When Michael Berkley leaves his office at New Enterprise Stone & Lime Co., Inc. (NESL), his commute takes him along a bucolic country road past farms and Mennonite horse-drawn carriages.
It’s a pleasant departure for the life of a boy raised in the hustle and bustle of Queens, New York—and who would later launch his professional career on Wall Street—yet, it’s this piece of Pennsylvania farmland that has provided the backdrop for the chief information officer’s latest challenge: building a business’s technology front from the ground up.
NESL is a privately held construction materials supplier and heavy highway construction contractor—the company owns many quarries, sells construction materials, and builds bridges, turnpikes, and roads—with subsidiaries including national traffic safety services and equipment. Though the nearly century-old business itself was flourishing, Berkley says the firm’s technological infrastructure was in need of replacement when he came aboard as CIO about a year ago.
“They had not invested heavily in IT over the past few years,” Berkley says. “As a construction company, the focus naturally was on its core business. IT infrastructure was working, so why upgrade when you can effectively spend those dollars keeping the construction and construction materials side of the business humming? As a result, much of our hardware became old and unsupported. In some cases, we had to find creative ways to support our hardware and software, such as buying replacement parts on eBay.”
Berkley happened upon NESL right as the company was hitting the refresh button, even though it wasn’t what he expected his next step to be.
“Although I had no industry-related background, I had extensive experience with companies looking to re-architect their corporate technology,” Berkely says. “The executive team wanted to take the next step to enhance the company’s applications and infrastructure but wasn’t sure of the best way to accomplish this. The exciting thing was having the ability to leverage everything I’d learned and accomplished over the past thirty years to make a difference. To me, it was a dream job.”
“The exciting thing was having the ability to leverage everything I’d learned and accomplished over the past thirty years to make a difference. To me, it was a dream job.”
Berkley got to work assessing the company’s IT technology, and putting together a two-year strategic plan. Three years earlier, NESL had transitioned from a mainframe development shop to a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) entity, including investments in an ERP application. But the software wasn’t being used to its full potential, and there were processing, storage, and bandwidth issues.
“The infrastructure was fairly old,” explains Berkley. “We have 120 locations, and many of those were connected to our MPLS network via T1 circuits. So, the bandwidth was very poor—the connectivity between our remote locations and our headquarters was very slow. Our storage area network and backup systems were running at 100 percent capacity, which was hurting system performance. It was also impacting employee productivity.”
When Berkley first arrived at NESL, he was introduced to a talented staff who were frustrated by the limited bandwidth available to support their business. Berkley recalls: “We were unable to provide solid solutions for business requests such as remote ticketing, which required video streaming, or for mobile applications.”
The company faced a few other bandwidth challenges. “Since our location was very remote, there was no cellular service in our building or our area, and limited availability of fiber connections to help with our connectivity to our other locations,” Berkley says. He worked with Verizon Wireless to get cellular service installed in their headquarters location at no cost to NESL. Verizon picked up the $90,000 cost in return for NESL partnering with Verizon on future tablet and cell phone connectivity.
“It was a challenge finding a company willing to lay fiber in our area, but we were able to work with Atlantic Broadband to lay twenty miles of fiber at a much reduced cost,” Berkley says. “They looked at this opportunity as a loss leader for them in order to support an area that is totally underserved with respect to bandwidth.”
The IT department was most excited by the opportunity to replace their wide area network (WAN) with Cisco’s Intelligent WAN (IWAN) technology. In short, NESL is replacing most of its dedicated circuits with cable broadband at many of the company’s locations. “This will allow us to increase our bandwidth from 1.5 mg to 50 mg–75 mg, while reducing our overall telecom costs by 70 percent,” Berkley says. “The IWAN solution, along with other infrastructure enhancements, will save NESL over $2.5 million in three years, with a return on investment time period of eight months.”
While most of Berkley’s IWAN project won’t be completed until later in the year, he already has a few improvements under his belt. For one, NESL’s internal help desk, which provides technical support to the company’s 2,700 employees, was being challenged with too many incoming phone calls and email. Any time an employee forgot their password to access the company intranet, there was no way to retrieve it again online. The employee would have to call the help desk, resulting in long hold times (averaging about eight minutes) and a 41 percent abandonment rate. Berkley and his desktop support team installed a self-service password reset program and a few other process improvements; afterward, the abandonment rate dropped to just 11 percent, and the hold time fell to an average of one minute, fifteen seconds.
Other enhancements Berkley and his team provided include installing a cloud-based job application tracking solution, completely redesigning the company’s website, launching a LinkedIn page, and rolling out more than 800 iPads and tablets to allow for remote time entry. Previously, many workers would hand in their time sheet on a piece of paper, where it was then entered into a homegrown time entry program. Berkley says it took a few weeks of training to ease employees into the mobile technology, but the company now considers the transition a major success.
The iPads have also been useful for the company’s new mobile GPS application, which allows NESL and its drivers to create the most time-efficient routes and provides the ability for their transportation center to more efficiently track and schedule their vehicles. It’s just one of the reasons the company has been able to vastly improve its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) over the past couple of years.
Berkley credits the knowledgeable executive team and his support staff—a mix of highly experienced and younger talent—for the organization’s transformation. If they didn’t share the same vision to grow the company, as well as a willingness to invest in the technology necessary to do so, his IT strategies would prove useless, he says.
“Ultimately, I would like to have a solid foundation in place, where I can take advantage of the latest mobile and software applications, hardware innovations, and business requests,” says Berkley of his goals for NESL’s continuing tech transformation. “We are becoming a state-of-the-art construction materials company.”