Troy Sympson

Friday, 25 September 2009 20:00

Securing your systems

Electronic fraud can pose a substantial risk to any company. It can result in the theft of proprietary data and customer information, trade secrets, R&D data and strategic plans. Unauthorized access to proprietary or sensitive information can have a significantly negative impact on a company’s reputation and could, in the worst scenario, result in the demise of the firm.

As a result, it is imperative that every company has proper fraud controls in place, as more and more criminals are setting up shop, looking to take whatever they can from you, your business, your customers and your employees.

“Don’t guess. If you’re not 100 percent sure that your company’s computer systems are safe, then you’re at risk,” says Jeff Rolph, security director for First Place Bank. “There are a lot of fraud prevention resources that companies can call upon for advice and assistance, so there is no excuse for not having the appropriate fraud prevention controls in place.”

Smart Business spoke with Rolph about fraud, how it happens and what you can do to prevent it.

How can a company fall victim to fraud?

Loss due to electronic fraud most commonly occurs when a company doesn’t have adequate controls over its computer systems. You need controls to monitor, detect and prevent unauthorized access to your system(s) and data from outside of the company, as well as from inside (employees). Malware, for example, can infect your system with a virus that can corrupt your system, steal data, disrupt operations, etc.

With the proliferation of PCs, both in the business and home, companies now have to protect themselves from electronic attack. These attacks can take many forms including phishing, vishing (voice phishing), pharming, Web site attacks or spam e-mails with attached viruses.

What should executives do if they discover fraud?

First, and most important, take a look at the type of loss or fraud that was perpetrated and attempt to determine what, if any, internal or external systems were compromised. Preserve any evidence that you discover during your investigation such as access logs, server logs, e-mails, electronic journals, etc. These documents or electronic data will be invaluable to any law enforcement agency that may investigate your incident. If you believe that some type of malware was utilized, do a complete sweep of your servers and computers. Conduct a full search-and-destroy mission to eliminate anything that shouldn’t be on your system.

If you do not have the capability to do this in-house, utilize the services of a professional computer forensics company. Do not be afraid to ask for assistance from a professional, as these types of attacks can be very fast and expensive and can reoccur if not handled appropriately.

Once you’ve determined how it happened and you have taken the appropriate steps to prevent further access or damage, inform your local, county, state or a federal law enforcement agency. You should also contact your insurance company. It is important that you review what if any insurance coverage you may or may not have before you have an incident to update and/or add coverage for computer-based fraud or damage.

What are the best practices for preventing fraud?

Steps for preventing computer-based fraud include having adequate firewall protection, multifactor authentication, credentialing, blocking access to USB ports or other drives, forced password formatting (e.g. use of upper/lower case alpha characters, symbols, minimum password length and numerics), data transmission encryption, and blocked access to certain Web sites. Employees should be informed about the damage that can be done by opening unsolicited e-mails/attachments or loading software programs brought in from the outside.

If your firm does not have a professional certified computer forensics expert on staff, consider hiring an outside firm to conduct penetration testing and to review access levels to your systems (internal/external), what protections you have in place and what you might want to consider implementing. To find a reputable company or expert, talk with peers, professional or trade associations, your insurance carrier, legal adviser or attorney, etc. for insight or recommendations.

Validate your selection of a professional firm or individual by checking references and verifying credentials. Are they respected in the industry? Be careful, because, in order to adequately review your system, they will need complete access. A confidentiality agreement should also be used to protect you and the firm or individual you are utilizing.

Even if you have your system tightly controlled, information can be compromised by your employees. Individuals can contact your employees, trying to draw information out of them. Human nature and customer service usually result in your employees wanting to help out a caller; this can result in sensitive information being inadvertently provided to the caller.

This type of scheme is called ‘social engineering’ and is used to steal information from companies. Educate your employees on what information should and shouldn’t be disclosed over the phone, e-mail or fax. Have them report any unusual activity to their manager or to an anonymous hot line.

How can a bank help with fraud protection?

If fraud involves the theft of financial assets from your accounts, contact your bank immediately. The bank has the ability to block or restrict access to your accounts and services quickly. The bank may also be able to help you assess how the fraud happened and supply detailed records concerning your account activity, account access, etc. The bank will also cooperate with any law enforcement agency that you may contact to investigate the fraud.

Jeff Rolph is security director for First Place Bank. Reach him at JRolph@fpfc.net.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009 20:00

You have alternatives

The billable hour is the most common way attorneys are paid, particularly on the defense side. Often on the plaintiff side, there’s a contingency relationship where the attorney fees aren’t paid until there is a recovery, at which point the attorney gets a percentage of the recovery.

While the billable hour is the most common aspect of the attorney/client relationship, it’s not the only option, and many times it’s not the best option. If your attorney isn’t offering you alternative billing methods, you need to ask him or her about them, as they can be huge savers of time, money and hassle.

