The beauty of being small

PestBusters may be small, but Thomas Fernandez enjoys the agility and responsiveness that this brings.
Written by Lai Ee Na, Contributor
Even with 150 competitors in the pest management industry, PestBusters claims the lion's share of the hospitality and healthcare market.

Managing director Thomas Fernandez reveals how Ranger Eyes, a Web-based solution that enables real-time monitoring and tracking of tasks, has pushed the company to the fore.

Thomas Fernandez, managing director, PestBusters.
What steps do you plan to take to ensure IT is better aligned with business goals?
IT cannot be taken away from business development. We've learnt how to embrace IT.

Our main clients are hotels and hospitals. Hence we are selling knowledge of pest management, not chemicals and products. We provide (pest management) service and knowledge. (For example,) we see if their goods received are checked for pests such as cockroaches, so we audit their suppliers to see whether they have proper pest management.

Pest management companies are moving to the third generation of pest control. IT is an integral part of this generation. We want to pull out historical data the paperless way. You can have a user ID and check the information yourself. This is what we call informative knowledge. Let's say for the last three years, June might be a month of fly infestation. So to be prepared for it, you want to understand what contributes to the infestation, and what makes the flies survive. So measures can be taken.

Today, clients see us as partners, not just contractors. We've bridged the gap. We do audits to make sure that the measures we recommend are taken by the HODs (heads of departments) of those organizations. We police the audits and print the information if there are instances of a breakdown. People change jobs and if the (replacement staff) are not told to follow the measures, there can be a breakdown. You don't want to wait for the fly infestation to start in a sensitive environment like a hotel.

We are slowly rolling out IT. Our software, Ranger Eyes, has already been developed by our research and development (R&D) arm, PestHunters, a joint-venture between VoIUM Technologies and PestBusters.

The technicians use personal digital assistants (PDAs) when they go see the clients. They look more professional and the clients see that. They use the PDAs to provide real-time feedback on the jobs completed.

The CEO or the GM of a hotel might spot a cockroach and get the housekeeping department to clear it. The department will then log into the system and tell our guys, who will then see the alert. They will kill the cockroach and send a message when they're done. The housekeeping department will know about it and if the GM wants to also know about it, he can access the system with his user ID to know where the pest came from and the measures taken.

For the whole of next year, we want to roll out the system throughout Singapore so that all our clients are eventually linked to it. In the third quarter of next year, we might bring the solution to Malaysia.

This year, we had our pilot project at Alexandra Hospital. Microsoft was our partner because we went on the .NET platform. M1, another partner, ensured that the signals are strong enough for messages to be sent. It was three to four months before we ensured that there were no blind spots in the hospital. So far, we've had success.

We are now rolling out Ranger Eyes in Raffles Hotel. We started the implementation in November. Implementation was successful in Shangri-La Hotel Singapore and was completed in August.

Is maintaining good corporate governance an IT priority at PestBusters in 2005?
Clients look at more than just the awards you received. We just started in Malaysia and they look at your credentials, they look at who's involved, who's backing you. They want to know why we charge so much. We are charging two to three times more than our competitors.

We get international consultants to sit on board. We have gurus to advise us when we have problems. If there's a technical question we need to answer, or if we get feedback on how to improve IT, then we need to get back to (our clients) with a solution.

Are you going to upgrade your financial system?

We already have software that takes care of that. To integrate the whole system with Ranger Eyes will take a while. We have no doubt that eventually when we integrate, it will be because it will increase productivity.

It's not just me deciding. If my financial HOD is willing to integrate and is ready to go for it, then we'll sit down with the IT team and consider the return on investment (ROI). SMBs do drop out of investing in IT, because they realize that maintenance costs can be high.

What steps do you plan to take in the next 12 months to improve efficiency in your organization?
With the Ranger Eyes rollout, there will be less paper work. (PestBusters') supervisors can from their PC screens pull out information about a particular account, see what the technicians are doing at any time, view outstanding feedback from clients and so forth. Otherwise, the supervisors will have to be on-site.

Let's talk about customers' data privacy. For the coming year, how would you ensure data privacy of customers?
We took (customers' data privacy) into account well before we implemented Ranger Eyes. We give customers user IDs and passwords. You don't want people from the National University Hospital to look at Alexandra Hospitals' problem, or a hotel looking into another hotel's information. Privacy has to be respected.

