Construction services leader EllisDon is Building Digital

Construction services leader EllisDon is Building Digital

We explore Canadian construction leader EllisDon’s digital transformation, leveraging data and technology to gain insights and drive better decisions

EllisDon has grown exponentially beyond its modest origins in London, Ontario. 

Founded and incorporated in 1951 by brothers Don and David Ellis Smith, today EllisDon is an employee-owned, US$5bn-a-year construction services company. With over 5,000 salaried and hourly employees across 15 national and international offices, EllisDon has become a leader in every sector of the construction industry.

“EllisDon truly is founded on the core philosophy that everybody is an entrepreneur,” says Brandon Milner, SVP of Digital and Data Engineering at EllisDon. “That goes from our senior leadership team, all the way through to a coordinator on a construction site.”

EllisDon’s Digital and Data Engineering division has the goal to be a leader in technology, just as it is a leader in construction and futureproofing its operations. It leverages the latest technology, using data to create efficiencies, inform intelligent decision-making, and elevate client and user experiences.

This entrepreneurial and driven approach throughout the department, Milner explains, has been emphasised by EllisDon’s former CEO and now Executive Chair of the board, Geoff Smith. “He really encourages us to think on our feet, to own it, to drive things, to try new things, all under the guise of obviously being fiscally responsible and married to the brand, values and reputation of EllisDon, which the leadership team and the wider company has built over the last 72 years.”

Having been building its own digital products for the last 20 years, an example of EllisDon’s philosophy comes in its Gate Three platform.

An enterprise-wise project management platform, Milner explains that it incorporates everything from pre-construction all the way through to billings and invoicing to payments - all of which has been built in-house. 

“Twenty years ago when nobody was thinking about this, Geoff Smith was asking the question, what is the company going to look like in the future? How are we going to own our own domain outside of construction? 

“What differentiates us really boils down to our intellectual property, both in construction but also in our technology and data,” Milner describes. “It’s about how we manage our construction, but also how we treat people, and also how we leverage the data we're collecting to do incremental things and to learn from our data.

“We believe and we lead by our core values. That's really what drives us and always has. Although we are a private company, all of our employees are shareholders in EllisDon, which also creates a sense of ownership and drive for everybody. We all feel like this is our company, we're not working for corporate leadership or for a stock price.”

An exciting era of technology, data and construction

With 72 years of history, as Milner explains, EllisDon is currently entering an exciting era when it comes to pioneering digital solutions, launching its new division  - Building Digital to highlight its innovative approach.

“We build our own software,” he says. “We have a very robust pilot programme that we've set up through our software selection programme.

“We have a vetting process, it goes through our cybersecurity team, it goes through our data team, it goes through our legal team, gets approved, and we have a process that we stick to”.

Coupled with this, EllisDon has recently launched a construction tech accelerator programme, where its pilot programmes will be merged with its accelerator programme, providing other companies an opportunity worldwide to be part of the EllisDon ecosystem. 

This culminated in eight out of 100 applicants worldwide being selected for a pitch day in Toronto, in front of stakeholders across the whole business, with the final prize for the winners of the ConTech Accelerator programme to run pilots on EllisDon’s construction sites. 

This, Milner describes, represents the company’s core mission and value to try and push the envelope. “As long as we're fiscally responsible and we have a plan, and it's a structured detailed plan, let's partner. Let's partner with people. Let's strategically look at investment opportunities within the ConTech space that will accelerate both us and our partners growth.” 

Generative AI - augmentation rather than overreliance

AI can be an augmenter or facilitator to accelerate technology within construction technology. But emphasising that construction is an industry built on relationships, Milner warns that it is important to consider this - and strike a balance - when considering AI applications.

“When it comes to generative AI, it’s important to stress that it isn’t one size fits all. You don't need to use AI for everything. What I'm hearing is that people are becoming very self-reliant on these AI tools, and my worry is that people will start to lose that human connection and that personal touch.”

Another thing to consider with generative AI is accuracy. “Relying on these AI tools solely is, I believe, a big mistake, especially in the construction industry where we look to use AI for things like predicting costs and forecasts. 

“It is a very mature industry, we've been building things for thousands of years, and there's an art to this as much as it is a science, in terms of cost forecasting and predictions. People just know how to do that. Relying on computers or pieces of code to do that solely is a big concern for me. Remembering the human element of this industry is crucially important.

“We are starting to look at generative AI, but only with specific use cases for things like cameras or for more tedious manual admin type of work – generating time efficiencies in people’s lives – freeing up their time to do what they are best at.”

This is where EllisDon, with 20 years of data to leverage, can use this wealth of information to gain meaningful insights.

“We have a fairly large Insights and Analytics team, and we are using generative AI to provide insights and report to our execs, and to our superintendents and construction managers. With all this data, anybody who knows the AI space knows that this creates opportunities that we are very cognizant and aware of. 

