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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 17, 2006 14 years ago

The Technical Investment

From large real estate firms to local banks, companies have various forms of a 'help desk.' The trick is to find a formula that is cost-effective, yet beneficial to employees and customers.
by: Adam Hughes Staff Writer

The Technical Investment

TECHNOLOGY by Sean Roth | Real Estate Editor

There is scarcely a company in the Gulf Coast not making use of technology troubleshooters and coordinators, either through a separate company, an in-house team or a gifted employee. In the Sarasota-Manatee county region, some companies, both big and small, said technology costs, including salaries for IT employees, were at least one of the top 10 business expenses.

Here's how some companies solve their IT problems.

The Bank of Commerce

Charles Murphy, president and CEO of Sarasota-based The Bank of Commerce, currently uses two bank-technology companies to keep up to date. The bank's main resource is the AaSys Group, a Tampa-based technology company, which services the majority of the bank's networking and hardware issues and some software technology. When it comes to finding new technology and software, Murphy looks to his existing bank employees.

"That is really our responsibility to keep up with," Murphy says. "If there has been a some recent updates in say, Internet banking, we need to know about that. We are not a big enough institution to afford to bring all of this in-house."

The Bank of Commerce also employs a network security company to monitor and audit its network.

"The big issue today is information security," Murphy says. "That is where we wind up spending lots of money and time; making sure we have the proper passwords, the proper firewalls. Having a service that constantly reviews your networks is almost mandatory."

Michael Saunders & Co.

The largest independently owned real estate agency in the two-county market, Michael Saunders & Co. relies on a six-person information technology team to keep up with its demands. According to IT Director David Gumpper, the group handles purchasing, assembling hardware and handling networking and printing processes for the real estate firm's staff.

However, Michael Saunders' associates are responsible for most of their own computer equipment and technical services. The company does offer an employee purchase program, which reduces the prices for technology, and the IT staff offers technology seminars on new and existing software.

If six people sounds like a small number to service a $100 million-plus net revenue firm, it is, Gumpper says.

"It is always trying this time of season," Gumpper says. "Our team is very good at documenting procedures and working to automate our processes. [But] staffing that division is proving very cumbersome."

Prudential Palms Realty

The fourth largest real estate firm in the two-county market, Prudential Palms Realty has split the IT into two pieces: First, the company employs a full-time director of technology, who focuses on the company network and keeping the office computers humming. Second, Prudential Palms outsourced all of its software development and its Web site operations to Sarasota-based Visient Corp.

Using Visient makes good sense because of the economies of scale, says Scott Sosso, president of Prudential Palms. For example, through Visient, Prudential Palms is able to offer its agents their own Web sites, using the same back-end information used throughout the company, such as the Sarasota Association of Realtors Multiple Listing Service.

"That lets us tell people if we list a house, it gets listed on over 120 real estate Web sites," Sosso says.

Sosso estimates that his total yearly bill for technology-related expenses runs from $650,000 to $750,000, roughly 3% of the company's net sales of $24 million last year.

Al Purmort Insurance

The Sarasota insurance firm, which employs 18 people, relies on its chief financial officer, Lisa O'Connor, to handle its main IT issues. Al Purmort Jr., president of the firm, said her position and her technical ability made this structural arrangement successful. Purmort also works with a consultant on larger projects.

Williams Parker

Harrison Dietz & Getzen

One of the largest locally-owned full-serve law firms in Sarasota, Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen uses a two-person employee IT team and outside company, API Computer Service, that acts like a third employee. An API employee works at the Williams Parker office every business day.

In general, API fulfills the equivalent of a senior network engineer position monitoring the network, firewalls and security logs, while the two Williams Parker employees serve as the help desk for the attorneys and office staff.

Jennifer Chartrand, information technology manager for the firm, says the in-house/API hybrid works well because it allows both groups to draw on the other's expertise.

Beall's Inc.

With about 11,000 employees and 553 retail stores, Beall's Inc. employs fewer than 50 people in-house for IT work.

CEO Steve Knopik says a third of the 48-person staff focuses on application development and integrating third-party software.

Another third is focused on maintaining the host computers, the network and the voice and data systems for the stores. The final third works with the software and hardware used in the stores.

The lean-and-mean IT department, most of which resides in the Bradenton corporate office, leaves most of the training to store officials. Knopik declined to comment on the exact cost of IT services but said that by retail standards the department would be considered extremely efficient.

"I think the reality is you've got to invest in IT to effectively compete in today's market," Knopik says. "But you've just got to be judicious about your IT investments."

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