“In this economy and as the business world continues to evolve, law firms and clients are looking at different relationships,” says Peter B. Maretz, a shareholder with Shea Stokes Roberts & Wagner. “Alternative billing methods are great ways to both save money and enhance the relationships you have with your attorneys.”

Smart Business spoke with Maretz about different billing methods and how to choose which method is right for you.

What are some alternative billing methods?

The most common alternative billing method is the flat fee retainer, where you would pay a monthly fee to have the ability to pick up the phone and call your lawyer at any time without having the meter running.

The retainer works great in some contexts, but not as well in others. For example, if you often deal with labor and employment issues — which many companies do on a day-to-day basis — you’ll want to be able to get legal advice on a moment’s notice. You never want to be afraid to call your attorney when difficult HR decisions come up, so a retainer is effective to combat that. Consider also a modified retainer with a lower flat fee for a set number of hours, and a special rate for time in excess of the set amount. Other alternative billing methods include:

  • Task-based billing. This is where you pay a certain amount for certain services, e.g., for this motion you pay this much or you pay this amount for these depositions.
  • Phase-based billing. This is where you pay for legal services as you go along. You’ll pay a set fee to get through discovery, then another set fee to get thorough trial, and so on.
  • Flat fee billing. You simply pay one fee to have the attorney defend your case.
  • Hybrid billing. This is a combination of the billable hour plus a bonus based on success and/or early resolution.

What makes one alternative method better than another?

Choosing which billing method to use really depends on the context of the case, what your needs are and how much risk you and your attorneys are willing to take on.

Any of these relationships can be successful if they’re properly executed. The key is having an attorney that will thoroughly investigate your claim and devise strategic tactics to get you the result you desire. You have to have a plan and you need to start planning from the get-go. You and your attorney need to work together closely at the outset to determine, with as much precision as possible, what the demands of the case are given the claims made, the laws sued under, the court in which the case is filed, the tendencies of your judge, the practices of the plaintiff’s attorneys and so on, so you both know what is expected and what will be required to win the case. It’s like constructing a building. If you want to build an apartment complex, you don’t just hire a contractor, then tell him to build the building and call you when it’s done. That’s an absurd example, but it’s often how lawsuits are run.

Regardless of how you’re billed, early and aggressive planning of the strategies and tactics is critical to the success of the relationship with your lawyer. If you have a legal team (of which you, the client, are a vital member) that does its homework and takes the time to investigate and plan the case — from start to finish — the better your relationship will be and the more success you’ll have with your case.

Is the billable hour ever the way to go?

The downside of the billable hour is that the attorney is theoretically encouraged to bill you for as many hours as possible. And, of course, you want to be billed for as few hours as possible. Obviously, there are controls for that, including detailed, descriptive billing, but there is always that concern that the billable hour leads to cost overruns. But, the flip side of that is other abuses. For instance, say you’re in a flat fee relationship and the attorney lowballs you from the start just to secure your business. If the legal fees begin to add up and the attorneys see that they’re in over their heads, they may not do all that’s necessary to win the case.

Bottom line, the billable hour is not the villain, but more the symptom of improper planning. Proper planning can make any billing method viable.

Peter B. Maretz is a shareholder with Shea Stokes Roberts & Wagner. He regularly advises businesses on all aspects of employment law. Reach him at pmaretz@sheastokes.com or (619) 237-0909.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009 20:00

Time to buy

Businesses today have the opportunity to create value by becoming owners of real property. Right now, real estate prices are down about 20 to 30 percent, depending on the market, from the peak in 2007. Local banks are in the market to lend, and those with solid businesses can get near record-low interest rates.

It is likely that prices will begin to rise again at the end of 2010, given the constraints on office space and the lack of development that now exists.

“Projections are showing that the Fed will raise rates some time in 2010 to stave off inflation,” says Chris Dray, senior vice president of Investment Services for Moody Rambin Interests. “There are few times in life that all the right components intersect to create a ‘golden opportunity,’ and now is that time.”

Now is the time to buy an office building, but how do you take advantage of this market?

Smart Business spoke with Dray about current and future market conditions and why now is the time to buy.

If I want to buy an office building, where do I begin?

You have to ask yourself certain questions. When do you need the space? How much space do you need? How will you deal with growth or contraction? In what part of town are your clients and employees? How much are you paying now and what can you afford? How will you manage the property? What type of property will you need — Class A or B, traditional layout or open space, etc.?

Is it better to buy an existing building or build new?

When you buy an existing building, you’re generally purchasing the property at a discount to the cost of building. It could cost $100 to $150 more per square foot if you build rather than buy. But, if you own land, have a specialty business and/or have special needs, you’re going to want and/or need a customized building. Determine the selling prices for properties on the market plus the cost to customize and compare to the cost to build a specialized building. Making major interior layout changes will mitigate the value of buying an existing property. But for 85 percent of typical office users, buying an existing building and making minor changes to the layout is the better financial answer.

What are the pros and cons of a single-use or multi-tenant building?

