As the man who would disrupt the home building industry, Marc A. Bovet asks a lot of whys – and more pointedly, why not?
The founder and president of Bone Structure, a Laval, Quebec-based company with a patented construction system for assembling houses as quickly and easily as snapping together Lego, is passionate about bringing innovation into an industry that he says hasn’t seen real change in over 400 years.
His modest goal, since founding the company as Simple Concept Inc. in 2005, is to literally revolutionize housing around the world. Since winning the Dunamis Award for Innovation in 2013, the privately-owned company has attracted a lot of international interest.
While Mr. Bovet won’t reveal annual revenue, he says the company builds about 200 houses a year – across Canada, but so far mainly in Quebec – and expects to double that every year. The company recently moved into the Ontario market and have over 20 contracts to build in the GTA.
The system uses pre-cut light steel pieces that clip together precisely to form a strong frame, allowing for 25-foot wide rooms without load-bearing walls. Because each building is custom made, with holes predrilled at the factory, all you need to to erect one is an electric screwdriver – reputedly in as little as four days. Since there are no nails and no cutting done on the job site, there isn’t the same waste produced in traditional building methods, so it’s ecologically friendly. With steel as the main component, the structures are also mold and mildew resistant, as well as seismically rated. While the cost of a house depends on the cosmetic finishes used both inside and out, the average is roughly $200 a square foot.
With a previous background in his family’s retail business, his own public relations firm and a management role at Bombardier, Inc. in Montreal (from 1997 to 2003), Mr. Bovet’s leap into the construction industry was born out of frustration with his own home renovation. After weeks stuck in a hotel with his wife and four young children, he describes having “a Richard Branson reaction” to the situation. Used to handling business projects at over $100-million, he felt he fumbled on this little one and started questioning why houses were made this way. Why not find a better way, he asked himself.
Mr. Bovet believes Bone Structure could change home building in much the same way as Henry Ford revolutionized automobile manufacturing with his assembly line – and he’s always looking to make it better. The company is currently on version 10 of the system with 23 per cent less parts than in version one. “I’m coming out with version 11,” says Mr. Bovet. “You always evolve.”
Question: Why are you obsessed with why?
Answer: If you ask five whys, you get to drill down to the fundamentals, get rid of the superficial, and really ask the core questions that make a difference – whether it’s about developing a new product or service policy. There are shelves of business books, but all you need to do is print the word, why, why, why, why, why?
When you ask people why they are doing something that way, 99 per cent of the time, they’ll answer because I’ve always done it that way. When you think of the words – innovation, dare to be different, disruptive technology, Henry Ford kicking some horse’s butt trying to make a difference – it’s people doing some innovative small disruptive motions that can make a big difference. We’re not asking enough whys. And definitely not asking why not?
How is Bone ‘disruptive technology’?
It’s a material but it’s more than that. It’s a technology. I like disrupting people. It goes with who we are – disruptive technology. I like to make it fun and to surprise people.
The first year, when I applied for research and development grants, it was a three-year ordeal to get the first credit. We didn’t fit into any category – telecommunications, biotechnology, nanotechnology. I was told, “Mr. Bovet, we have nothing [for R&D] in the construction industry. That’s bricks and mortar, that’s traditional. It’s not innovation. We can’t do anything for you.”
For me, the definition of R&D is something with enough innovation and creativity in it that will create jobs, can be exported, that you can have patented and that you can transfer the technology to some other continent to bring back some royalties.
What’s wrong with the construction industry?
People spend more money on their house than anything else in their lifetime, yet there’s more quality control in a 12-cent Bic pen than there is in your house, condo, chalet or doghouse. People will research for half a day when they’re buying a phone but be totally clueless when they’re buying a million-dollar house – except for the nice kitchen counter, appliances and Jacuzzi bathtub.
Our houses are dinosaurs. People are still building them the same way as we have been for 400 years. The cost keeps going up and the quality down. We have attics that make up 33 per cent of lost space in our houses. Why? It’s just because we’ve always done it that way.
Once I had the idea to do this, I traveled the world with architects and engineers for the first year – Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Shanghai, Dubai – to study buildings because I’m not from this industry. I’m not a designer or architect or an engineer. The only talent I have is that I’ve got a keen sense of observation.
What we did at Bone is we took this raw material – galvanized steel so it doesn’t rust – and have it precision-cut. The plants that work for us either cut automotive or aerospace parts. We applied that type of surgical precision to how we build houses.