I leave (problems caused by hackers) to the IT team. They have control of the server, they have firewalls. If something goes wrong, they'll be the first to answer for that. I'm sure VoIUM would have taken this into account.

What are the key drivers for next year's IT investments?
The main indicator is increasing efficiency, which is cost-cutting. With increased productivity, you can do more jobs. Ours is a service industry, which is how you respond and maintain a pest-free environment, not just getting the contract but keeping it, so that people will take you as a partner.

What is your annual IT budget for 2005?
Now we're in the maintenance stage--we've already developed the software. We need to tailor the software to the customers' needs. The IT engineers need to go to Malaysia and find out from my staff there the requirements of the hotels. We'll continue to budget S$100,000 (US$61,000) for next year.

The clients have to pay to use Ranger Eyes. When they renew the contract, the implementation cost is worked into the agreement. The same goes for new clients.

Compared with this year's IT budget, the one for next year will increase, decrease or remain unchanged?
As an SMB, we plan a budget but we don't necessarily stick to it. The beautiful thing about SMBs is that we are agile. If there's something exciting, we don't have to go through the rigmarole that MNCs do, such as putting up a proposal and getting approval from the HODs--by the time you want to implement it, somebody else would have done so.

If we feel that there's a need to implement certain things to be competitive, and it requires S$200,000 (US$122,000) to S$300,000 (US$183,000), the IT team will consider the ROI. We can come to a decision within two to three days of a proposal. That's the beauty of staying small.

What proportion of your organization's 2005 IT budget will be spent on hardware, software, services, staff training and info-security?
The proportion will be--hardware, 20 percent; software, 15 percent; services, 45 percent; staff training, 8 percent; and maintenance, 12 percent.

"When I announced that we'd be implementing Ranger Eyes, five staff resigned."
What are PestBusters' top technology projects for 2005?
There's a possibility of the group coming up with a customer relationship management solution. PestBusters' managers are empowered to look at IT service providers to see what we can implement, which the HODs have to justify. The benefits and cost must be relevant to what we are charging, because if we pass the cost to customers, they will not want that.

But if we are sure it will improve our efficiency, which will have a rollover effect on the customers, we'll continue improving our service.

We're the national model for work redesign. We've moved from (doing) paper work to being paperless. At the start, due to the educational level of the technicians, they were afraid to use the PDAs to write and submit service reports, job recommendations and so on. When I announced that we'd be implementing Ranger Eyes, five staff resigned.

We've since developed people who can handle work redesign and then certify them on the use of PDAs before sending them out into the field. So we are committed to training. The trained staff in turn become trainers. Internal promotion is based on what skills they have learned.

What's your organization's preferred approach to IT deployment and management--in-house, outsource or a combination?
Combination. It's better to outsource and work with a company that can help the IT engineers grow and develop solutions for me or for other companies.

If I have the IT engineers come in solely for me, what happens if they leave? Where do I pick up from where they left off? The whole idea of outsourcing is that, if an IT engineer is sick or goes on leave, another engineer knows exactly what's happening.

These are the things SMBs have to look into when implementing IT.

What are your top strategic info-security priorities for next year?
I leave that to the IT people to talk to the clients. I'm sure that the questions on (info-security) would have been put to my IT people and they would have addressed the concerns.

VoIUM is not a new company. Each time we talk, it's always about info-security. I've been hearing this all the time: Is this secure for your clients? Is this secure for your people? You don't want competitors to have access and so on. That's why I feel very comfortable with VoIUM, because the company is proactive about this.

Who makes the final decision on IT investments in your company?
If I were to force IT implementation on my organization, it won't work and people won't be productive. People must embrace IT (on their own accord). If we have a great idea that we can implement, and we tell the staff "I want this", you'll have very unhappy people.

Rather, we'll say, "Hey, what about this? Think about it." We'll have a committee to look into it. The group comprises staff from operations, finance and administration to (consider costs and benefits to the organization). And then if everyone says yes, we'll go for it.

I'll be more than happy to go for it as well. I'm here to lead and open doors, and they're here to manage. Who am I without my people? They made this company and it so happens that I'm sitting at the top.

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