A single-use building means that you are the only tenant. You control the property, its maintenance, upkeep, look and feel. Management is simple because you don’t have to deal with anyone else. But, this also means that you are carrying the full burden.

In a multi-tenant property, you’ll have other tenants to share in the costs of running the property and in paying off the property. However, it also means that you are not only an owner but also a landlord. You have to take care of every tenant’s needs and wants, which can be daunting. Plus, the larger the property, the greater the capital costs are for tenant turnovers and maintenance.

How can working with a commercial real estate broker add value to this process?

First off, you have to find a broker that has financial modeling expertise and a thorough understanding of current market trends. It also helps if your broker has knowledge of the acquisition process and can connect you with certain perks like off-market deals, third-party groups to assist with the inspections, legal counsel referrals, financial contacts, etc. Furthermore, contract negotiations are a sticking point in many deals. Getting to the finish line requires a strong and balanced legal mind paired with a broker who can communicate the deal points to both parties and keep the groups focused on getting the transaction closed.

A knowledgeable broker adds tremendous value. There’s a lot of chaos in the real estate market right now. A savvy broker can help you navigate these turbulent waters. By thoroughly inspecting and researching all the properties in your area, you’ll have a realistic idea of exactly what you’re getting into. Having an advocate that has been through this process means that you will have the peace of mind that you’ve done it right.

What are the consequences of not buying right now?

As previously stated, interest rates are near record lows right now, but they’re expected to go up sooner rather than later. Those selling office buildings today need to sell. Also, there are SBA loans out there, but those stimulus dollars will only be around for the next 12 to 18 months.

At the end of the day, if you don’t buy a property and you keep leasing, you won’t capitalize on your ability to create further value in your business. Owning property is not only an inflation hedge for your business, it’s also an investment vehicle for the owners. You can use your business rent to pay down your note, while at the same time get the benefits of property appreciation, diversification of holdings, leverage and depreciation — the biggest tax benefit available. So when you sell the business, the property can become your retirement vehicle.

Chris Dray is the senior vice president of Investment Services for Moody Rambin Interests. Reach him at (713) 773-5528 or cdray@moodyrambinint.com.

Sunday, 26 July 2009 20:00

Owner opportunities

While the marketplace is more competitive right now, there are still deals out there, and building owners are making them. In fact, says Mark Preston, the senior vice president of owner representation for Moody Rambin Interests, the market is stabilizing.

“This time around, in 2009, we are not oversupplying the market with space, and we are not seeing anything out of proportion with sublease space. We are also not seeing the massive layoffs that would cause the slackened demand that occurred in the ’80s,” Preston says. “There is uncertainty right now, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Smart Business spoke with Preston about commercial real estate ownership, today’s office market and how you, as an owner, can leverage market conditions to your advantage.

How do frequent changes in ownership affect commercial property tenants?

It’s a mixed bag; there are pros and cons to changes in ownership. Often, it leads to an improvement. In a declining market like today, many owners have faced difficulties, and when they became strapped for cash and/or were unable to refinance, tenant services tended to fall off. Perhaps the landlord cut back on 24-7 security or got rid of the porter who cleaned up around the properties during the day. In these cases, if the new owner has stronger financials and better access to cash, this can work to the advantage of the tenants and the building itself.

A change in ownership can have an adverse effect when the tenant/landlord relationship has to be re-established and new lines of communication have to be opened. Whatever rapport was there before is gone when a new owner comes in. And, that’s a big negative. That rapport, that sense of stability, is what tenants are looking for. If the tenants see a lot of change, then they’re going to be wary about receiving quality service.

Will new developments have an impact on the office market?

In Houston, you’re looking at a 200-million-square-foot market. The deliverables amount to 10 to 12 million square feet, so that’s only a 5 to 8 percent increase in overall market inventory. That is very manageable from both an owner standpoint and a tenant/user standpoint. A lot of those deliverables are being erased, so the marketplace is not being upset, it’s being stabilized.

This is not going to soften the marketplace, no matter what. Even if everything were delivered on the same day, at the same time, and were delivered at spec and vacant — which is the worst possible outcome you could have — the market would only be softened by 5 to 8 percent. With current levels of occupancy being at 82 percent overall, that is not unmanageable.

How can skilled real estate consultants help owners leverage the changes?

Experience is the key element. You want to partner with a senior leasing agent who has been through soft markets similar or worse than the one we’re in today. A quality agent will bring insight to the table with respect to when and where to make concessions and when and where to lower rates in a declining market. Most astute owners learned a long time ago that it’s better to both lead a market up and to lead a market down. If you try to resist the downward turn, you’ll find yourself in more trouble.

Don’t think you can wait for the market to recover. If you resist the market shift, you’ll tend to lose more money, earn less money, see higher vacancies and lose more renewals. This is the key factor you want in your real estate consultants — a good owner rep won’t be afraid to offend the owner and recommend change. Usually, if you resist change, it’ll end up costing you more.

