“We wanted to streamline the number of programs and eliminate multiple entries into different programs. We wanted a product that everyone in the company could use, from management to accounting to the project managers and purchasing staff. A fully integrated system means everyone has access to the information they need and it resides in the same place.”

-Cathleen A. Coonan, controller at NECA-member Coghlin Electrical Contractors Inc. in Worcester, Mass.

IT IS THE START OF A NEW YEAR, and if your company's software scenario resembles Coghlin's, it could be time to reevaluate your company's technology direction and the new software products rolling out in 2005.

You may find that reviewing your information technology options can be overwhelming. Estimating software, often the first remedy to be researched, offers a growing field of choices. There are separate software programs service managers can use to track tools and vehicle usage. Other individual programs are designed to handle project management or change orders, while more focus solely on accounting functions.

But it may be best to buy one package that coordinates all business functions. Over the past three years, as contractors have experienced tighter profit margins and developed more cost controls, fully integrated software manufacturers have responded by combining the operations side of the business with the financial systems.

But there is still some resistance, Courtney Stearns, sales manager for Timberline Office said. Electrical contractors tend to be more sophisticated than many other trades and many have been disappointed at the difference between what they heard their software salesperson say and the practical implementation of the software systems they own. Successful implementation of a comprehensive software package is hugely beneficial for electrical contractors, but the implementation is often painful because it forces one to look at the systems and procedures of the company.

“It's easy to say, 'Look at all the money we're leaving on the table, we need to fix this.' But the systematic process of implementation that requires one to objectively review each component of the operation and then apply the best system to it can be daunting,” Stearns wrote in an e-mail. “Fortunately, software manufacturers with robust, well-trained implementation consulting channels can turn these intimidating challenges into very profitable opportunities.”

Whole-house productivity

Depending on the system, fully integrated construction management software generally combines job costing, project management, human resources, document imaging, purchasing and service management with accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll and general ledger.

A driving factor in the growth of fully integrated software has been the overall acceptance of standalone software programs. Data from the 2004 Profile of the Electrical Contractor shows estimating software use is up from 54 percent to 70 percent. Job-cost control and analysis use increased 20 percent and CAD use doubled to 40 percent.

Although integration has been an industry buzzword for at least two decades, it has become a tangible solution that industry sources say provides a competitive edge.

According to Brad Mathews, vice president of sales and marketing at Seattle-based Dexter + Chaney, there can be measurable profitability and productivity gains as a result of integrating project management and service functions with the main accounting systems.

“An integrated software system eliminates the need for duplicate data entry by multiple staff. We've had clients tell us that using Forefront has allowed them to grow their companies up to 300 percent without adding accounting staff,” Mathews said.

Coghlin's Coonan points out that project managers have current pricing and job costs at their fingertips, as well as an electronic filing system for accounting functions through Forefront Construction Management Software.

“The reduction in paper flow alone, with the use of Forefront's document-imaging program, has reduced our overhead and made us more efficient. It's been the most beneficial feature for our company to date,” she said.

For Giovanni Marcelli, president and CEO of Accubid, the elimination of repetitive data entry is a key benefit of software. Accubid, which began as an estimating software company in 1983, last year bought Sellect, a Denver-based provider of CAD add-on software for electrical contractors. Accubid has plans to develop and release a new version of Sellect's cadTakeOff product under its brand. Last year it also acquired ConstructJob, a Web-based project management software system.

In an e-mail, Marcelli wrote that Accubid is developing an enterprise system that allows seamless integration with its estimating and project management products and accounting systems.

A fully integrated system, Marcelli wrote, will substantially reduce or eliminate duplication or replication, minimize errors and provide efficiency as well as expediency.

“Because it will clearly define the business model used and the data flow between the various systems hence causing each team to procure and use the required data consistently,” he wrote. “It is like having a mechanism with many wheels in motion, the wheels are forced to work in synchronism and play their respective roles.”

