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FileMaker Developer at the Heart of Environmental Company's Success

- 2010.08.05 - Tip Jar

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Database developers don't get no respect. Over the past 20 years, Steven Barer, of local database development firm Oak Bay Softrends in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, has built customized software based on the FileMaker Pro database.

However, he has received little public recognition for this sort of behind-the-scenes work that can change the way small to mid-sized businesses function.

Barer understands that custom database development is "not a glitzy business," but he contends that it can be "an integral part of the success of and, often a competitive edge for, many successful companies."

One of Oak Bay's clients, M&R Environmental in Burnaby, BC, began collecting plastic oil containers for recycling in 1994 with four employees and a single truck. At the time, it tracked customers and scheduled pickups using recipe cards. Now with a staff of 50, the company manages a fleet of 15 trucks.

Quickly outgrowing the recipe cards, it looked for off-the-shelf scheduling software. Finding nothing that seemed to do what it needed, M&R turned to Oak Bay in 1996. What it got started out as "a simple scheduling program," according to company controller Dani Mate, but "it was flexible enough that we could add in new functionality as it became necessary." Now, several rewrites later, she said "everything we do lives in this program."

Along with scheduling pickups and deliveries, it now keeps inventory of what has grown from one to 319 products: recycled antifreeze, plastics, oil, and more. A bridge to M&R's accounting software allows the company to invoice its more than 5,000 customers and to provide Mate with "information at my fingertips" as required.

M&R's FileMaker-based software evolved as the company grew; both Barer and Mate note that this required a close working relationship where Oak Bay had to learn about M&R's business and M&R had to learn about the capabilities of FileMaker. Along the way, Mate became an unofficial co-developer of her company's customized software. Now she feels she "can call and ask for changes and know that they can happen."

Company president George Mate noted that, while the initial costs seemed high for a struggling young business, "from day one, the software has been expandable."

He agreed that the collaboration between Barer and his wife has been "vital" to allowing the software to be customized to meet M&R's needs.

For M&R, the big test in the ability to modify the software came on July 1, 2003, when new regulations for the waste oil collection industry involved paperwork, invoicing and accounting. On that day, it was the only company in BC with processes in place for the change-over.

New releases of the core FileMaker product have brought new capabilities to M&R's custom solution. Now, for instance, it can export from the database to spreadsheets and use colour coding to make it easier to recognize different product types or other data categories.

Also new: sales reps can access product inventory and other information from their iPhones.

In total, 20 M&R employees involved in sales, scheduling, and invoicing have varying levels of access to the database.

George Mate suggests that, compared with his competitors, M&R has more effective software that has been able to evolve with the company's vision.

Added Dani Mate: "There's nobody in the industry that does what we do in terms of our data. Nobody. It's pretty impressive to be able to say to a client, here's a complete report of everything we've done for you, down to how many litres of waste oil we hauled away on Tuesday."

By opting for a customized database and by learning to work with the software developers, M&R has gotten software that fits its needs and that evolves as those needs grow and change. Concluded Dani Mate, "It allows us to be more nimble than our competitors." LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver, April 6 - 12, 2010 issue #1067.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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