What are some of the challenges facing owners in today’s office market?

Clearly, this is a market with a high degree of fluidity and uncertainty, so there is every reason to shift your emphasis to gathering occupancy rather than forcing rates up. It’s a given that rates will suffer. That’s the biggest challenge. Make concessions, agree to flexible lease terms — do whatever it takes to hold on to your tenant base. Losing your tenants is the absolute worst thing you can do.

How does today’s office market compare to past soft markets?

Today’s market is nothing like the disasters of the 1980s in Houston. From 1980 to 1990, Houston built 60 percent of the city’s current inventory. The deliverables were massive and that had a huge impact on rates. Vacancy rates in the city skyrocketed, caused by the combination of overbuilding and slackened demand (due to single digit barrel prices and sub $2 per MCF natural gas). We are dealing with slackened demand today, but not oversupply as a coincident occurrence.

It’s interesting to note that no one came to Houston’s aid with federal money back then. There were no bailouts. At the time, Houston was going through a depression while the rest of the country was booming. Since gas prices and airfares were so low, nobody cared about the Houston economy. But, if what happened then happened today, it would be a loss comparable to GM.

Mark Preston is the senior vice president of owner representation for Moody Rambin Interests. Reach him at (713) 773-5590 or mpreston@moodyrambinint.com.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Manageable services

It’s no secret that the current economy is forcing companies to find ways to save money. It’s also no secret that technology — and your IT department — is more important now than ever, thanks to an
ever-evolving e-business world. Making sure your company’s technology is performing at optimum levels is vital.

Since companies need to cut costs without sacrificing quality, everyday IT tasks that once were outsourced are now being brought in house. This is a good solution, except for the fact that it spreads your already stretched IT staff even thinner.

Thankfully, there is a solution that will help you cut IT costs while maintaining quality: managed services. A collection of IT support services, managed services solutions help you to avoid and mitigate IT failures that can have a negative impact on your business.

“Managed services programs have a high emphasis on front-end, proactive services, such as monitoring, identifying and mitigating challenges before they impact your business,” says Vince Lamb, the vice president of managed services at Technology Integration Group (TIG). “A good managed services provider will assume responsibility for your IT and proactively manage the key performance indicators within your IT operating environment.”

Smart Business spoke with Lamb about managed services, how they can benefit your company and what to look for in a managed services provider.

What are managed services and how do they compare to outsourcing?

Outsourcing is taking an internal function and contracting an outside source to perform that work. Managed services are a collaborative effort between you and your service provider with emphasis on proactive monitoring and management of an IT operating environment. People within a company sometimes consider outsourcing as a threat to their jobs. Managed services are different in that they place the emphasis on the reallocation of resources to strategic core business initiatives.

These days, everyone is strapped for cash. But, you have to keep up with the fast pace of technology. Managed services handle mundane IT tasks so that you and your technology staff can focus on current and new strategic business endeavors.

What benefits do managed services offer?

Managed services free up IT resources and help to reduce costs without sacrificing quality. Your IT staff can focus on aligning with business goals without worrying about day-to-day operations and reactive support. Another benefit is that managed services are typically offered at a flat monthly fee. So when issues or incidences arise, they can be resolved easily and your fee will remain basically the same.

With managed services in place, your IT environment is constantly monitored. So, instead of reacting when things break, you can proactively remediate issues. In addition, a good managed services program will be able to react to the problems that can’t be planned for, so you’re covered no matter what. A good program is flexible and modular — it can scale up or scale back as your business requires.

Additional managed services offerings include adding expertise to your staff where you don’t have it or don’t require a full time person (i.e. Oracle support, VMware or security). Software as a Service (SaaS) is a type of managed service that allows you to add tools you need without upfront capital expenditure and the hardware and skills needed to deploy and manage the tool.

If a company explores managed services what outcomes can it expect?

First, you have to define what managed services are appropriate for you and your company. Usually this entails a combination of identifying what elements of IT are core to your business, and also identifying what commodity items a managed services provider can potentially manage. From there you can determine exactly what you need and when you’ll need it. You’ll be able to predict IT costs, so you’ll have consistent spending. Managed services also offer a proactive analysis of your operating environment, remote monitoring tools, less reactivity for operations, more scheduled maintenance and the ability to measure results via monthly or quarterly reports from the managed services provider. Managed services will allow you to focus on your business and not on IT.

What should a company look for when considering a managed services provider?

Look for a company that’s stable, one that will be around tomorrow. You’ll also want a provider that is willing to commit to service level agreements (SLAs). The No. 1 reason managed services agreements fail is a lack of clarity on expectations. An SLA will help mitigate that.

Find a provider that’s proven and experienced, one with a battery of resources to find issues and solve them, not just run tools in the background. Every service provider out there wants to get into managed services — they want the predictability of recurring revenue. You need to find the one that will best service your company’s needs. A good managed services provider will provide recognizable value and will truly care about you and your business. It will focus on all aspects of your business, offering you proactive and predictable solutions while saving you money.

