Comstock Day 11 – Meetings

The office was closed on Memorial Day which was nice, but Tuesday arrived with a fury. When I arrived at 9am, I was immediately ushered into this month’s Strategic Meeting. Once a month (on the last Tuesday it seems), the weekly staff meeting is replaced by the strategy meeting in which all of the major heads of the company (CEO, COO, Head of Sales, Head of Construction, Property Manager) get together to discuss the company strategy for the next month. With the company reforecast meetings looming in the distance,  ost of this meeting was focused on compiling data for the starts, sales, and closings for the year to date, and adjusting the predicted number of starts, sales, and closings accordingly. They’ll use this data to better guide the company reforecast meetings towards a reachable end-of-year goal. Honestly, this meeting (which lasted three hours) could very easily have been a shared spreadsheet in which everyone would input and review the data need from their departments on their own time. We did not need nine people in a room for three hours just to plug in some numbers. On the other hand, the next meeting was far more interesting.

Apparently, Comstock had recently faced a cyber-attack on one of the company’s bank accounts. It turns out that the hackers were able to access the account through a virus installed on an employee’s computer who had access to the company account information. So the next meeting, which began right after the strategy meeting, was a meeting with a cybersecurity firm, Reliable IT, to discuss how Comstock could upgrade their cybersecurity to protect from another attack like this. Though by the time it was over I had more than met my hours for the day, this meeting was definitely worth sitting in on.

Comstock Day 9 – Framewalk, Sales Meeting and Permits

Strap in your seatbelts because this is going to be a long one.

The day started promptly at 8am when Bryan Wagy (Property Management) picked me up from home and began the long drive to the city of Camarillo for the Aire model complex framewalk at the Springville site. We arrived at the Springville Sales Office around 9:30. My mom used to work on this project about a year or so ago when she still worked for Comstock, so I spent some time greeting her old coworkers before Bryan and I decided to take a look at the Viva (one of the four styles at Springville {Aire, Viva, Brisa, and Sol}) models for a minute. At 10:00, we headed to the construction site for the framewalk. On a framewalk everyone involved in the architecture, construction, planning, design, and selling of the house  get together to walk through the wooden frame of the house and make any and all necessary changes before the house is finished. Because the Aires are townhomes we actually walked through six homes all in one building. Pretty much everyone was there; David (the CEO), Don (head of Sales), Troy (Purchasing), Sally (Purchasing), Jeff (head of Purchasing), Pete (head of Construction), Harriet (Project Manager), Bryan (Property Management), Eddy (project superintendent), Juan (construction), Lisa (Sales), the architect, the structural engineer, the interior designer, the electrician, and the plumber. The framewalk lasted about two hours and I managed to snag a copy of the architectural plans for three of the floor plans. Afterwards, Lisa, one my mom’s old coworkers, offered me a ride to the construction trailer for lunch, before I met back up with Bryan (who left the framewalk early to pay some fees to the local high school) for the sales meeting at 1:00. The sales meeting was rather quick, it only lasted a half hour. In it, the sales team (Lisa and Roxy today) simply gave us a status report on all the homes in the Springville project that were available, pending or sold. We discussed a little about the schedule of construction, when construction on new phases would begin, and the status of construction on existing phases. After that, Bryan and I took off to run some errands, pay some fees and pull some permits. This is where the fun begins.

Our first stop was the Fire Department around 2:00. We needed to pay the standard fees to the department to cover some costs on their end concerning new construction (input of new fire hydrants, updating their systems with the new addresses, etc.). We initially came to pay the fees for Aire phase 5, Sol phase 7, and the Aire pool building. However, the Fire Dept. didn’t have the necessary documentation ready for Sol phase 7, and we weren’t able to pay the fees at that time. This also meant that when it came time to pull the permits at the Camarillo City Hall later that day, we wouldn’t be able to get permits for Sol phase 7 because we hadn’t paid the Fire Dept. fees yet. That was a minor setback, but we continued on to the Pleasant Valley School District to pay some fees there. Not even Bryan knows what these fees are for or what the school district does with the money. All he knows is that Comstock has to pay them, and it’s about $10k per unit. Two phases are about 14 units, so Bryan dropped off a pretty hefty check, more money than I’ve held in my entire life. Lastly we made our way to City Hall (stopping by one of Bryan’s favorite fresh fruit stands on the way) to pay more fees and pull some permits. At City Hall, we ran into some trouble getting the zoning clearances for Sol phase 7 because apparently, the pad didn’t pass inspection for the second time. Bryan made a note to schedule yet another inspection and talk to Eddy, the superintendent for Springville, to make the lot passes inspection this time. Nevertheless, we moved forward with Aire phase 5 and the pool building, paying the fees for air quality, more fire department fees, more school fees, and the zoning clearances. Everything was going quite swimmingly until it came time to pull permits. We were able to get all of the permits for the six homes in Aire phase 5 with no problem, but when it came to the pool building, Anthony (from city hall) began to give us some trouble.

