One Florida specialty contractor has seen firsthand the challenges in making information technology management a corporate priority. But executives say that the gain has been well worth the pain.

WIRED IN Speciality contractor's president Dillard (right) reviews project plan. (Photo courtesy of MSI-Encompass)

MSI-Encompass, formerly Mechanical Systems Inc., Orlando, began a deliberate effort several years ago to boost its IT savvy. "About eight years ago, our company was basically computer illiterate," says Roger Scherer, a senior project manager.

MSI founder and President William M. Dillard, who initiated the IT revamp, says improved technology is helping his company stay competitive. "Typically, our projects are much faster than they used to be," he says.

The IT surge coincides with rapid growth for MSI, which specializes in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, plumbing, electrical systems and building maintenance services. The company grew from $28 million to $38 million in revenue between 1997 and 1999. That year, it was also acquired by Houston-based Encompass Services Corp., a nearly $4-billion specialty contractor. Dillard says Encompass invests close to $25 million annually in its own IT management.

To start pushing the IT envelope, MSI hired Paul Turner, a former systems engineer with software developer Symantec Corp., as its corporate manager. Turner says he found a patchwork of existing systems, but also an environment open to sweeping changes. MSI moved from a Unix-based system for accounting and office applications to a Windows NT server-based system in 1996. "We then had the technology in place to grow," he says.

Project management and document control had previously been handled using disparate systems. MSI implemented Prolog from Meridian Project Systems company-wide. It was supplemented by Primavera Project Planner and Microsoft Project for scheduling. Estimation Inc. software is used for cost estimating. Microsoft Office is used for word processing, spreadsheet and database applications, and Autodesk Inc.'s AutoCAD for shop drawings. "Standardization is key," says Turner. "There were too many different systems in place, and that doesn't lend itself to data sharing."

When off-the-shelf software doesn't work, MSI builds custom applications in-house. Using programming tools built into Microsoft Office products, Scherer has developed macros that help track rental equipment and employee assignments the way the company prefers. "It's usually faster for me to develop a custom database than to teach someone in the field to use another system," he says.

Project manager Michelle Tappouni says custom applications have streamlined equipment and personnel management. "We had supervisors who were not tracking rental equipment properly," she says. "Now, when they order, it's tracked in the database." Custom macros also track employee assignments and skill levels. "We then have a ready database when we want to build a crew," says Scherer.

PUSH Turner recognized MSI's IT systems. (Photo courtesy of MSI-Encompass)

Using a combination of in-house and off-the-shelf software, MSI reaped the benefits on its work at Orlando Sea World's 32-acre Discovery Cove project. "We had over 150,000 man-hours in 16 months," says Scherer. "We were never off by more than two to three people" in projections, out of a staff that sometimes reached 90 employees, about 25% of its work force.

Like other contractors, MSI works on numerous jobsites simultaneously and needs to exchange information quickly and often. To accommodate that, it has been adding more portable computing devices in the field. About 25% of superintendents now use laptops, and service technicians are beginning to use personal digital assistants to manage contact and equipment information. PDAs are being used as stand-alone units and are not yet configured to communicate with the network or other MSI computers, says Turner.

But laptops and other field computers are being linked to the network to share programs and data. Using MetaFrame from Citrix Systems Inc., MSI sets up field computers to run selected programs hosted at the company's main office via the Internet. "It allows anyone with computer access to access a server-based application across the Internet or a wide-area network," says Turner. Wireless applications may be on the horizon at MSI, but it has yet to deploy anything officially. "The concept is great, but the technology is not quite there yet," says Dillard, pointing to occasionally corrupt data transmissions.

Like other contractors, MSI has delved deeper into project Websites. It built one for the Discovery Cove project but more often participates on sites maintained by general contractors. "In the future, I see project Websites becoming more of an integral part of the construction process," Dillard says. While MSI's top executive remains cautious about his technology forays and prefers "to stay next to the bleeding edge," he also understands the risks of not keeping up with change. "There's always a battle of getting the dinosaurs over the hump," Dillard notes. "But it's difficult to survive if you don't get over the hump."