Finally, look for a provider that’s willing to sit down with you on a monthly or quarterly basis to review the program. This gives everyone involved a chance to make sure they remain on the same page, highlight successes and discuss areas that need improvement.

Vince Lamb is the vice president of managed services at Technology Integration Group (TIG). Reach him at (858) 566-1900 x3300 or vince.lamb@tig.com.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Time to re-evaluate

As the financial crisis continues, the uncertainty is affecting companies from the top down. Every person at or near the top of an organization is scrambling to find new and inventive ways to raise capital.

This is especially true for treasurers and other financial executives. Managing a company’s assets and liabilities is more difficult and more important than ever, so treasurers are being forced to re-evaluate each and every collection and payment process or strategy.

These assessments include looking at how money is collected, how payments to vendors are handled and what type of relationships companies have with their banks and creditors.

“In today’s economic environment, many companies are conducting value proposition analyses to ensure they have the right tools in place within the treasury function,” says Joy Gilmer, senior vice president of treasury management for Comerica Bank. “It’s important to review your treasury processes and strategies. What was appropriate before may not be today.”

Smart Business spoke with Gilmer about treasury management and how companies can re-evaluate their processes, cut spending and grow capital.

How can treasurers better manage their processes and strategies?

In times like this, there is value in going back to basics. Take a step back and answer the following questions: Are we collecting money as quickly as possible? Are we making it easy for customers to pay us? Are we truly controlling incoming and outgoing payments? Are we truly getting value in our disbursement and collection processes? Are we taking advantage of the efficiencies and sustainability of electronic payments?

As companies are doing more with less, a renewed look at treasury processes and strategies could bring about great discovery and save the company in ways not previously considered.

What should be considered when assessing collections?

Timing of collections is even more important during economic uncertainty. You can start by evaluating preferred tools for initiating payments to your company. Creating ease for customers to make a payment can increase the speed in which they pay. Online bill payment systems and the ability to accept credit cards are examples of these tools. Both provide increased controls and a variety of reporting options.

You will also want to look at lockbox systems and remote deposit programs for processing incoming checks. Lockbox systems quickly and accurately track and manage incoming payments and exception items, helping you eliminate unauthorized discounts. Also, by putting the onus of collecting and depositing on the lockbox vendor, you have appropriate separation of duty and you can focus on core business. Remote deposit programs enable you to scan checks and transmit the scanned images and/or ACH data to your bank for posting and clearing. The benefits include later deposit windows, accelerated clearing and improved availability.

How can a company evaluate its payment strategies?

Again, find ways to utilize electronic payments and leverage that into cost savings and improved payment processes. Also, negotiate better payment terms with your vendors. Look for ways to redeploy your treasury tactics into more revenue-generating purposes. This will lead to measurable results to the bottom line.

Integrating treasury services, such as card programs, information reporting and payment systems, with your accounting system is one way to accomplish these results.

How can a company re-evaluate the role of short-term liquidity in its portfolio?

Safety and soundness of capital is key in today’s economic setting. Many companies are prioritizing soundness and liquidity with a focus on securing capital. By taking advantage of the FDIC unlimited guarantee for certain noninterest bearing accounts, a company can place money and take advantage of earnings credit rates, which offset bank service fees through account analysis.

There are several information-reporting and cash-forecasting tools available to provide intelligence needed to change liquidity decisions as need be. As time goes on, having access to this information will be vital to short-term and long-term liquidity decisions.

Should a company diversify its banking relationships?

While a company may find it advantageous to maintain more than one banking relationship to meet its needs, it’s key to have a solid lead bank in that group — one that has cash management products that provide a consolidated view of all banking relationships and has strong concentration products that provide one-stop cash management for those relationships. Remember, you can leverage loyal, full-service relationships for value on pricing.

If a company is not properly monitoring its cash management and treasury processes, what consequences could it face?

Cost of capital and opportunity cost are at risk. Customer and vendor relationships are at risk. Maintaining solid treasury practices within your organization will keep you in control of your financial position, risk management and business relationships.

It is important to have routine conversations with your treasury management provider. As your company’s needs change, even fluctuate with economic cycles, your ability to manage your cash position and payments needs to remain strong.

Joy Gilmer is senior vice president of treasury management for Comerica Bank. Reach her at jegilmer@comerica.com or (714) 435-3931.

Saturday, 25 April 2009 20:00

A true partner

Today’s economy is presenting several opportunities for companies to move into better and larger spaces. Deals are there for the taking; however, finding and securing them is a whole other story.

Even though the commercial real estate process is long, detailed and arduous, many companies are trying to secure deals on their own due to cost-cutting measures.

But, says J. Howard Rambin III, the CEO of Moody Rambin Interests, going it alone will end up costing a company more than it saves, which is why he recommends working with a quality tenant representative.

