Roland "Gator" Carter, a 24-year employee of Frederick Derr & Co. and currently its chief estimator, remembers when his company didn't own a computer. "Back then, everything was done with a legal pad and a calculator," he recalls. "And trust me, that's a lot of data to type by hand."

What a difference a couple of decades make. New technology products are emerging every day that make corporate life more efficient, and most executives have at least one they say they just couldn't live without.

BID MASTER

New software paves the way for Frederick Derr & Co.

Sarasota-based road contractor Frederick Derr & Co. bids on complicated, multimillion-dollar projects that require columns of estimates and hours of time. The company built University Parkway from I-75 to U.S. 301 and is currently completing the infrastructure and golf courses for WCI at Venetian Golf & River Club and Waterlefe Golf and Country Club. But until this year, says Carter, "We basically reinvented the wheel every time we bid on a new job."

Derr's strides toward computer literacy took a quantum leap with a new estimating and bid system called Heavy Bid, from Houston-based Heavy Construction Systems Specialists (HCSS). "It's a very flexible product that can be tailored to individual projects," says HCSS vice president of sales John Davis. The PC-based software ties the entire estimating process into one handy program that costs $25,000, a bargain, says Carter, "for what we plan to get out of it." The system has cut bid preparation time by a third and reduced the company's four-person estimator staff to two (the other estimators took new jobs in the company).

HSCC provides on-site trainers, all former estimators themselves, and Carter insists, "It's not difficult to learn. It's just a matter of bending your mind to learn something new."

GLOBAL TRACKER

Goodwill Industries streamlines pickup and delivery with GPS.

It's a not-for-profit organization, but Goodwill Industries needs "to make money so we can help people," says vice president of donated goods and employment services Brian Roberts. But Goodwill has been slow to take advantage of technology that could make that happen. "Many of the staff is still 'tech-afraid' at this point," says Roberts, a veteran of Lucent Technologies in San Francisco and of seven months as assistant division automation management officer for the first infantry in Bosnia, where he supervised 6,000 work-stations. "But there are technologies out there that can deliver solutions that will affect both bottom lines."

Among them are GPS devices Roberts installed in all of Goodwill's trucks to make pickups and deliveries more efficient by streamlining routes. Because they give Goodwill the location of every driver throughout the day, they can be directed to unscheduled pickups if they're close by.

Then there's the Point of Service (POS) terminals he installed in Goodwill's goods and apparel shops after discovering their old "Mom and Pop"-style cash registers provided incomplete, often inaccurate data. The new terminals, produced by from ArgisPOS, a North Carolina-based company that has outfitted Goodwill organizations across the country, connects to a central computer that evenly distributes inventory and prevents theft and poor bookkeeping. 

WIRELESS WONDER

Nothing comes between broker Michael Outlaw and his Blackberry.

Constantly on the run to offices from Fort Myers to the Panhandle, 32-year-old Michael Outlaw is one of Morgan Stanley's youngest senior employees, so he quickly latched onto one of the fastest-selling gadgets since the cell phone. His BlackBerry is a wireless, handheld device the size of a playing card that integrates telephone, e-mail and data access. More than a million have been sold since the product's introduction in 1999.

Outlaw ordered his two years ago, when he was relying on cell phones and a seven-pound laptop computer to get him through his 70-hour work week. Today, while other business travelers are still lugging their laptops aboard cross-country flights, Outlaw's sits idle, except for occasional spreadsheets, speeches or presentations.

Like a cell phone, a BlackBerry must be turned off during certain times in flight, but Outlaw explains you can cut the satellite connection in flight, type 15 e-mails, and "when you land, turn the satellite connection back on and it sends all 15 at one time."

INSTANT GRATIFICATION

Realtor Brandyn Herbold's listings miracle.

Brandyn Herbold of Sarasota's Sky Realty saysMobile Listing Advantage (MLA), a nationwide multiple listing service developed by Sarasota-based Retrieval Dynamics Corporation, has changed her life-and her sales. Accessed through her BlackBerry, MLA saves time and customers. "Say I'm in the car showing prospects some properties and come across a home that just went on the market," she explains. "All I have to do is call up the MLA and within minutes I can find the listing agent, sale price and details about the house."