New introductions for resolutions

In 2005, you can expect fully integrated software programs to offer an enhanced modular structure, more interactivity and seamless integration points.

Intuit Construction Business Solutions announced several new enhancements to the recent release of its Master Builder Version 10 software. Master Builder entered the market in 1980 with contractor Dan Smith's early designs. Despite Smith's retirement last year, Intuit has increased its product development staff and continues to link estimating, productivity, accounting, job analysis and client tracking.

According to Intuit's Robert Intersimone, senior industry adviser, there are improvements to export capabilities for reports, quick grids, and “Find” queries that can transfer to Microsoft Excel. It is also possible to export estimating notes entered in the takeoff to other Master Builder modules such as purchase orders.

Additionally, the updated Master Builder Version 10 allows users to create GAAP-based financial statements and copy their defaults to other users. Building on Intuit's QuickBooks family, a data conversion service has also been added to speed up the data migration from QuickBooks: Standard and Contractor Editions to Master Builder.

Intersimone believes one of Master Builder's best features is its open interface that allows third-party products to “plug in” to Master Builder.

“The fully integrated concept is being expanded to include integration with extremely specialized, niche software and systems from other vendors,” said Intersimone.

More than 30 third-party vendors offer functions from customer relationship management, document imaging and specialized estimating to wireless and mobility transactions and Web-based project management.

Intersimone also sees distributed computing as a future integrated-product focus to meet an ongoing need of electrical contractors.

“Construction companies are seeking to extend the office data-sharing network into the field via remote computers, PDAs and phones. One of the biggest bottlenecks in data management is receiving and submitting field information to the central office.”

Users can now e-mail and fax directly from Master Builder to clients, vendors or employees. Several third-party vendors have extended this capability to PDAs and cell phones.

Dexter + Chaney plans to release Version 12 of its Forefront Construction Management Software this year. Since 1981, when Dexter + Chaney technology was first introduced on a UNIX platform, it has evolved to DOS, Windows and now Structured Query Language (SQL).

As part of their standard maintenance contract, users will automatically receive the new platform and enhancements that include more than 20 new security features focusing on password management tasks. Dexter + Chaney also engineered Version 12 to incorporate new report filters that provide customer report views and date-sensitive information.

Also with Version 12, Dexter + Chaney will introduce Forefront Web Portal and Forefront Tasks. To enhance Forefront's accounting, operations and human resources functions, more than 10 Web Portal applications are planned for release. Initial functionality, Mathews said, will include customer service access and payroll timecard entry.

Forefront Tasks gives users the ability to create to-do lists and schedule automatic reminders. Users will be able to actually execute the task at hand from the reminder. For example, if reminded to run a weekly aging report, a simple click will generate that report.

As Mathews looks into the near future, he said the company will focus on expanding its existing remote computing options over the next year. “Contractors want more ways to enter data using portable devices from remote locations-such as satellite offices, job sites, home offices and service trucks-and have that data synchronize with the main office system.”

Coonan agreed that Coghlin's profitability was compromised in the past when information had to be faxed or hand-delivered to the job site. Established in 1885, Coghlin Electrical Contractors has several on-site offices and two satellite locations.

“Forefront is run at these sites with the same functionality and speed as in our home office, providing all with fast access to job information. Today, project staff on the job site can obtain their own information. Invoices can be approved on the job using the AP invoice approval routing system integrated within Forefront,” said Coonan.

ConEst, probably best known for its family of IntelliBid estimating tools, also offers a software suite that includes bid management, project management, time and material billing, electrical formulas and permit fees. The New Hampshire-based company's tools can be incorporated as standalone programs or integrated together.

ConEst President George Hague said future development of fully integrated software will meet multiple needs in the field. “Job site estimating, purchase orders and project management are ongoing needs; however, the technology is headed toward Web-based applications that share and store data,” said Hague.

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached via e-mail at mcclung@lisco.com.