The pool building permits were paid for 6 months ago (December), but we didn’t pull permits then because we wanted to trench the pool building with phase 5 and if we pulled permits in December they would’ve expired by now. So now we come to pull permits and the city says that all the necessary approvals for the pool building are not showing up in the system (it’s been approved for 6 months…). Furthermore, now they can’t find the architectural plans for the pool building. We have two permit numbers concerning the pool building: one for the entire Aire project, and another permit number specifically for the pool building. For the first one, Anthony says that they can’t find the architectural plans (that they’ve had for six months) and without the architectural plans he can’t bring up the file. For the second permit number, Anthony tries to tell us that those architectural plans don’t exist. He says if they can’t find the plans, then he doesn’t feel comfortable pulling the permits, even though Bryan has multiple email correspondences with Anthony’s boss (who just so happens to be on vacation right now) assuring Bryan that he’d be able to pull all of the permits today with no problem. We go back and forth like this for about an hour, until Anthony decides to call his boss, even though she’s on vacation, to discuss the situation with her. Long story short, she tells him to go ahead and pull the permits and that was that.

Now Aire phase 5 and the pool building are set to trench on Monday, the inspector will be back out to Sol phase 7 shortly, and hopefully it’ll pass this time (third time’s a charm). Overall, despite how long the day was (I ended up on the clock for about 10 hours), it was probably the best yet. It was great to get out of the office for a bit and see what goes on in the field. As Donna described it, the field is where all the fun stuff happens. Next week I’ll get to visit some of Comstock’s commercial properties, and I may go out to another residential project to tour the models. My last week is looking like it’ll be one of adventure.

Comstock Day 7 – Staff Meeting #2

As with every Tuesday, today started with another staff meeting. I did learn in this staff meeting that the retired lawyer experiencing troubles with Sunpower has unfortunately begun the cancellation process for his reservation of Unit 28 in the Springville community. On a separate note, the Los Carneros project is mostly on schedule except the Marisol homes won’t be energized until mid-late June, so those sales probably won’t close by the end of June like they’re scheduled. At the Citrus Junction site, some ADA accommodations need to be reconfigured on 11 units, but other than that the project is going well. At Springville, there’s been some trouble on deciding which floor plans to model for the Aire townhomes, but we have a framewalk on Thursday and then we can take a look at the site in person and make a better decision. Mission Oaks needs a creative design center so potential customers can look at the custom options for their yet-to-be-built homes, but aside from that construction is on track. Buildings 7, 12, 19, and 22 just began construction today.

There is some trouble at the Heritage Valley site. Pete, the head of construction, originally assumed that he didn’t have to provide ADA access to the Iron Horse models because the city of Camarillo didn’t require it at the Springville site. However, he received pushback from the city and now the city of Goleta wants to require ADA access for the models for the other half of the Heritage Valley site, the Oak Haven models. The problem here is that the model decorators are set to arrive on June 12, and construction hasn’t even poured the concrete slab yet because they don’t know if they need ADA ramps or not, and if they do have to supply ADA access, then that adds much more money to the budget that Hearthstone, the capital investor for this project, may not be willing to provide. Furthermore, the Iron Horse models are set to open on July 2, but the landscaping for the backyard definitely won’t be ready by then. Don, the head of sales, wants to delay the opening of the models because of this, but that would delay this already delayed project even more. So Pete wants to open the models without landscaping because their target customers in won’t care that much about the backyards anyway, and Iron Horse sales need to pick up if they hope to meet their sales goals set in the Business Plan. Right now we’re waiting on a quote for the total cost of the models before moving further, hopefully the city will provide some clarity on this ADA problem (because the city has no legal mandate or even a precedent, quite the contrary), and we can move forward with construction.

Day 6 – Comstock Annual Business Plan 2017

I began my day checking in with my mentor, Donna, and she ushered me into the office of the CEO, David, to listen in on another conference call. This time David was taking a call from Aaron Ingram, from the IT department at one of Comstock’s capital investment partners. Aaron was tasked with building a new program that Comstock could use to track the sales reports for all of their projects in one place, and now Aaron was ready to show it off. Aaron was able to cast his computer screen onto David’s monitor and walk us through using the new software. In his presentation, I learned that Aaron had actually already rolled out the program at the Springville site and the sales associates there were already using it. The software is designed to combine the functions of two programs that Comstock already uses to track sales(Sales Simplicity and Smart Sheets), and simplify the interface. Apparently this new software does its job well, because David ultimately gave Aaron the green light to begin rolling out this software at all of Comstock’s projects.