Herbold, who started Sky Realty in January with her partner Chad Roffers, has supplied her entire staff with Blackberries, which cost between $300 and $350 each, plus a monthly calling plan, offered through companies like Nextel, AT&T and Cingular Wireless. Herbold pays an additional $20 a month for MLA. The BlackBerry works with PC applications; a MAC-supported system is under development. 

TAKE NOTE

Traveling Coastal Behavioral therapists use computerized notetaking.

Coastal Behavioral Healthcare operates more than 50 different substance abuse, prevention, intervention and treatment programs. But until recently, those services were restricted to Coastal's facilities in downtown Sarasota. Two years ago, in an attempt to reach more patients, executive director Dr. Christine Cauffield began sending therapists into the field to examine homebound seniors and those in assisted living facilities.

The program earned them a nationwide No. 1 ranking from Mental Health Corporations of America for geriatric care. But it was wearing down her therapists, who sometimes drove as far as 60 miles to see patients, then had to traipse back to the office to enter case notes into computers. So six months ago, Coastal outfitted each of its five therapists with Hewlett-Packard Compaq tablet computers. About the size and shape of an Etch-a-Sketch, they offer all the performance and function of a PC at half the weight of a laptop computer. Therapists use a stylus to record their sessions; the notes automatically transcribe to the hard drive, eliminating the need to retype them later.

The investment to Coastal has been just over $2,000 per tablet, but the time savings has allowed the program to grow and therapists to start seeing patients in Lee County. With the help of the tablet computers, Coastal will expand into Charlotte and Collier County soon. 

PETAL POWER

Beneva Flowers's Web tracking system follows orders.

Floral design is the last place you'd expect to find technological advances, but Arthur Conforti has used them to build his shop over the past 16 years into a powerhouse with 54 employees and volume that ranks 35th in a nation of more than 30,000 florists. (Adding in his national wire service, Coast to Coast Flowers, he ranks 11th in volume in the country.) On Mother's Day alone, Conforti delivered 3,000 arrangements and processed nearly 8,000 wire orders.

Not bad for a self-described "visual learner" who never finished high school.

His newest favorite innovation? These days, whenever one of Conforti's drivers make a delivery, he punches a button on his Web-enabled Nextel radio that updates the computers inside Beneva's store. "You call me up and ask if something's been delivered, I can tell you when, what time, and who signed for it, says Conforti. "Even if it was only three minutes ago."

Conforti developed the technology with Teleflora, a national floral trade group, after watching courier services like FedEx and UPS. "The big guys have been doing this for years. As small businesses, we stand to benefit greatly from the work already accomplished by very big companies."

Weddings at Beneva Flowers are tracked using a similar system. The minute a bride books her nuptials, e-mails alert Conforti's wedding consultant, rental company, and every designer who will be assigned to the occasion. As the wedding proceeds, everyone (including the bride, if she wants the information) receives automatic status updates.

WHAT A GAS

Builder Rusty Chinnis gets a kick from his Toyota Prius.

For contractor Rusty Chinnis, technology and his personal values mesh perfectly in his gasoline/electric hybrid 2004 Toyota Prius. "I'm a builder, but I consider myself an environmentalist, too," says Chinnis, who's no slouch when it comes to making technology work for him. A decade ago, he was e-mailing digital pictures of homes-in-progress to out-of-town clients.

In December, Chinnis' miles per gallon soared from 19 to 48 when he replaced his Toyota 4-Runner with the Prius. "The Prius has almost zero emissions and saves half the gas," he says. It's also a sweet ride, loaded with technology and a rear-view mirror that dims at night for tailgaters.

Chinnis had a pocket PC, "but every time I punched something into it, I'd still have to go back to the office and download the whole thing, so it just created more work." From his Prius, he dials the hands-free cell phone on his steering wheel and dictates to an assistant inside the office. On the rare occasions he works off of Longboat Key, the same steering-wheel mounted voice activation software guides him to his destination.

Today Chinnis operates almost entirely from the Prius." It gave me a way to feel like I'm doing something for the environment."

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