Large Projects: Are Small Integrators Better Than Larger Ones?
IFSEC has an interesting op-ed piece from a US consultant. Here's the money quote:
"Our thinking used to be that bigger was better; size meant stability, and a large firm was unlikely to fail, as it would have the resources to finish the job no matter what went wrong. While I’m not knocking the big firms, we’ve recently begun to evaluate this competitive aspect differently."
A few specific points he cites are:
- The strength of the local office is critical regardless of how big an integrator is
- Smaller integrators tend to be more motivated than larger ones to get references and to get paid
First of all, it is a contrarian perspective because most industry people equate bigger integrators with bigger jobs (ADT/Tyco, Diebold, JCI, Siemens, etc.). To that end, it is interesting and refreshing to discuss this.
Word Choice - 'Boutique'
One immediate objection is that most small integrators are simply not qualified to do an airport, military base, major commercial center, etc. That's true and acknowledged on both sides.
However, there are many integrators that can be considered 'boutique' or 'specialist' - smaller teams, but of highly skilled professionals.
Concentration of Expertise
Certainly mega integrators have quite a number of skilled, expert professionals. However, as a percentage of the company, it is certainly quite low. Even on big jobs, the presence of just a few stand out engineers/PMs can make or break a project. A local 'boutique' integrator who has those people can likely outperform the average to above average staff member at a mega integrator.
I am probably biased as I currently work for what might be considered a regional "boutique" or "specialty" integrator with two branches and a 25-employee highly qualified staff that focuses on larger municipal projects. I have also worked for a large national integrator in the past.
Yes, I think the regional "boutiques" have advantages over the large national multi-branch integrators mentioned. We routinely do larger instllation projects at local airports, courthouses, and universities, so don't let size fool you. However, large national accounts such as chain stores or corporate offices will likely never be installed or serviced by local integrators as they can't cover as much territory as the nationals, so they do have an advantage there.
With just about everything connected to a CAT6 cable now, the number of installers needed for a larger video system has dropped significantly. Many times on a new project, the structured cabling contractor pulls the network cabling for the cameras, so installation becomes a matter of hanging, aiming, and focusing cameras and an having experienced field engineer to do the head-end software setup and configuration as well as coordinating the network requirements with the customer's IT staff. The size of the installation departmetn doesn't matter as much as it did back in the analog days.
Many times a large local customer prefers a regional "boutique" over a national as they may have had difficulty in the past getting resolution to lingering issues or personalized service from the national and they have more influence over a smaller regional or local single office integrator. We have several major accounts we have taken over from the national integrators due to price, the proprietary nature of their systems, poor service or the the hassle of dealing with their salespeople or corporate policies.
In my opinion, the national integrators try to "be all things to all people" with average product offerings service (been there, done that). It is hard, if not impossible, for their service techncians to be competent in everything they sell. The best analogy I can use is you know pretty much what you will get when you go to an Olive Garden or Chili's restaurant anywhere in the country: consitently average food with identical menus and portions. You won't be totally disaapointed but you likely won't leave going "Wow that was a great meal and the service was fantastic". The "boutiques" have a niche market or specialize in just a few VMS's or brands of equipment and do them very well and have the flexibility to offer service plans tailored to the customers needs instead of a one size fits all solution. To continue the analogy, think of them as the regional chain or local restaurant specializing in a single type of cusine with good food and personalized service, but you can't get it anywhere you go.
One thing that does bother me: I have seen many times where a project is specified for a partiuclar VMS or system (especailly ones we help specify) that a few national integrator's local offices respond to the bid invitation even though nobody from their local branch is certified and that branch has never installed one before. Another branch in a different part of the country did one in the past, so they have access to the software or the equipment from the manufacturer. Caveat Emptor! End users, before you sign that proposal or contract from a national integrator, make sure the LOCAL branch technicians are certified on a product and have experience with installing and servicing the systems.
Great feedback. To highlight a few points made above:
- "Large national accounts such as chain stores or corporate offices will likely never be installed or serviced by local integrators as they can't cover as much territory as the nationals" (though there are some integrator consortiums that try to overcome this, PSA is one example).
- "The size of the installation department doesn't matter as much as it did back in the analog days."
- National integrators are like an "Olive Garden or Chili's restaurant anywhere in the country: consistently average food with identical menus and portions."
