Top 100 private companies report: Technology aims to boost efficiency and bottom line

Burnaby company giving clients big-screen TVs to help them track work progress

Doug Scott, principal, Wales McLelland Construction: new project management software boosts operational transparency with clients and staff

Burnaby-based Wales McLelland Construction is looking to technology to boost its competitive edge.

Over the past nine months, the company has been developing its own project management system that uses iPad Minis and a custom set of apps to help site superintendents and supervisors more efficiently track progress of a project on site.

Doug Scott, principal at Wales McLelland, said the system aims to save 40 to 50 hours a week in administrative work while also improving the quality and frequency of project updates.

"I know the superintendents that are using it are really positive about the whole thing," said Scott. "It certainly has made their life a lot easier for them."

Globally, a few major construction firms have been rolling out similar systems over the past couple of years that do away with the relatively cumbersome and expensive set of site management equipment that usually includes cellphones, laptops, digital cameras and printers.

But Wales McLelland decided to develop its own apps and systems in-house after being unable to find what they needed.

The customized system allows superintendents to enter time sheets, employee data, project updates, and instantly upload new photos while also providing things like the latest local weather data. "It gives everyone up to date information on what's happening on site and improves the data in our archives and so on."

Much of the data is displayed in a comprehensive and interactive dashboard of project-specific information. At its head office in South Burnaby, everyone can see the latest progress of all the projects the company is working on.

But rather than keep project information exclusively in-house, Scott decided that clients could also have full access to the information. In the past few weeks, the company has started to provide existing clients with big-screen monitors connected to a Wi-Fi-enabled mini Apple computers that display near-real time updates on their project.

"At first, you might think, do you want all the information and pictures to be there? For us, absolutely. Our philosophy here has always been transparency," said Scott. "But it also gives clients a real sense of being part of the project. They can see what's happening and it helps us engage with our clients."

New systems to support long-term growth

Over the past few years, Wales McLelland has steadily recovered from the decline in the company's revenues that dropped to $65 million in 2010 after hitting a decade high of $112 million in 2008. Last year, it posted revenue of $90 million, up 22% from $74 million in 2011.

This year has, so far, been promising for the company that focuses on commercial and large industrial projects in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. "Our backlog of work this year and next is strong and it's continuing to grow, so I feel very positive about it."

Its current projects include the first phase of the Boundary Bay Business Park development that will serve as a multi- tenant distribution facility and a new data centre for Global Relay Communications.

While the latest commercial and industrial building permit data from BC Stats shows a possible decline in activity in the coming months, Scott remains optimistic the decline in permits reflected uncertainty over the provincial election outcome and grumblings over the return of the GST.

"I'm optimistic that this is only a temporary lull," he said. "The cost of money is still quite reasonable, so that's going to allow development to continue here for some time."

Among the biggest challenges remains the relative shortage of available industrial land to build new projects. That has continued to drive up industrial land prices, "which makes it very difficult for big-box users to fit into the right business model to live and work here. It's a constant struggle with cheaper land in Alberta and south of the border. I think it's a real problem."

The shortage has led to more industrial users choosing to upgrade and expand existing facilities rather than search for new land that might also need a lot of expensive site preparation, Scott said. "We're finding more and more of that type of work, for sure. It's becoming a viable option for many users." •