-old Bennett earned a degree with majors in history and anthropology as well as a minor in computer science from the University of Michigan’s Flint campus. Hired out of college, he worked for EDS for seven years, helping to maintain Buick’s warranty, dealership, and sales mainframe systems. Also, he wrote nearly 100 spreadsheet VBA-based systems for a number of companies, including the one that led to his introduction to Rinks.
In their partnership, Bennett, who is also a Microsoft Certified Professional, is the main programmer and system architect, while Rinks tends to the business side, handling sales and training. When he’s not dealing with customers, Rinks will also help program. The company also employs a technical support specialist and an office manager.
Another unique aspect to the Maestro software is that it doesn’t require an annual maintenance fee, like so many other programs. “You pay that yearly fee to get upgrades, but they really have no idea what they are getting for their money,” says Bennett. When you purchase Maestro, you receive updates, tech support, and training seminars for free. Optional upgrades to Maestro have a fee, but “Users have a tangible set of functionality to evaluate before purchasing,” says Bennett.
Owning a construction software business was not the way either man initially saw as his career, but both are pleased with the path they’ve chosen. “I get to meet a lot of people,” says Rinks. “I enjoy talking to them.” Because Maestro has sold to companies in 36 states, Rinks also has traveled to many places he says he never would have visited otherwise.
The one frustration both have is that with the success of their software and their willingness to incorporate customer changes and suggestions to improve the product, people want to see those changes immediately.
“I don’t think people understand how complex programming is,” says Rinks.
Bennett agrees. “This program has over 300,000 lines of code.” (To put that in perspective, a standard piece of paper holds about 30 lines of type, so 300,000 lines of code would be similar to writing a 10,000-page book.) Even upgrades to a current program can take years to write and test.
“There will be more changes coming,” says Bennett, “based on enhancements that customers want.” One such enhancement, for example, is allowing customers to create a workshop in the buildings. Right now Maestro only allows users to finish the interior.
Adds Rinks, “There is no end to this business. The future is very bright.”

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