Magazine Article | June 1, 1999

Hooray For Y2K

Systems integrator Interactive Controls, Inc. attributes 25% to 30% of its new growth to solving Y2K problems. For this Houston-based company, the millennium is just the beginning of profits … not the end of the world.

Business Solutions, June 1999

To say that Ben Smith is busy is an understatement. As president and CEO of Interactive Controls, Inc., a security systems integrator, Smith and others at Interactive Controls, have been known for putting in 12- to 14-hour days, over weekends and holidays since June, 1995.

This Houston-based company provides customized security solutions for a variety of vertical markets including government, commercial, industrial and healthcare. These solutions include access control, closed-circuit camera systems, fire alarms and fiber optics.

Interactive Controls increased business by 20% in 1998, resulting in much of Smith's extra work. Of new sales, Smith estimates that 20% to 30% of this growth can be attributed to Year 2000 upgrades.

"The Y2K issue allows us to expand our products and services to a broader base of customers," Smith explains. "We don't qualify existing security systems with new customers. Typically, end users speak with their vendors to determine if their security systems are Y2K-compliant. By the time end users are talking to us, they already know that the costs of upgrading their existing systems are so exorbitant that it would be cheaper to install new systems."

Smith doesn't expect the increase in business to stop with the death of the Millennium Bug, because his company has gained more exposure in the security industry. Interactive Controls does, however, have a plan to eliminate the need for working 12- to 14- hour days. "I'd like to start to have a life," Smith laughs.

Hiring The Right Employees
To make growth seem a bit more manageable, Smith plans on hiring more employees to keep service up to the company's standards. Today, Interactive Controls has 10 employees and expects to exceed $2 million in sales for 1999. But, finding the right employee requires more than a job interview and credible references.

"Before they are hired," Smith explains, "our employees are subjected to the standard criminal background check associated with government jobs. Prospective employees must also take a drug test, a personality test and a polygraph (also known as a lie detector) test. We have done security installations with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the U.S. Customs Office in Houston," he continues. "Our employees walk into rooms filled with confiscated money and drugs. Since we are the ones installing the security systems, we need to be the last people under suspicion." Interactive Controls' employees remain subject to polygraph tests at any time during their employment.

Employees also attend weekly training meetings in their specific areas. "Most of our staff is technically oriented," Smith explains. "Even our office staff can go back to a computer to download security software for a customer. And, our salespeople are able to fix minor repair problems. This eliminates the need to send out a technician if there is already a salesperson in the area."

The weekly meetings are also designed to teach employees how to use mistakes as learning tools. Employees who have had interesting problems occur during the week are encouraged to present situations and tell how they responded. Their fellow employees are asked to critique the presenter's responses.

"Rather than hire a person who can perform a typical job, we want multi-talented people who can perform several tasks," Smith says. "Our goal is to build up the sales and management side of the business. With this growth in sales and management, my partner, Tom Shacklett, and I can redirect our energy to larger accounts, financials and watching the bottom line." Shacklett is vice president and sales manager.

These tested employees are, in part, how Interactive Controls began its relationship with the federal government. But, a little bit of luck didn't hurt either.

Getting Into The Government Vertical
Interactive Controls' maiden voyage into the government vertical market was happenstance, but the company used this circumstance to build its federal customer base. As Tom Shacklett describes it, much of the relationship happened because of good timing.

"We were at a trade show displaying our camera systems," Shacklett explains. "A local property manager came up to our exhibit and said that the U.S. Customs' Houston office was moving into his building. He needed to install cameras around the site. There have been increased security issues for federal buildings since the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Security needs to be maintained around the building, as well as inside."

Interactive Controls submitted a bid for the solution and narrowly came out on top. "After we won that bid," Shacklett explains, "I met with the contact at the U.S. Customs office to see if the office had a need for a card-entry system. We submitted our bid, and had the best price." From there, the company was able to pull business away from a competitor by expanding on the building's existing Wiegand card-based security system. Interactive Controls now manages about seven tenants' access control systems within this same building. This initial government work led to contracting with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). The GSA negotiates contracts that account for $40 billion worth of goods and services bought annually from the private sector.

Getting In With The GSA
Because of the U.S. Customs Office installation, Interactive Controls was approached by biometric vendor ADEMCO, which was trying to expand its GSA contracts. "ADEMCO needed companies with a history of working with government personnel," Shacklett explains. "We got on the GSA schedule and have been able to expand our installations in this vertical market. We worked with the GSA when we installed the security system at the U.S. Customs office's Ship Channel building." Interactive Controls has done subsequent GSA-related installations with the DEA and the Social Security Office.

Enter Biometrics
With such high-level security installations, Interactive Controls is leaning toward using biometric fingerprint readers to add another layer of security and functionality to its installations. Smith likes the convenience of this type of security. Fingerprint verification eliminates the need to carry an access card. And, with larger installations, fingerprint templates can be stored in a database at the company's headquarters. These templates can be accessed or downloaded to a reader at any location.

Interactive Controls is currently working on an installation with GTE Mobilnet's switch offices in Houston. The company will upgrade GTE's existing biometric security system for access control. Every phone company has switch offices which control calls and billing on a per-minute basis. Heightened security is needed for two reasons. First, GTE needs to protect its Mobilnet customers. Second, if someone tampers with the switch office and the system shuts down, GTE quickly loses revenue.

Interactive Controls did GTE's first installation in 1990, but, at that time, biometric technology was limited. Employees had to register at each biometric reader, located at exterior doors, instead of in a central database. There was no way for one of the company's buildings to access an employee's template at a different site. Therefore, access was denied to that building.

"We approached GTE Mobilnet," said Smith, "and offered an upgrade using Checkpoint and Biometric Identification, Inc. (BII). This will allow one central database to hold fingerprint templates for all biometric readers." GTE has also agreed to expand the existing facility to one of its two switch offices built since the original installation. Smith anticipates that GTE's third building will be included next year.

When finished, GTE will be able to add and delete employee access from one location through a computer network and a modem. "If an employee is already enrolled at the main facility," explains Smith, "that person's template can be picked up and sent to another facility for access. Employees simply enter their PIN numbers, and their fingerprints are scanned. If the PIN and fingerprint match, and the employee is allowed access, the door will open."

The system uses BII's Veriprint 2100 readers and software to control the template database. The BII system is tied into a Checkpoint system, which physically unlocks doors if employees are approved. "The Checkpoint system also creates timed unlocking and timed access," explains Smith. "If an employee is not supposed to be at work past 10 p.m., the Checkpoint system won't let that person into the building." Checkpoint keypads have also been installed within GTE to allow less obtrusive security, using the same pass code each employee uses to enter the building.

Forward Thinking
As for the future, Interactive Controls will continue its use of biometrics. The company is also beginning to work in time and attendance. "We see the move toward time and attendance as a natural progression," Smith comments. "Checkpoint recently acquired a time and attendance company, so we have been working with their solution. And, we have had good luck in combining BII's biometrics with Checkpoint. My goal with fingerprint readers is to combine them with time and attendance software to verify that the correct employee is punching in or out of work – eliminating the practice of buddy-punching."

Smith also sees a time when ATM machines will rely on fingerprints instead of magnetic stripe cards. "People don't carry cards because they want to. Right now, they have no choice. Eventually, you will see fingerprint technology at the point of sale (POS). We won't even need to carry credit cards. The information will be accessed from our fingertips."