Integrated software for small firms

Copyright: David Lawson

First published: Property Week February 2008

It may seem perverse to worry about growth when headlines are laden with doom but anyone with more than a sprinkling of grey knows the property cycle will swing up again, just as it has always done. And expansion can be as difficult to handle as ‘correction’.   Strains which emerged during years of growth will re-appear. Since the last dip, globalisation has meant new offices sprouting across the world, often isolated by different technology. Management techniques have struggled to cope with new sectors ranging from car parks and hospitals to serviced space and student accommodation.

   Go Native showed classic signs of strain after winning a contract to accommodate Accenture personnel around the UK, turning it into one of the country’s largest operators, with 1,300 properties and new offices in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle  The property was widespread and diverse, ranging from long-stay tenants to leases operated like hotels and individual short lets. Go Native found its Great Plains accountancy application and a customised version of Filemaker were stretched to the limit.

  As regional offices opened, each was adopting its own business processes. A range of paper based and Excel worksheets had been created to manage, record and report information.  The system often crashed under the load of time consuming tasks such as the fortnight spent each month invoicing for Accenture. The work was dull and repetitive and manual reporting was time consuming and flawed. The firm desperately needed better online links between customers, tenants and suppliers and to support an increasingly remote management and maintenance workforce.

  Few systems exist for such a range of specialist requirements and modifying a property or hotel management application would have been expensive - and probably still fall short of what Go Native required. So the firm brought in enterprise software specialist Pex to come up with a new approach. It created a system which managed the seemingly impossible task of incorporating customer relations management [CRM], sales management, guest history, procurement, inspection, reservations, tenancy management, accounting, service and maintenance management. 

   Only the largest property companies have been able to afford this kind of integrated approach in the past but Pex brought it into the scope of an SME [small-medium enterprise] like Go Native by using pre-built software modules. These normally make up around 70% of requirements with the remainder written for each client.

  It is not just cost that is a barrier to SMEs. Software suppliers often fail to appreciate that even firms which rely on computers may understand little of the underlying technology.  Nikki Stevens, Go Native IT manager, says Pex was chosen because it could explain technical issues in layman’s terms. But this was a two-way process. Pex specialises in the property sector, so technicians could understand what managers needed. In fact, during development of the system Pex was able to suggest and design business improvements. Bottlenecks and conflicts which had built up over the years were removed, manual activities automated and new ways of collecting, managing and reporting data introduced.

  Invoice processing was reduced from 10 man days to two man days a month per account. Database administration was cut from four and a half days to half a day per week.  Providing consolidated statements to landlords and invoices to clients of up to £1.5m a month had been extremely labour intensive but Pex has reduced the time taken creating an invoice for one client from eight days to the press of a button.

    Three members of the accounts team have been freed as part of their transition from data inputters to data managers, with information now entered remotely by housekeepers, maintenance engineers and booking agents.  This was made possible with an extranet - a web based system which also allows viewing, maintenance and inspection via mobile devices.  Shortlists of properties matched to client requirements can be automatically distributed, as can landlord reports about finance, repairs, occupancy and inspections.  This is proving invaluable as Go Native expands overseas

 Bespoke software can be difficult to change but Pex says this system is flexible enough to incorporate new demands to manage the firms' fast growing agency business for serviced apartments.  It uses iReports, a powerful reporting tool that works well with Java based software and allows clients to create their own reports, such as real time financial and performance assessments for department and business managers.  The internal IT team can add new work processes and activities automatically generated from new property portfolios.  Another fear is that specially built systems tie you to one supplier but Pex says Go Native can choose another without changing the software.