“A good tenant representative knows the intricacies and nuances of the market, the landlords and the financers,” Rambin says. “If you’re not in the real estate market all day, every day, there’s no way you can know all of that.”

Smart Business spoke with Rambin about tenant representation and how a tenant representative can help your company save time and money and find the perfect space.

Why is having quality tenant representation so important in today’s business climate?

Now more than ever, companies are looking for value. Tenant representation will save you time, money and the hassle of having to run around town looking for the best deal. Tenant representatives have a proprietary, up-to-date, industry-comprehensive database of all of the vacant office and industrial space in your area and nationwide. They can determine the exact spaces that match your desired image and operational requirements. They’ll also help you ensure the operational and cost efficiencies of the space.

Besides that, tenant representatives have working relationships with landlords and owners. If you try to call a landlord or building owner, you’re going to play a lot of phone tag — they are historically bad about returning calls to the public. But, those same owners and landlords know the tenant representatives, and they know that the reps won’t waste their time. Your tenant representatives will do all of the market studies and preparation work, and they’ll get the landlords and owners to the table.

No matter how well you may know your city, market or industry, we all need professionals to help us navigate the details and nuances of real estate transactions, especially today, when every dollar counts.

What makes for a good tenant representative?

More than anything, a tenant representative has to instill trust in you, the client. He or she will do this through great communication, a proven track record and an intricate knowledge of the market. If any of these pieces are missing, you should look elsewhere for tenant representation. Bottom line, you want someone who is more concerned with your goals and objectives than their own commission.

What are the consequences of working without a tenant representative?

It’s like if you try to represent yourself in a complex court case or give yourself an operation — if you don’t know the ins and outs of the process, several important details can be missed. Landlords are pros; they lease properties all day, every day. A typical tenant only goes through the lease process every three to 10 years. A tenant representative will help you negotiate and gain leverage with the landlords and owners. The rep will have knowledge of other deals the landlord did in the past, market conditions, how much the owner paid for the building and upcoming lease expirations, among many other factors. If you try to go it alone, you’re at the mercy of the landlord and owners.

At what point should a company contact a tenant representative?

Obviously, the sooner the better — don’t wait until you absolutely need new space to start looking for one. Typically, the larger the tenant, the more time it takes. The lead time for an extremely large company is usually two to three years; for a smaller company, six to seven months.

What types of cost savings can be realized by utilizing a tenant representative?

The key here is to focus on the cost of occupancy, not the rental rate. Like when you buy a car, you need to look at the total cost of ownership over the life of the car, not just the sticker price. There are several items that can be put into a lease outside of the rental rate that will nickel and dime you to death over the course of the lease. A tenant representative will help you avoid these costs, typically saving you anywhere from 10 to 30 percent.

What questions should be asked when meeting with a prospective tenant representative?

When meeting with a prospective tenant representative, ask the following questions:

? What is your experience in this market and with space in the size I’m looking for?

? How will you communicate with me throughout the process?

? What is your current workload? Will you have the time and energy to focus on my deal?

? Is what I’m looking for consistent with the other deals you do, or will I be a small fish in your big pond?

J. Howard Rambin III is the CEO of Moody Rambin Interests. Reach him at (713) 773-5504 or HRambin@moodyrambinint.com.

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Service to go

As laptop computers become more and more integrated in employees’ work flow, the cost and aggravation of downtime becomes greater than ever before. Typically, the laptop users are executives or field-based personnel essential to an organization’s mission who may not be able to perform their jobs without a functional system.

“Most organizations will find that this disruption of their most important associates’ time is unacceptable,” says Walter Manley, the director of strategic projects at Technology Integration Group (TIG).

However, there is an answer, says Manley. One that utilizes unique, highly customized service offerings to support mobile users, minimizing downtime and inconvenience. The answer is laptop depot services.

Smart Business spoke with Manley about laptop depot services and how your company can use them to keep business moving.

What repair solutions are available?

The first solution is a rapid repair depot, typically serving a geographically concentrated group of users, such as a school system that has issued laptops to the students. A laptop depot services provider visits the sites on a consistent schedule and brings the units to a central facility stocked with parts and staffed by trained technicians who perform an immediate repair, image the systems, if necessary, and return them back to the site. The typical turnaround time is about 12 business hours. The cost, in most cases, is covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, so this becomes a no-cost service to the client.

The other depot solution is designed to support a geographically dispersed work force, such as salespeople or claims adjusters. This is the ‘advance exchange’ depot model. The service features a pool of ‘hot spares,’ which are preconfigured with the organization’s standard software image and can be immediately deployed to a remote user via overnight express freight. Generally, any request received by 5 p.m. will be delivered to the end user by the next business morning (Saturday delivery is also available). The user then transfers personal data from the faulty system, if usable, or from a backup and returns the defective system to the depot in the pre-addressed return carton via a prepaid return airbill.

What other ways can laptop depot services help a company?

