In the life of a small business owner, many decisions need to be made on a daily basis. Some are easier than others. However, for those of us who did not grow up in the computer age, decisions concerning hardware and software can be difficult; poor decisions are quite costly.

Mark E. Meacham, Inc., is a small mechanical contracting company in central Massachusetts. Its story is not much different from most start-up companies. My husband, Mark, began as the company’s salesman, engineer, buyer, installer and service technician, while I took care of the books.

In 1986, when our company was incorporated, everything in the office was done manually. Office equipment consisted of a phone, typewriter, and an adding machine. The accounting package included a checkbook, ledger and spreadsheets. Accounts payable and receivable were kept on a card filing system and boxes were used to file proposals and sold jobs.

We were in the hvacr business and in 1986 the office looked like most “small business” offices. At the end of the fiscal year, we handed all our records over to the accountant, crossed our fingers, and hoped we had done well.

The big change

Around 1988, the economy changed drastically in Massachusetts and, like a lot of firms, our business was in jeopardy. Fortunately, we decided to hire a consultant.

He taught us how to manage our business, and even though he was not a computer guru, his demands forced us to provide more timely, accurate information. Because we were not knowledgeable on what we really needed, we left the computer and software decision up to our accountant at the time.

We got a 286 IBM-compatible computer with an accounting package, word processing package, and a spreadsheet program. This system was supposed to be all we would ever need.

In time, the computer began “locking up” because it did not have the capacity to handle the load. We soon found out that software support is expensive and that individuals can grow a lot of gray hair by constantly calling a software support line.

As our business grew, so did our computer needs. We ended up with several PCs, that were used by different employees, for different aspects of our business. Each software program was wonderful by itself, but nothing was integrated and there was so much duplication of effort that it was no longer a cost-effective way to operate.

We then decided to hire a programmer to customize a program for us. Those who have gone this route know how expensive and frustrating it can be because individual programmers often don’t understand the dynamics of our business.

After exhausting that route, we decided to become informed ourselves. We attended many one-day seminars and trade shows in search of something that would make life in the office easier.

Early into our search, we met Yvonne Tuttle, Team Management Systems, who demonstrated her system to us and gave us a quote that we felt we could not afford. We really liked the program and searched for something comparable for less money. Our efforts were in vain. We limped along for several years because nothing quite fit the bill.

At an AHR show in New Orleans, TMS was demonstrating its system. This time, Mark decided to invest in the system. We had already spent valuable money, resources, and time and could not afford to continue in that manner.

The system

Our initial package included the service system, installation system, accounting system, inventory system, vehicle system, office system, word processing package, and the capacity for multiple companies.

All of the modules were integrated for proper recording of information, accounting, and reporting. In the beginning, it seemed overwhelming and it took us awhile to get all of our information entered accurately. However, once we got up and running, we were thrilled.

That extra effort has now given us departments that function professionally and can provide accurate, timely information necessary to make daily business decisions. This enhances our ability to manage better and has freed us to provide better customer service.

We are now in our fifth year with the system and have not regretted our decision. We have a system that meets and exceeds our needs. We have timely support from a staff that understands the dynamics of our industry. Best of all, we have all the information that is necessary on a daily basis to perform our jobs efficiently and make sound business decisions.

We positioned ourselves for growth and are successfully accomplishing our goals.

Fast forward

Today Mark E. Meacham, Inc. is in its 13th year. We now have 20 employees, with four installation crews, three service technicians, a layout and fabrication department, co-op students, two salesmen, and a full office staff.

Needless to say, our computer needs have changed significantly. Not only have our needs changed, but our industry has changed and the way the whole world goes to market has changed.

Five years ago, no one was talking about CFC tracking. No one knew about Y2K compliance, on-line faxing of orders, e-mail, or even websites. To many small contractors, these words still sound like a foreign language.

However, small business owners who will make it in the next century are learning the terms quickly. It can be done with the help of the right software vendor partner.