Published In May 2001
From Louisville, St. Louis, and Leavenworth, Kan., the three contractors profiled — this month and the following two months — are working to become even more lean and efficient. They’re including the Web in their plans, not because it’s “hot” or because of special product pricing, but because they think it will help! We’re in the process of coming full-circle in the use of the Web by electrical contractors. Where not too long ago ECs (and others in the construction business) were labeled as “backward” because they were not jumping on the Internet bandwagon, the subsequent elimination of many construction Web vendors has proved that initial delay to be savvy, not sad. But now we’re nearing the beginning of The Second Wave, if you will. EC recently interviewed executives from three large contracting firms: Capital Electric (Leavenworth, Kan.), Sachs Electric (St. Louis), and United Electric (Louisville). It’s apparent that—while not one of them is using the Web for much e-commerce or project collaboration at the moment—they are preparing, right now, to make the Web an important part of how they will conduct business in the future. Much of what these companies take for granted in 2001 might be forward-looking for some contractors. Sachs, for example, regularly uploads and downloads CAD drawings in working with architectural and engineering firms, and has for years; design/build work is a mainstay for the company. United uses digital cameras to take real-time photos of work in progress for a variety of reasons, including later analysis of how project scheduling can be improved. Capital downloads software updates regularly from GE on its MultiLin protective relays. The company programs the relays and makes use of the latest updates. Looking at the near-term and down the road, each company is pursuing different aspects of Web use, for reasons that differ with the company’s culture and its lines of business. What follow are salient details of the ways one industry-leading company thinks it can use the Web in 2001. Parts II and III of this article will profile two other companies for the same reason. Capital Electric: Down every avenue Capital Electric and its sister line company were recently sold to MDU Resources, an energy giant. But the company’s efforts to put the Web to work continue, according to Jim Berard, vice president of engineering and design/build. Capital’s efforts to stay on the cutting edge have including having a company presence in the audience at both the Forbes “E-Commerce Conference” in San Francisco in May 2000, and at EC’s “E-Business and E-Construction for Electrical Contractors” conference last fall in Tempe, Ariz. The company’s annual sales were given (by MDU in the recent press release on the acquisition) as $95 million. From what Berard said, the company has walked down many avenues of possible Web use. Here’s a look at where the company is finding success, and what it’s doing. Project management: The company is using a service from Constructw@re, the Web collaboration vendor. “We’re not using the collaboration tool, it’s actually a project management tool for subcontractors we’re using,” Berard revealed. “We’ve actually got the LAN product here. We bought one that we’ve been playing with. We’re looking at testing it with another four to six licenses, so we can see if we’re really happy with their functionality.” What is it? “It’s nothing more than a fancy way to get some directories on a server, and get some consistency in the way you file stuff,” Berard said. “We’re looking at a project management solution without really worrying about whether the big hitters decide that Buzzsaw or Citadon or one of the others is the answer [for project collaboration].” On the subject of these project collaboration sites, Capital has worked with “most of them,” Berard said. “I’m not too concerned about what direction the primes decide to go. I’m really interested in where we as a company, ourselves, can go.” Remote access: “We’re looking at using the Net for a Virtual Private Network (VPN). We’ve implemented VPN here on our server, and we’re looking at a wireless system. You can throw a StarBand antenna, from Radio Shack, on top of your job site trailer, as long as you have exposure to the Southern sky. “We would use VPN technology, with some encoding involved,” continued Berard, “and, in that job site trailer, you would be connected to the local Capital server. You’d be in the trailer, but it would be just as if you were here in the building, on the local LAN.” Online ordering: The company uses one electrical distributor serving Capital—Western Extralite—for online ordering because “It is still easier, quite honestly, to pick up the phone and talk to them,” Berard said. “But if you realize on Sunday night that there are some things you need on a job site Monday morning, you can order—they have people there 24 x 7, and it’ll be there Monday morning.” According to Berard, the amount of Web ordering is very limited—spot items, odds and ends—certainly no more than 1 percent (perhaps less) of what Capital buys. Procurement: “I’ve found the Trade-Power people interesting. I like the architecture of what they are trying to do. I like the fact that [in the TradePower.com system], I’m using local vendors,” Berard said. Other uses: Capital Electric relies upon iTravel.com for its travel arrangements. Company executives like it, Berard notes, “because you can set up a company profile, under which, for example, you ought to be looking for the lowest price. This is a set of rules to be followed. It allows us have a preferred car rental vendor.” Among other benefits iTravel.com offers, Berard said, is a “digital dollars” arrangement, which resembles the frequent flyer miles program. Capital allows its employees to keep these ancillary benefits personally, and use them for vacation travel. Another aspect he likes: if you’re traveling on Thursday to Atlanta, the system automatically e-mails you on Wednesday—with the Atlanta weather report. Futureware: Capital uses Computer Guidance Corp.’s software for its back-end accounting. Here’s where what’s offered misses the boat so far. “I haven’t seen it offered yet. What we need is a back-door hook into the CGC system,” Berard envisions. “If I generate a purchasing order via a system, I would like it to populate the same fields in the CGC system. That way, I would have entered it once, sent it out to bid, and gotten it back automatically. I would have selected somebody, told them when and where to deliver it—and, by interfacing with the CGC system, it would go straight into our job cost records.” This is the first of three articles that discuss electrical contractors’ Web use. Sachs Electric will discuss its plans in the second article and United Electric will do so in the third and final installment. SALIMANDO is the proprietor of EFJ Enterprises and a contributing editor to Electrical Contractor, specializing in electrical, voice/data/video construction and integrated technology issues. He can be reached by e-mail at JSALI@cris.com.