A new-hire kit can be deployed for next-day delivery to get valuable personnel productive quickly. When turnover does occur, your laptop depot services provider will facilitate the recovery of the equipment by sending appropriate packaging and a preaddressed return airbill. The recovered equipment is refurbished, cleaned and placed back into the spares pool.

Since every transaction (including serial numbers and asset information) is recorded in detail, the asset management of your field-based equipment is built into the program. You will know where everything is all of the time. Also, consumables, such as replacement batteries, AC adapters and toners, can easily be included in the service to simplify the replenishment of these necessary items.

A number of companies take it a step further and couple a laptop depot services program with an equipment lease, along with the deployment and recovery of the equipment at defined intervals. This comprehensive approach creates a cost-effective seat management program that basically runs itself, freeing up management teams for more strategic endeavors.

How does a company get started with laptop depot services?

First, your laptop depot services provider will ask for a complete inventory list, including peripherals, as they would also be covered. You’ll need to answer the questions: How old is the equipment? Is it still under warranty? Is the equipment similar or identical? What’s the equipment refresh cycle? Is having a functioning system a requirement for doing the job?

How can companies determine if laptop depot services are right for them?

If you only have a couple hundred systems, it may be more cost-effective to manage the replacements internally. If the models of systems you have deployed are all over the board, it would be difficult to stock the correct parts, so the next-day turnaround could be impacted. If using laptops is not a critical part of your users’ jobs and their productivity is not affected by downtime, you may not be a great candidate for laptop depot services.

What should a company look for in a provider?

It is critical to partner with an experienced provider who has customized IT systems that make entering, tracking and reporting quick and easy. A service provider who is accountable for meeting service-level agreements is also important. Financial stability of the provider is key; an interruption of service could be disastrous.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to laptop depot services?

The benefits are many — reliable restoration of service to important users, built-in asset management, the ability to easily manage new-hire kit deployments and the recovery of assets, relieving of internal resources from the tactical hassles of managing field-based equipment, replenishment of consumables, etc. The only real drawback would be whether it is cost-effective for your individual organization.

WALTER MANLEY is the director of strategic projects at Technology Integration Group (TIG). Reach him at (804) 344-4481 x 2944 or walter.manley@tig.com.

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

FMLA overhauled

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was amended in 2008, with new regulations taking effect on January 16, 2009. Congress amended the FMLA via the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to create two new types of job-protected leave for eligible employees of covered employers.

The NDAA added “caregiver leave,” effective January 28, 2008, which allows employees to care for family members injured while on active duty in the U.S. military. On January 16, 2009, “exigent circumstances leave” took effect, which allows family members to provide assistance to U.S. military personnel under other urgent circumstances, unrelated to an injury.

Also, the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor (DOL) had been developing revised FMLA regulations for years, in response to court decisions and feedback from employers. Rather than roll out two sets of new regulations, DOL addressed all of these changes in a single, new regulation.

“Now more than ever, employers must understand the FMLA, inside and out,” says Audrey E. Mross, a shareholder at Munck Carter, LLP.

Smart Business spoke with Mross about the FMLA changes and how employers can stay on top of them.

Did the definitions of ‘covered employer’ and ‘eligible employee’ remain the same?

Yes and no. The FMLA still applies to employers with 50 or more employees in the U.S., despite repeated attempts to lower that threshold to 25 employees. If your company is close to 50 employees, if you’ve merged with another entity or if you rely heavily on temporary help, it’s best to talk to a FMLA specialist to determine if you are a covered employer. As for eligible employees, the rules remain the same when applied to either family leave (time off for birth, adoption or foster placement of child with the employee) or medical leave (serious health condition of the employee or the employee’s spouse, parent or child), but they are different for the two types of leave added by the NDAA. Employees eligible to take caregiver leave are the injured service member’s spouse, parent, child or relative who is ‘next of kin.’ In the case of exigent circumstances leave, it is the service member’s spouse, parent or child who can take leave; however, this type of leave does not apply to service members who are in the regular armed forces. It’s limited to those who are in the National Guard or the Reserves.

Did the amount of FMLA leave change?

Again, yes and no. Eligible employees can still take family or medical leave for up to 12 weeks in a 12-month period (the 12-month period should be predetermined by the employer). Caregiver leave is up to 26 weeks in a single 12-month period, so that 12-month period will not necessarily coincide with the one designated by the employer for family and medical leave usage. Exigent circumstances leave is limited to 12 weeks and can be tied to the same 12-month period an employer designates for family and medical leave usage. The amounts of leave under the old FMLA and the new NDAA are coextensive so, for example, an employee who takes leave for a newborn and another leave for exigent circumstances is capped at 12 weeks, rather than being able to take 24 weeks. An employee who takes leave for her own serious health condition and another leave for caregiver leave is capped at 26 weeks, rather than being able to take 38 weeks.

What other changes require an employer’s immediate attention?

