M/I Homes Discusses Virtual Reality and Visualization Technologies in the Home Building Industry
Ron Frissora - Central Ohio Tech Power Player Honoree
Founder and President
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CIO for M/I Homes, Ron Frissora, discusses virtual reality and visualization technologies in the home building industry.
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BK: Alright, we are here today with Ron Frissora, who is the CIO at M/I Homes. M/I Homes is a home builder here in uh, based in Columbus, Ohio. And my name is Bryan Kaiser, I'm the Founder and President of Vernovis, and also part of the executive host committee for comSpark, and I will be your guest moderator today. So, let's get started. Ron, thanks for your time.
RF: No problem.
BK: So, you have been with M/I Homes for 24 years.
RF: I have.
BK: 20 of which you've been the CIO. Um, at what point in your career did you feel like you were going down that path to be a CIO?
RF: I’ll tell you, I was very fortunate to be in a company that technology was new to. And, uh, I was the fifth IT employee ever at M/I Homes. So, when we started, we really did not have much technology, and we, we started building it. And things grew and grew and, uh, I was lucky enough to be promoted into the CIO position roughly three or four years after I was with M/I Homes.
BK: That's great. And since then, you guys have been growing, and it's all about scaling to the next level and trying to keep up with the growth.
RF: No doubt. Yeah. So, funny story is that our founder, Irving Schottenstein, once called our department the cancer of the company because we were growing out of control. But uh, we've proven that we've done a lot of good things for the organization and we don't hear that anymore.
BK: Oh, that's good that you changed that perception. So, how do you want to improve M/I Homes in the next three years?
RF: I would say we need to enter into some of the newer technologies. And what I mean by that is, we are starting to look at and get into, pretty seriously, things like virtual and augmented reality, visualization, uh, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation – and these are some things that we are looking very hard at and doing many of them. For example, visualization, we have tools now where, before you go to our design center, you have the ability to go in and build your kitchen, uh, virtually, online. You can change your cabinets, countertops, flooring, paint colors, that type of thing. Similar to a building a car online.
And customers love it, because they're able to see exactly what they're going to build, and they have a better sense of, of exactly what they're going to move into. Today, that process is basically, they sit at the table, they bring out a swatch, they bring out, you know, a piece of Corian countertops and, and they're supposed to be able to visualize that, and make their decisions. And it's a very difficult, overwhelming process, and technology is helping us to really bridge that gap.
BK: That's great. So, are these tools, are these things that you're developing internally, or are you looking outside for these?
RF: We’re primarily working with partners. So, on the visualization piece, we're working with a part of a company called BDX, which is our, part of the home builder consortium. Roughly 15 years ago, the top builders in the, in the industry got together and formed a technology company to create technology for the industry. Uh, additionally, on the virtual reality side, we're working with the same company, partners like Microsoft. And, what we're doing there is creating an augmented reality experience where customers can go and essentially walk our homes virtually. And it's proven to be, uh, very successful so far, although we're still in the infancy. This technology is going to mature significantly over the next couple of years. And I believe that our experience will get much better in that space as well.
BK: So, this is a technology that someone could walk through the house even before there's a shovel in the ground.
RF: That's correct. So, what we're doing is, we're trying to build these homes virtually, reduce the number of model homes that we build, and allow customers to walk, not just the models that we have, but really every plan that we offer. And that's something that, when we build a community, if we build one or two models, when you drive that community, there's those one or two models in every single, almost every plan is, is one of those one or two models. So, this will help us with our diversity of product and help us to get to market faster. And one more thing, uh, it's roughly $500,000 as an average to build a home, furnish it and maintain it. And um, we believe if we go, let's say, from four to two models, that’s $1 million that we're going to save. And the, uh, the technology certainly doesn't cost anything close to that.
BK: That's great. So, tell me a little bit about this robotic process automation. What's that look like in your world?
RF: So, we're new to this and we are looking at a lot of mundane processes that take place in our business. For example, we have a gross profit at sale analysis that we do. Each division is required to send that information in a spreadsheet up to corporate, and then someone at corporate takes that, turns around, enters it into our ERP system and, you know, it might take everyone, you know, an hour or two to get this stuff done. Well, with robotic process automation, what it does is, it takes the information and it, it mimics the process that the humans go through, and it's fully automated through a computer system. We're going to leverage this to get mundane tasks like that put into RPA and eliminate those tasks from our, our people.
Our goal is to make our people more efficient and then allow them to work on more fun things that are going to produce better business results for us. What we've seen so far is, some of the things that we've been able to eliminate, the people, we thought that people were going to be fearful for their jobs, but we found out is that they really hated what they were doing in that capacity. So, they really enjoy the fact that it's been taken off their plate.
BK: That's, that's great. Um, I think there's always a fear of change and fear of something new and fear of losing something. And, uh, so it's good to hear that people are starting to see the value in it.
RF: Yeah, no doubt. And it gives them more time to work on more value-added things.
BK: Totally. That's great. So, let me ask you this – I'm going to switch gears. So, we're talking a lot, a lot about things that you guys are doing proactively to make the business better. What keeps you up at night?
RF: I would say security keeps me up at night. We have invested a lot in security over the last five years. I would say five years ago, a very small portion of my budget was dedicated to security and that's changed significantly. And, uh, I would say a lot of my time, my infrastructure team’s time, my security team's time, and many other people in the organization's time is really committed to security. And because we, we own our own mortgage company, we own our own title company, we're a pretty decent target for security – for, for hackers and, and we've seen it. I mean, we've had customers whose accounts have gotten hacked and, and they've wired money to people that are not us, and it's been a very difficult situation. I mean, uh, customers making the biggest purchase of their life are harmed by this and um, and I'd say that's what keeps me up at night.
BK: Do you feel like there's a concern with our personal devices?
BK: Okay. You know, there is a concern with personal devices.
BK: Okay? People are bringing personal devices into the organization every day. If not one…
RF: Yes, multiple.
BK: You know, a phone, but then multiple. So, how do you control that? How do, how do you, you know, is that a big concern, not knowing what people are bringing in?
RF: Absolutely. So, uh, we do have a mobile device management tools in place, and the way we control it is, we put group policy on there, and when they put a device, let's say a phone on the network, their camera might stop working, right? And then they call our help desk and say, “My camera's not working anymore.” Right? And we're like, “Oh, so you're trying to get on our network, right? So, you need to do these certain things in order to get on our network.” So, um, so that's how we're controlling it. I would say, um, we need to do a better job in that space. Quite honestly, we, uh, I think we're okay, but we can be better. And um, and that's, again, something that keeps me up because it worries me that, that we have a lot of things on our network that we may or may not be aware of.
BK: And how do you, how do you stay ahead of it?
RF: You know, I have a small team. And, uh, what I do is rely on partners a lot. So, I outsource my firewall, for example. And, uh, you know, so I have a company that sits in front of my network and they're watching my network 24/7. I don't have the staff to be able to do that. Um, and that allows me to sleep at night, you know? Because I know that someone's watching my back.
BK: Yeah, that's good. So, as we wrap up here, I have a fun question. What, uh, what makes you the most happy from a professional level?
RF: I think that's a pretty easy answer for me, and I think it's making a difference. I have a great team, and my team is really committed to the business, and, and we make a difference every day in the lives of our customers and in the lives of our employees. And, and that's what drives me and motivates me.
BK: That’s great. Well folks, uh, that's it for our time today. This is Bryan Kaiser with Ron Frissora. To learn more about us, please visit comspark.tech, and have a good evening.
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