Computer revolution Featured

10:06am EDT July 22, 2002

When John D. Pumper arrived at the family construction business four years ago, employees were creating project-related documents with paper and a pen.

“Our methods were very crude,” explains Pumper, CFO of Cleveland-based DAS Construction. “There was an 8-1/2’’-by-11’’ paper template for project schedules. Everyone copied it by hand. But what happens is that the project schedule changes, and to change it, you had to start over. What a waste of time.”

So Pumper, who left a job in the computer software industry, began a companywide computer integration to bring the business into the silicon age. DAS was founded in 1986 by Pumper’s father, John A.; mother, Ann;and brothers, Steven and David. The first initials of the latter three give the company its name. DAS specializes in interior renovations of commercial buildings.

“You don’t see a lot of leading edge technology in construction,” Pumper says. “And a lot of our project managers, and employees in general, were trained for work in the field, not the office ... much less computers. I tried to nibble away at their disdain for technology in bits and pieces.”

Today, there’s a PC on each employee’s desk. Project managers share documents and project schedule sheets. Company meetings are arranged via e-mail. Computer-based faxing to subcontractors has become part of everyone’s daily routine. And employees who once had never even turned on a computer say it’s something they can’t imagine being without.

But reaching this point was a gradual process. Pumper says, “You don’t just come in and change things overnight. We had to move one step at a time.”

Build an infrastructure

In 1994, DAS’ accounting system was the only automated part of the company—three workstations and a small network that ran a DOS-based accounting package. “The problem was that. As they were growing as a company, they still had these small workstations,” Pumper explains. “That was fine when it was a seven-to-10-person firm. If someone needed information, they would go to the accounting department and ask someone to print them out a report.”

But as the company grew—from 45 employees when Pumper arrived to 85 employees today—the three-person accounting department was inundated with information requests.

A similar problem existed with the one small, non-network computer that sat on top of the receptionist’s desk: Whenever project managers wanted proposals or letters sent out, they would dump them on the receptionist to type up on the computer. “We were getting stuck over there,” Pumper says. “We write hundreds of subcontracts ,and it was disrupting our work flow.”

So Pumper installed a new network and server, laid more powerful cable and increased the system’s hard-drive capacity. That laid the groundwork for adding new computers. “We developed this infrastructure with the intent that everybody would eventually have access to the file system,” he says. “I realized that most of this was transparent because people didn’t see much change at first. But I had observed how we were doing business and the work flow and realized where the changes were needed.”

After the backbone was in place, Pumper installed the first new computer. He placed it in a centralized location—the administrative assistant’s desk—and connected it to the network server. It was loaded with a Windows-based operating system and a variety of software applications—documents, spreadsheets and an internal fax program. “That’s when people saw there was another place to go to get documents produced,” Pumper says. “And they saw they could work on project schedules.”

Excite the masses

It wasn’t long before several DAS employees realized the difference in quality and professionalism in the work done on the new computer. Pumper says, “As the new workstation started producing documents, people started to see new electronic schedules and began sending the administrative assistant more information to process. They could now visualize this as something they could eventually do themselves.”

At company meetings, Pumper plugged his vision to have a PC on everyone’s desk. “I was just trying to get people comfortable with the upcoming changes,” he says. The moves were met with some degree of hesitation, but as the improvements continued, people were willing to go along with the plan—albeit slowly.

So Pumper recruited two employees who had some previous computer experience. They installed the next two network computers on their desks. “I started them off with project scheduling and word processing,” he says. “It was amazing how quickly they picked it up.”

They, in turn, told co-workers how much more efficient the computers made their jobs. Pumper says, “I, in essence, recruited them to market the idea to everyone else. It produced a snowball effect.”

That snowball snatched up employees like Rick Grenig, a DAS estimator who previously did everything by hand. “I had to take a calculator and add everything up before,” Grenig says. “Now, as much as I plug in, the computer’s able to do. I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer before then, much less use one.”

Within a year, every employee was on board. But not everyone was using the computers effectively. That took time. Some simply played with e-mail; others, with text documents or spreadsheets. Only a few actually combined all the computers’ capabilities and were faxing computer-generated bids and project schedules to clients.

Expand the capabilities

In late 1996, taking their lead from Pumper, several project-managers developed templates to replace the archaic paper-and-pen methods.

“We wanted to reuse as much as possible,” Pumper says. “One guy created a spreadsheet for putting estimates together; another made a letter template. We developed a rich database system with files and documents. People are continually enhancing it and adding to it.”

And as the database systems have improved, DAS has added more capabilities to its network system—including contact-management programs, internal e-mail and multiuser document sharing.

Pumper says the improvements have translated into more than technology for technology’s sake. Sales have quadrupled since 1994, and the company’s been tabbed for the Weatherhead 100 list twice in the past two years.

“Technology is one of the most difficult things to evaluate at the time you make an investment,” Pumper says. “You can’t tell people to invest money and there will be a certain return on the investment. There’s no equation for that. You can estimate based on tasks—it takes X amount of time to complete a task, and using the computer cuts that time by X—but how can you integrate that information into the business as a whole and put a dollar amount on it? The best you can do is sit back and look at what the investment’s done.

“We are producing more business more profitably with less people than it would have taken otherwise. We also receive more timely and accurate feedback, which translates into better decision-making. So, is it successful for us? Yes. The bottom line results speak for themselves.”