If you have an employee who goes on leave for a qualifying reason but has not worked for you for at least 12 months when the leave commenced, you can now designate the leave as FMLA (going forward only) as of the 12-month mark. The 12 months of employment does not need to be consecutive, so you can count prior time worked in a rehire situation, but you don’t have to count employment that occurred before a break in service that lasted seven years or longer.

The employer may charge an employee with more FMLA time than is actually needed, when the nature of the job means the employee cannot arrive to work late. For example, if an employee needs only four hours for a doctor’s appointment, but she’s a flight attendant and the appointment causes her to miss a scheduled departure, she can be charged with FMLA for the entire shift missed and not just the four hours needed for the appointment.

Employers now can deny or prorate perfect attendance and/or production bonuses based on absence and/or lowered production caused by a leave taken through FMLA, so long as similar leaves of absence are treated in the same manner.

Also, FMLA claims can be settled or released without DOL or court approval, so long as they are not prospective in nature. And, employers now have five days (up from two) to designate a leave as FMLA-qualifying.

AUDREY MROSS is a shareholder at Munck Carter, LLP, leading the labor and employment group. Reach her at (972) 628-3661 or amross@munckcarter.com.

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

ITAM solutions

Information technology asset management (ITAM) is a practice supported by processes and technologies to manage the physical, contractual and financial aspects of IT assets. A mature ITAM solution will provide data on what assets are owned, where they are located, who is using them and how much they cost.

“An ITAM solution is definitely not onesize-fits-all,” says Peter S. TenEyck, a principal IT asset management consultant for Pomeroy IT Solutions. “It is based on very specific needs uniquely identified for each company, and it can take on many levels of maturity.”

TenEyck adds that no matter what the maturity level may be, it’s best to follow the 80-20 Rule — 80 percent process, 20 percent tool.

Smart Business spoke with TenEyck about ITAM and why it’s so vital in the current economy.

What role does ITAM play in today’s business world?

A major objective of any corporation must be to provide business value through implementation of strategies and by facilitating new technologies. The eventual goal of these investments will be to reduce IT costs and maximize IT asset utilization. In this economy, I believe ITAM will thrive.

A comprehensive, centralized ITAM program can make information available as needed for software license compliance and harvesting, budgeting, chargeback, migration and upgrades. The life cycle data can also assist the IT manager to understand the functional and operational status of assets to effectively manage usage and ownership.

ITAM is also critical to providing effective IT service management. When an IT organization knows what infrastructure it has and where it resides, it can provide service continuity and service availability and can properly manage the costs of IT services.

What problems or issues can arise from ITAM?

There are a couple of different barriers — a technology barrier and an organizational barrier. From the technology side, ITAM solutions are quite different in their approach. Some solutions have strengths in managing the financial aspects, others have greater strengths in managing the contractual relationships, and others are better at integrating with external data sources. In larger corporations, there will be different groups with different needs, all trying to solve a specific need with a single solution. So, while there is a technology barrier, and there is no single tool that can do this today, many are still trying to get around this by taking a couple of different technologies, a couple of different tools, and ‘band-aiding’ those tools together to meet that technology need.

Of the two barriers, the organizational barrier tends to be the greatest. As stated, there will be different silos with vested stakes in an ITAM project. The help desk will want something that will integrate with the help desk software while the CFO wants tight financial data as it may relate to lease contracts or maintenance contracts. These groups need to work together to understand the goals of the company and develop a centralized solution. An investment in ITAM will typically fail if executives do not perform an in-depth look at what the needs and goals are or if they don’t give sponsorship to supporting the project.

What are the consequences a company faces if it doesn’t monitor and/or contain this?

A very common phrase out there is: ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure.’ Many of the consequences (or benefits) are not even realized until a complete assessment is performed and all silos are brought in to the solution design.

The consequences are as follows:

 

  • For the CEO, CFO and CIO — The lack of knowledge of the environment impedes the long-term planning for expansions and/or acquisitions. For publicly traded companies this can lead to inaccurate accounting as well as SOX issues.

     

     

  • For the MIS director — Performing mass upgrades for disparate systems can cause interruptions in service. Knowing all the types and brands of assets can avoid problems.

     

     

  • For the procurement officer — Advantages to purchasing benefits may be lost.

     

     

  • For the help desk — There can be a decrease in service levels if there is inaccurate or missing data.
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    Should a company outsource its ITAM efforts?

    There is less than a 25 percent success rate for those companies that design and implement an ITAM solution from within. It is important to develop a strategic and tactical road map that will deliver an effective and supportive solution. A professional ITAM consulting group specializes in performing assessments to determine needs and requirements and can assist in overcoming the technology and operational barriers. The ITAM partner can act as an impartial mediator to hear all input from all silos. Once a design is established, the transition is critical to successful implementation.

    PETER S. TENEYCK is a principal IT asset management consultant for Pomeroy IT Solutions. Reach him at pteneyck@pomeroy.com or (803) 327-5716.