- "National integrator's local offices respond to the bid invitation even though nobody from their local branch is certified and that branch has never installed one before"
Over the last 25 years as a consultant, I have worked with integrators large and small across the United States and have come to the conclusion that success or failure of a project comes down to people, not companies. If you have the right people on the job, regardless of company size, the job will be a success. Conversely, even the largest company will fail miserably if the wrong people are assigned to the project.
I have generally had the best luck with small-to-medium sized regional integrators. These tend to attract and retain the best talent and company leadership is usually actively involved in the daily operation of the company. I have found that you generally get only mediocre performance out of the big national companies. The best people often feel stifled in a big company environment and often flee the bureaucracy for other opportunities. What you are left with is people who are only in it for a paycheck and lack passion for what they are doing. Undisclosed Integrator's restaurant analogy is a good one and one I use frequently myself.
Where the bigger companies tend to have an advantage is when the project has unusually high bonding or financial stability requirements. Many smaller companies can't get bonds at the requested levels, and if they can, it can limit their ability to get bonds for other projects. Also, some clients think its unhealthy when their business represents too large a portion of a vendor's total sales revenue and tend to want to award larger contracts to companies with greater sales revenues. In addition, some decision makers at big companies feel safer in awarding contracts to large multinational conglomerates than they do to regional integrators, regardless of qualifications. (a version of the 'no one ever got fired for buying IBM' mentaility).
Another challenge for smaller integrators is how to handle projects that have multiple locations across the country. Joining one of the cooperatives (such as PSA or SecurityNet) can help in this area, but in my personal experience, these arrangements still leave a lot to be desired. National integrators who have offices in multiple cities have an apparent advantage in this area, but in reality, many still struggle to service sites in smaller cities and outlying areas. Even if a national integrator has an office in a given city, there is no guarantee that the people in this office are qualified to service every project.
Michael, thanks, good insights! I wanted to highlight one key comment:
"Success or failure of a project comes down to people, not companies."
I agree with this for security integration. Some businesses are different. At this point, it does not matter who works for Google or Facebook or pick your mega Internet / software company. Their unmatched strength is the overall platform.
By contrast, security integration is a lot more like accounting or law, it does not scale well with great expertise routinely held by those even in small organizations.
Before I can answer your question, what is your defintion of a small intergator or even a medium one? Someone with under 15 techs? Under $1 million USD revenue? Just one location? I do agree with the statement about people mattering on a project and not the size of the company installing it.
Steve, well compared to ADT/Tyco, Diebold, Siemens, etc., even a $20 million a year integrator is small :)
Let's say $2 million is small - maybe the company has 10-15 people total. Small is obviously subjective. So pick your own size and comment.
What is your firms exposure to potential litigation if you recommend a smaller firm for a particlar job and they tank it (à la Presque Isle Downs)?
May I add to Marty's question, how is that exposure different than if you recommend a larger firm, like Unisys, and they tank it (like Philadelphia)?
Related to this, integrators might benefit from a doing a better job of online branding as experts (rather than highlighting their lines). The only integrator who I can think of who really tries is ASG, but those guys are lunatics.
As I think I have mentioned before, it is extremely rare that the consultant makes the sole decision of which products get selected or which integrator gets awarded a project. While we consultants sometimes like to strut around telling people how important we are, purchasing decisions are usually made jointly by the consultant and by a group of client representatives that may include as many as six or eight other people. On many, many occasions, my recommendations have been overruled by the client team because of price, politics, or because they simply disagreed with my thought processes.
All that being said, I don't feel any particular legal exposure when recommending specific products or specific systems integrators provided that: a) I have conducted an thorough evaluation of the client's requirements; b) I have made diligent efforts to research products and service providers that can best meet these requirements; c) I have exercised due diligence in verifying vendor capabilities and performance claims; and d) I have objectively made my decision in good faith based on my best professional judgment and experience.
With the legal system we have in the USA, anybody can sue anyone for anything. When a project goes bad, it is common to sue everyone involved, regardless of their role on the project. However if you drill down on cases where awards are actually made, you will generally see that gross incompetence, conflicts of interest, and ignoring glaring warning signs usually were the cause of the problem. More often than not, the owner (plaintiff) was as much to blame as the contractors or design professionals.
I feel that if you honestly do your job to the best of your ability, document communications and decisions made, and avoid problem clients, you have little to fear from liability claims.
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