“We're capturing our data through our Gate Three platform and we are really starting to look at that realm and starting to find interesting intersections between AI and construction tech.”

Importance of strategic partnerships - and enabling Building Digital

Highlighting the importance of symbiotic relationships, Milner is a strong believer in strategic partnerships rather than building everything internally.

“Where I look to partner is where they understand our business, they understand that everything takes time. We need a partner that's going to help us grow.”

An example of this is when EllisDon migrated from Google to the Microsoft environment for its email and Microsoft 365 infrastructure, partnering with Avanade. 

“Avanade have been great partners in helping us drive through enterprise-wide change, and enterprise-wide system implementations,” Milner says.

Another strong partnership comes with EllisDon’s work with Disruptive Edge: an innovation consultancy working across a range of industries.

“With Disruptive Edge, we needed to find a partner that we could work with in a very collaborative manner to assist our digital transformation,” Milner describes. 

Now, with such a wealth of digital knowledge combined with data over the last two decades, Disruptive Edge is helping launch Building Digital - a division enabling EllisDon to promote and offer its services and products to the rest of the market, whether it's general contractors, subcontractors or clients, inside or outside the construction space. 

“All the 20 or 30 years of experience that we've had building out these things within the construction industry, we have a suite of products and services and engagements that we are offering through Building Digital.” 

As Milner describes, Disruptive Edge has been an instrumental partner to EllisDon in helping it build out that digital transformation: from deep dives into market research, to discovery sessions, building business requirements and finalising product offerings, all while working very collaboratively with its teams. 

“Where Disruptive Edge really is a differentiator against other consulting companies that I've worked with in the past, is that it embeds itself within teams and, specifically, within EllisDon's digital team,” Milner adds.

“But also outside of our digital teams, its team members meet with stakeholders and it's a very partner-driven engagement. Disruptive Edge is geared towards setting us up for success and then moving on and letting us build on that foundation. It’s not one of these partners that are with you for life, but it is constantly supporting us. It's not about the bottom line for Disruptive Edge, it's actually about building and launching very successful products.”

Another strategic partner of note for EllisDon is Cupix - a trusted partner of choice for delivering the industry’s most flexible and easiest-to-deploy 3D digital twin platform to builders and owners everywhere.

Cupix has been collaborating with EllisDon for several years, providing it with a reliable, cutting-edge reality capture solution. “The platform began with 360 photos and has since expanded to include other modules such as scans and drone data,” Milner explains. “One of the many valuable aspects of Cupix is their flexibility and responsiveness to changes in the marketplace. As our partner, they strive to remain ahead of the curve, rather than remaining static in their offerings.

“When it comes to building digitally, Cupix helps us showcase our commitment to excellence. Whether we need to build, buy, or partner, we work with the best.”

Digital twins are virtual replicas of physical assets that simulate real-world conditions, allowing users to visualise and analyse the performance of those assets in a controlled environment. As Milner describes, building digital twins for job sites provides a range of benefits, including improved project planning, greater efficiency, and enhanced decision-making capabilities.

“By creating a digital twin of a job site, project managers can better plan and optimise construction activities, reducing downtime and increasing productivity,” he says. “Digital twins can also be used to identify potential issues and bottlenecks in the construction process, allowing for proactive planning and mitigation strategies.

“In addition, digital twins can provide real-time monitoring of job site conditions, allowing for immediate adjustments to be made to construction activities as needed. This can improve safety and reduce the risk of accidents or delays.

“Ultimately, these benefits can lead to higher revenues for construction companies,” Milner adds. “By improving project planning, increasing efficiency, and reducing downtime, construction companies can complete projects faster and more cost-effectively, resulting in higher profitability. Digital twins also provide a competitive edge, allowing construction companies to differentiate themselves from their competitors and win more business.”

An exciting future for EllisDon

With Building Digital, Milner hopes to see what he describes as a ‘cataclysmic change’ in the way EllisDon works with and engages its subcontractors, its clients, and the wider market in general. 

“We're actively involved in the United States in the construction industry from a thought leadership perspective. And as a very forward-thinking company, I think the next 12 to 18 months are going to be very exciting.

“Today, EllisDon is very geared and positioned exceptionally well to be that market leader in the construction tech space and a thought leader. In the next 12 to 18 months it will be interesting to see how we can impact the rest of the Canadian market, but also the North American market. 

“Right now we are obviously focusing on North America, but as part of the Accelerator Programme, there are a lot of companies out there that are coming from Europe as well. 

“That is our ethos around Building Digital. We can either build it ourselves because we have expertise, we can partner strategically, or we can potentially do some investments where we are strategically partnering and growing together.”

Team at EllisDon
Team at EllisDon
On-site projects of EllisDon
On-site projects of EllisDon
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