Afterwards, David took some time to show me Comstock’s 2017 Business Plan. While I am not permitted to share much of the contents of the plan with the public, I can share the company’s mission statement, goal, and primary drivers. Comstock primarily strives for high quality construction, high customer satisfaction, and high employee retention rate; and from my time working here, I can see the steps that the company takes to achieve those goals. After a short walkthrough of the business plan, David emailed the document to me so that I could take some time to look through it at my own pace. I spent most of my remaining time today looking at the business plan for the projects in Camarillo as I prepare for my framewalk on Thursday, can’t wait!

Day 2 – My First Staff Meeting

Every couple weeks, all of the project managers, the head of accounting, the head of construction, the CEO, the CFO, the COO, and the head of sales get together to discuss the status of each of Comstock’s ongoing projects, their progress, milestones, sales reports, setbacks, etc. It’s about 15 people in a room discussing everything from land acquisition, to development and construction, to sales, to HOAs. And after that, those 15 people take the desired paths drawn up in the meeting and delegate their one hundred employees to forge those paths.

On my second day, I had the privelege of being able to sit in on one of these meetings. The meeting began with an overview of the Company Calendar and an update on the progress of a new website template that Comstock plans to use for all of their project websites. After that, we moved on to status reports for all of the Southern California projects. While it would take too long detail the progress of each of Comstock’s five SoCal projects, we did spend an especially long time discussing one project in particular: the Springville site.

The sales team at Springville has hit an unusual dilemma. A retired lawyer has purchased one of their townhomes, and, in accordance with California Energy Code Title 24, the home must be equipped with solar panels. However, the purchase of solar panels are not included in the price of the home, and residents are required to lease them from Sunpower, a solar energy provider. The problem is that the lawyer wants to his lease as an LLC, and Sunpower is refusing to send the lease for signature because they want him to sign it as an individual. Apparently this is not Comstock’s first problem with Sunpower; previously they refused to send the lease because one buyer was not a US citizen, and another time Sunpower fought the leasing of the solar panels because it was the buyer’s second home, and not his primary residence.

Naturally, this problem had to be solved, because Comstock can’t sell the house without solar panels, lest they be in violation of Title 24. So came the brainstorming; the first idea was to include the solar panels as a purchase in the price of this man’s home. The only problem with that is that the man bought a townhome which is attached to other townhomes on both sides. This means that solar panels on his roof would come as cluster that covers the whole roof of multiple connected townhomes, not just his own. So it makes little sense to carve out a piece of that solar panel cluster and allow this man to own his own panels. Furthermore, if the man owns his panels outright, then he will be required to maintain his panels, whereas if they were leased, then the HOA would maintain his panels. So the staff moved to uncomplicate things, and see if Pete, the head of construction, could ask the Sunpower representative in Camarillo to make an exception. Sunpower has made exceptions before in the foreign buyer case and the second home case, so it shouldn’t be a stretch, but if they refuse this time, then Comstock will include the purchase of the panels in the price of the home along with a 10 year warranty so that if the buyer has any problems with his panels, then Sunpower will be required to maintain them at least for the next 10 years.

It was also decided that for future projects, Comstock may include solar panels in the price of the home. It seems that when the panels are required as a separate lease, many buyers become confused–about both the lease and the technology–and things can turn hostile. On the other hand, GE appliances are included in the price of the home and the buyers never complain about how much more money that adds to the price. So hopefully this move will alleviate some tension between Sunpower and potential homebuyers. I must say, despite the fact that meeting ran for three hours, it was very informative and interesting. It was fascinating to see how Comstock handles dilemmas like this one, and surprising to see that this one individual’s problem was discussed for upwards of 45 minutes. It’s refreshing to see the lengthsto which Comstock goes to satisfy their buyers, I can’t wait for the next staff meeting!

Day 1 – Custom Options and Model Specifications

Just my luck, it just so happens that on my first day, Sally Downard, the woman who manages buyer upgrades, custom options and model interior designs for all of Comstock’s residential projects, was training a new girl, Danielle, in Custom Options Change Reports so that Danielle could manage buyer upgrades for a project in Northern California. I was able to sit in on the tutorial and learned quite a bit about how Comstock handles buyer upgrades on home, how they complete sales contracts, and how they build, furnish, and design the model homes. In the next 4 hours, I received a quick introduction to the Sales SImplicity Software, used for seller to buyer relations; BuilderMT software, the purchasing software used to coordinate builder(construction crew) to seller(sales associates) to buyer relations. Garage Reports, a record of all custom options, buyer upgrades, and other specifications for each home; Change Orders, documentation for each change made to a purchase home, by the buyer;and Microsoft Paint, aka the poor man’s Photoshop according to Sally.

Overall, this was a very informative meeting. I’m set to go on a site walk at the Camarillo site (I believe that’s the site) so I can see the physical side of this. The garage reports and change orders are just pieces of paper. It’s not until the construction crew takes those documents and, like a chef reading off a recipe, builds the buyer’s dream house.