At one point or another, small business owners with employees who have to drive to appointments have probably wondered where in the world those employees are. Making a delivery? Stuck in traffic? Having a two-hour martini lunch? Now there's proof-and it's being developed by a Venice company.

Tracking systems have been available to the big national trucking companies for a few years, says Where-Tech founder Bill Straw, but they're complicated to use and expensive, $4,000 or more per vehicle and a monthly monitoring fee of $100-plus.

Where-Tech's EC500 system, instead, is for the average business owner: "Joe the Plumber, who would really like to know a) Are his guys working for him or moonlighting, and b) Where are they all day?," Straw says. "He can't afford $4,000 a truck to do this; it doesn't make economic sense."

The EC500 costs $600 to $700 per truck, with no monthly monitoring fee. Every two seconds, the system records a "position report" on each driver-"Here's where he is and here's how fast he's going," Straw says. At the end of the day, it automatically issues a stop report, "the street addresses where he parked, when he got there and when he left, how far and how fast he drove to get there, and also a map of what he did." The stop report takes 10 to 15 seconds to download.

And it's easy to install, Straw says; the business owner simply puts a CD in the drive and attaches a modem to an antenna and it's ready to go. "There's no tuning, no anything," he says. "People want something that you don't have to be a computer geek to install." A typical day's activity takes 10 to 15 seconds to download.

(Besides the EC500, Where-Tech is rolling out a slightly more expensive cellular version that allows management to see the driver in real-time; a public bus system in Brazil is using the system now. And it is also working on a satellite-based system for cross-country truckers and other companies that send vehicles into remote areas.)

A graduate of the Air Force Academy and former management professor there, Straw was actually on the team that launched GPS satellites back in the early 1970s. "That GPS unit would barely fit in the back of a pickup," he says. "Now it's a chip that fits inside of a cell phone."

Where-Tech grew 10-fold in 2003, with sales of $250,000. In 2004, Straw forecasts sales of up to $2 million, if a pending contract with one of the world's top three security firms goes through as anticipated. "It will mean more than 1,000 units a year," he says. The circuit boards and other parts are manufactured in Tampa, then the units are assembled at Where-Tech's headquarters in Venice.

The company markets directly and through two-way radio dealers across the country. "We're pretty excited about it," says Straw. "We've been in startup mode for two and a half years. We wish it would go faster, but all these things are starting to come together at once."

So who is purchasing Where-Tech's fleet tracking systems-and why? Right now, its clients are primarily the construction and air-conditioning, plumbing and heating trades. "It's a pretty good mix of local and national companies," Straw says. "Ninety percent of the time it's used for verifying billing, to answer the guy who asks, 'Why'd you bill me for an hour and a half work?' Or it's for documenting accidents; you've got dump trucks, people say he dumped a rock and broke my windshield, and you can verify he wasn't anywhere near the scene."

And while fleet-tracking systems can smack of Big Brother-ism, "If that's where the driver was supposed to be, then everything's fine," he says.

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