...differentiate within Tier 2 companies, he says, are the development platform; product maturity; functionality; the ability to handle complex, multistate union payrolls; the availability of an equipment application and integration with a sophisticated project-management tool.

The difference between Tier 1 and Tier 2 further blurs as the software’s underlying technology ages and its market share goes down. While many vendors offer point-specific solutions and bridges to various business functions, clients are asking questions of ERP offerings: Will the system rise to the demand for real-time information? Can it adapt without significant redevelopment to meet ever-changing needs?

Some companies decide to just keep on the same path; others decide they can’t afford to wait to strengthen the data-management backbone of their organization.

The first hurdle is the marketplace: There are an enormous number of options available to construction-industry users. Approaching the process of selecting an ERP system and converting operations is a daunting task. But interviews with decision-makers at companies that recently have navigated the process suggest it doesn’t have to be one of those too-painful tasks that always gets put off for another year.

Still Not Easy

“Anybody should flinch when approaching this topic,” says Tom Garrett, vice president and CIO at Brasfield & Gorrie LLC, a general contractor in Birmingham, Ala., with 2009 revenue of $1.9 billion. Garrett said the company decided it was outgrowing its Computer Guidance Corp. system a few years ago and began to study its options.

“The real decision is that you have to decide what you want and then figure out whether you can afford it,” Garrett says. The company spent two years researching and eventually cut its short list down to two: JD Edwards and CMiC.

“CMiC did a demo and blew everybody out of the water. If we had voted right then, we would have gone with it. But as we got deeper, our team did a wise thing: Each of the groups that had input—accounting, payroll, HR, project management—prepared white papers. They said, ‘This is our preference and why. We could live with the other one, but there will be the following shortcomings … ’ ” The exceptions were so significant that “they turned the ship,” Garrett says.

Following up on the vendors’ customer references also proved valuable, although all loved the products they had—“predictably,” laughs Garrett. CMiC customers were very focused on their construction and did not want to support heavy IT staffing. JD Edwards users cited their work with owners who require specialized data-report formats that could best be served by tailoring the system. “In those cases, each company had a large IT department,” says Garrett.

That is the way Brasfield & Gorrie works as well, Garrett adds. “We are accustomed to giving our customers what they want. We have unique requirements, and we have some special things that we have to be able to do. The only way [to do them] is to have a package that will let us do those things.”

Implementation took 18 months and was done in two phases, with the general- ledger function going live on Jan. 1, 2009. “Five months later we did everything else, including a very tight integration with [Meridian] Prolog [project-management system].”

“It was a hard road and a lot of work, but at end of the day we are very happy,” Garrett says. “The cost to implement was pretty steep. It’s not a decision you take lightly. Whatever the cost of the software, the true cost is double that,” he says. With normal maintenance fees of about 20% a year, he says, “you buy it twice in five years.”

For the firm, there was one other benefit no one expected: The process of analyzing product pros and cons gave everyone involved a better sense of the larger corporate purpose, he says.

Patchwork Quilts

Another large construction firm, Webcor, San Mateo, Calif., with revenue of $1.4 billion last year, went down a very similar path, but its decision broke the other way. It selected the relatively “out of the box” CMiC package over either of Oracle’s ERP offerings, Oracle Business Suite or JD Edwards Enterprise One.

Gregg Davis, senior vice president and CIO, says the company started going live with the new system in November 2009, replacing a “patchwork quilt” of programs, databases, links and bridges. “There were a lot of puzzle pieces in...