What’s been the biggest learning curve for you as an entrepreneur?
I was born and raised an entrepreneur. My dad was a pioneer in Big and Tall Menswear worldwide. After I graduated, I went into the family business when we had about eight stores and my brothers and I took it to 45 outlets. My late dad really taught us the value of money and to serve one customer at a time. Whether the customer buys for $5 or $5000, they deserve the same service. I did that for 10 years and had a lot of fun. That service philosophy is part of Bone, part of our culture. It’s in my DNA. Then I had my own advertising agency for eight years. One of my clients was Bombardier and they invited me to come into the company and do a turnaround of one of their units. I really wanted to go in there. For me, it was my streetwise MBA.
How does that translate to Bone?
We have 40 people on staff – architects, engineers, interior designers. Everybody knows from the first day they work with us, that I’m a fanatic about the phone. If the phone rings more than twice, you’ll hear me. First a loud scream comes through the walls and then I’ll pick up the phone. There’s likely a customer or a business partner right there at the end of that line. It’s not just one person’s job, so they’d better answer the phone.
What were the key lessons you learned as a manager at Bombardier?
It was understand your customer, understand the product. Product is king so R&D is critical. Never sit on your laurels. Innovation is one of the pillars of Bone. Every single day, when I walk by every one of my team, I’ll ask, “What have you learned today...or yesterday?” I’m serious about it. I don’t care if they tell me they’ve learned to make spaghetti sauce bolognese. Maybe while they’re making that sauce they’ll have a flash of insight of how to do something differently.
I started the question of the week three years ago. I just want them to think. I might ask, ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ Maybe you do or don’t have a favourite colour but you’ve never crystallized it in your mind. Last week it was, ‘what was the last book you read?’
How did you pick those 40 people on staff?
They’re handpicked by me. I sit down and talk to them. I ask ‘who are you?’ If the word passion doesn’t come up at any point, about anything – vegetables or Lululemon....they’re not part of the team.
Where did you get the money to start?
You read about entrepreneurs who say, ‘it all started in my garage for $10.’ That doesn’t happen anymore. You better have a million bucks to start off. I’ve put in millions and millions of dollars – my own real serious money.
Where did you put your money at the beginning?
People. Computers. The tools. Our conference rooms are very humble offices. We’ve got patented intellectual properties, we’ve got a brand name.
What do you want out of it?
Sure I’m looking for a financial reward but it’s not my main purpose. I could do 200 houses a year in Quebec and live happily ever after. If money was my motivator, I would have retired seven years ago. But I wasn’t talented enough to play golf.
You pour money into it. You put on your investor’s hat and say, this is the last $250,000 I’m putting in and then you put in another half million because now you’re really close. Perseverance is a key word for me. People are knocking on my door wanting to be part of it. It’s my own privately-funded company. It’s my own well-earned money.
I really want to make a difference so that the dwellings we leave behind can be there in 200 or 300 years from now. I want housing to be adaptable to our needs, be affordable and well insulated so that we can control our energy costs. We’re not in every market right now, but I’m going to do everything possible to do that.
Our structures aren’t prefab. It’s not modular. It’s a Robinson Crusoe system. You can go with your little pieces and basically erect what you want – small, medium, large residential homes, four condo units or commercial buildings. You can also reconfigure the interior anytime – add windows or move internal walls. It has simplicity but yet it’s so complex.
We’re opening up to builders. We pick and choose our authorized builders and we’re very thorough about due diligence when it comes to what builders we’ll work with. Only 10 per cent go through.
What your biggest challenge ahead?
What we’re trying to do right now is to crack the code with bigger builders. But unfortunately, with the big league guys that do two or three thousand houses a year, it’s just a money business. Then there are the other guys doing 300 or 400 houses a year – the medium-sized builders. These are the guys we’d like to crack the code with so that they could create contemporary neighbourhoods.
Word of mouth is getting out there about us. A lot of architects in Toronto are talking about us. People are coming to see us because their customers are asking about us. My dream is to bring back the good old days where you can shake hands and have the house you want in two months.
Do you know anyone who’s built a house on time and on budget and had so much fun that they want to build another one? No. Why? Today it’s all sub-contractors so it’s a domino effect. We’ve got to help people do a better job at what they do just by giving them the tools. If you have the right materials and right process, it all comes together and assembles like magic. I put my millions into it. At the end of the day, it’s common sense.